This may be the most truly independent and heartfelt piece of filmmaking released by a major studio last year.
The first Rocky movie I ever saw was Rocky III. The first with sound, that is. I snuck glimpses of the original Rocky at the old Atco Drive-in while listening to the audio for the movie my parents actually brought me to, Disney's The Black Hole. It would be years before I got to see the original Rocky with sound.
In retrospect, it seems a real mistake to start watching a series with its third part, but that's how it went. It's even more a mistake when the third film has almost nothing to do with the tone and style of the original. Yet, Rocky III is clearly the The Empire Strikes Back of the Rocky saga. The second Star Wars film arguably contains the saga's most memorable moments and Rocky III follows suit. When people mention Rocky, it’s hard not to think of the amazing "Eye of the Tiger" training montage, the Ali-like speech patterns of a pre-A-Team and "Respect Yourself" Mr. T, Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips, the death of Mickey (Burgess Meredith) as well as the final mano y mano freeze frame of Rocky and Clubber Lang (Carl Weathers).
I liked Rocky III so much, I rented the original Rocky on that dinosaur format, VHS, but I was in for a real disappointment. The first Rocky it seemed to me at the time was nothing compared to the action and thrills of Rocky III. I mean, Rocky doesn’t even win the big fight?!! What kind of boxing movie is that? The answer is that it’s the kind of boxing movie that wins Best Picture in a year where its competitors were films like Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men and Network. Rocky may not have won the big fight, but he won the Oscar and the hearts of the American public which quickly made Sylvester Stallone a very unlikely star.
Remind people that Rocky won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1977 and just wait for the perplexed reactions. Rocky, like that other R-lettered hero Sly Stallone brought to the screen, Rambo, had in later years become nothing more than a comic book joke. Indeed, sequelitis had robbed the character of Rocky Balboa of his most prized possession: dignity. What I found disappointing as a young lad was that the original Rocky had almost nothing to do with the tone and style of the sequels which were all reduced to one dimensional characterizations and cartoon conflicts easily resolved through violence.
Now, this is just what kids want to see: Rocky beating up some bad guys. I’m sure Stallone was aware of what he was doing and initially, the box office return was very good. But he ended up cheapening his own legacy by reducing the quality character study of the original Rockyin exchange for the surface pleasures of a crowd pleasing dishonest entertainment. Or like Brando said in On the Waterfront, Stallone took a dive "for the short end money." Which is why, four lame sequels later,people are amazed that a Rocky movie won Best Picture – by this time, Rocky had gained the reputation of being nothing more than projected junk food. The scripts got thinner and most of the running time of Rocky IV was made up of one music montage after another in lieu of bad dialogue.
Indeed, Stallone’s star has fallen over the years with several of his most recent films going straight to DVD release. The action movie climate has changed drastically with the Neos and the X-Men replacing the one liners of Arnold and the rugged cool of Stallone. It was within this climate that Stallone decided to return to the character that made him a star 30 years ago and try and regain a bit of the dignity that made Mr. Balboa such a riveting and human character. In doing so, he’s created a film less about boxing than about the struggles of getting old and the quiet pain of watching the world change and slip away. With Rocky Balboa, he’s created the first real “sequel” to his original film, a deserving bookend that recaptures that film’s sense of character and realistic detail.
It’s the details that make a difference, here. Rocky Balboa is older and perhaps a bit wiser, but he’s mostly living a life of quiet complacency. We get a sense that he’s as restless as he was in his youth but that life has knocked him around for a few rounds, and beat the old Stallion into sedation. The life he’s living is not one he hoped for himself. His wife Adrian is dead and his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) avoids him to prevent being lost in the great man’s shadow. Rocky himself, like a lot of local sports legends, has used his name and earnings to open up a modest Italian restaurant appropriately named, “Adrian’s”.
Mrs. Balboa may be dead but she is most definitely not forgotten. Rocky seems to be lost without her, visiting her grave to “talk to her ghost” and living alone. He’s joined in these graveyard visits by Paulie (Burt Young) who’s still working at the old meat packing plant and hanging his paintings up in the restaurant. Paulie tries to convince Rocky that life has to go on, but the old fighter has his own mind as always. When he meets a local bartender, Marie (Geraldine Hughes), whom he’s known since she was a little girl, there’s a sense that their relationship will develop into something romantic. But Rocky just wants to help her and her teenage son with no strings attached. He tells her, “My wife is gone, but she’s not really gone, you know.”
The first half of the film is a wonderful portrait of characters sliding uncomfortably into old age. It's filled with a series of quiet, telling scenes beautifully scored by Bill Conti that define the kind of movie Stallone is committed to making. It’s not an action film at all. It’s a small story about everyday people, and that includes Mr. Balboa.
There're only about 10 minutes of actual boxing in the film; a promotional match between Rocky and current champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). But that’s all the boxing the story needs. Like the original Rocky, boxing in Rocky Balboa serves as mere metaphor and catalyst. It gives Rocky something to work for again, to test his limits one final time. But most importantly, it gives us a chance to share some powerfully nostalgic images with this iconic character. Watching Rocky train his aging body again, lifting impossible weights in the gym, repeatedly struggling and finally making his run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art all cut to the heart racing theme by Bill Conti -- these are the things we came for and Stallone doesn’t disappoint. It’s a triumphant reunion, tinged with loss, but still exhilarating.
There is something wonderfully amateur about this film. Shot on HD video, it has a loose, hand held, shot-on-the-fly feel that’s refreshing for a series that got too slick. The film is full of flaws, from underdeveloped relationships with both Marie and Robert, to occasional heavy handedness in accenting it’s themes. But none of this really matters. It’s what Stallone gets right that keeps it from coming off the rails. It’s the fact that it actually has something to say that keeps it honest.
The film seems committed to the character of Rocky Balboa in spite of limited technique, lowered audience expectations and little chance of any future sequel revenue. It seems that the passing years have left their own mark on Stallone himself and have reawakened his sense of a mission in art. In fact, this may be the most truly independent and heartfelt piece of filmmaking released by a major studio last year. Watching Rocky Balboa, you get the sense that Stallone means it. That everything in the film is straight from the most honest place in his heart. That if he never made another film, Rocky Balboa would be worth it.
In the process of following his muse, Stallone gives one of the best performances of his career and as a director, makes us wonder what he’ll do with “Poe”, the next project he’s announced, about the life of the troubled author. After decades of empty filmmaking, who could’ve imagined that anyone would be looking forward to a new film from Sylvester Stallone. If he keeps himself focused on his passion for the story and the characters, many of us will.
The DVD is presented in Anamorphic widescreen with English and French optional subtitles and a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. There’s a deleted scenes feature which includes the film’s alternate ending (I’m glad they didn’t use it), a collection of fight bloopers, and three short featurettes:"Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa”, “Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky’s Final Fight”, and “Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight”. Stallone himself contributes a very straight forward and informative commentary track. For those of you interested in hearing a very honest and forthcoming Stallone talk about everything from the original Rocky to why he and Richard Gere do not get along and just what in the world “Rumpology” is, there is an incredible series of Q and A’s he did during the theatrical promotion on Ain’t it Cool News.