The sixth film in the Rocky franchise ends with a series of home-movie-looking shots. Regular people reach the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, where, alone or in pairs and groups, they cheer themselves to the tune of “Gonna Fly Now.” A fantasy at once heartwarming and tacky, it has endured some 30 years, such that tourists and amateur athletes yet make the ascent in order to reenact the celebration.
To its credit, Rocky Balboa gets the complexity of the image and all it might mean for viewers (and imitators). As it revisits Sylvester Stallone’s original character, concept, and sense of rhythm, the new movie doesn’t refer specifically to the corniest of its precursors, when Rocky did battle with Mr. T and Ivan Drago. Instead, it remembers the sweetest, schmaltiziest moments of the early years, rendered in soft-filtered flashbacks of the now dead Adrian (Talia Shire) and Rocky’s somber visits to her grave. Even as the plot provides for a comeback — the now 60-year-old retiree fights the current world champion, an arrogant kid called, almost unbelievably, Mason “The Line” Dixon (ex-light heavyweight champion Antonio Carver) — the movie maintains a certain distance from the hoopla, exploiting the familiar cues but also plainly “getting” the joke they had become.
And so, as Rocky wonders what to do with his life, he visits a series of old Philadelphia locations with Paulie (Burt Young) in tow. Chomping his cigar, Paulie notes the sentimentality of the exercise, suggesting his old friend and brother-in-law let go, finally, of the past. If only he could: Stallone’s efforts to move on have met with resistance (think especially of his excellent performance in James Mangold’s Copland, much-remarked by critics but, sadly and unfairly, unprofitable), as if fans can only see him as Rocky and Rambo. And so he’s found a way to deliver to audience expectations while also expanding his own horizon. This Rocky is not a great film, but it is an intelligent, insightful film about greatness.
It grapples with the lingering past repeatedly. While Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) resents his dad’s legacy (“You throw a big shadow,” he complains, by way of explaining why he won’t visit his dad or engage in the collective memorializing that freezes Rocky in time), dad believes he still has “some stuff in the basement,” that his time is not yet over, despite being 60 years old. The movie smartly relegates the past overkill to a couple of brief allusions: a Leroy Neiman painting — garish as ever — hangs in Rocky’s restaurant (called Adrian’s), where he hovers over customers’ tables like Jake LaMotta, telling stories about “the old days.” Rocky’s contemplation of a comeback leads Paulie to observe cynically, “You mad because they took down your statue.”
This seemingly throwaway line calls up in an instant the debates over “Rocky” as a character, an idea, and a “big shadow.” The statue, commissioned by Stallone for Rocky III, generated controversy concerning the definitions of “art” and commercial product back in 1983 when it was briefly installed atop the Art Museum steps. Celebrating a fictional character, it was derided by many as a “movie prop” and eventually removed to the Wachovia Spectrum (and… briefly relocated to “near” the steps for the filming of Rocky Balboa). The statue, like the reenactments by fans that close the film, speaks to the character’s enduring appeal — his awkwardness, banality, and balls-out sentimentality, as well as his weird sort of timelessness. Paulie’s comment is not so much a self-critique (though it does mark a certain self-awareness) as it is an acknowledgment of the many functions of art, “high” and “low.”
The art of Rocky Balboa is appropriately complicated, in its way. Dixon is introduced as a cocky, commercially pumped up celebrity (accompanied, no surprise, by a hip-hop soundtrack). Unable to find a worthy opponent, Dixon is condemned to fighting bouts no one wants to see, too easily dispatching the few who challenge him, apparently only to collect a paycheck. And so the stage is set: the industry of boxing is in disarray and in need of the old Rocky spirit. When ESPN puts together a computer simulation that has the Italian Stallion clobbering him, Dixon’s management team decides there’s money to be made in a Vegas exhibition match. Dixon, for his part, wants to reclaim his sense of supremacy, damaged by media speculation that the Old Man could really take him in the flesh.
Somewhat ironically, this premise makes Rocky — that most faux of fighters — seem the “authentic” personality. Just so, Stallone plays him earnestly, the good-hearted lug full of earthy wisdom and encouraging self-esteem in his downtrodden associates. Not only does he help to recover Paulie (fired from the meat factory, he arrives at Adrian’s drunk and miserable), but he also rescues a neighborhood girl, Marie (Geraldine Hughes), from unworthy “elements” (she’s a character reprised from the first film, in which, she recalls for us, he told her as a youngster to “stop smokin’ and things”). Here she’s hanging out with a man who mistreats her and looking after her teenaged son called, so very too-perfectly, “Steps” (James Francis Kelly III). Rocky needs movie-style inspiration, she needs a way off her light-bulb-less front porch.
Marie and Steps provide Rocky with a kind of insta-family, though he stops short of actually romancing Marie. Instead, he hires her as the hostess for his restaurant and has the kid help him with training (along with the soon won-over Robert Jr., who gives up his corporate ambitions to support his dad.). They engage in the usual montagey moments, jogging in streets, drinking raw eggs, and performing extremely athletic push-ups. These images appear with requisite soaring soundtrack and inspire awe at the man’s seeming stamina and evident physique.
Undeterred by the expected ridicule (“I stopped trying to think like other people a long time ago,” he instructs Junior, “You gotta think like you think”), Rocky speaks here for a kind of abstract “rights.” When he passes all physical tests and still the Pennsylvania boxing commission turns down his application for a license (looking out for his “interests,” they say), he insists on his right to pursue happiness. “After you earn the right to be what you wanna be and do what you wanna do,” he declares, a panel of men in suits can’t turn you down. Unbelievable and cheesy, Rocky Balboa traces its own kind of full circle, linking art and populism, politics and dreams. The question is, who defines any of these terms, and who benefits from the definitions?