Let me tell you a story.
When Sylvester Stallone first announced, many a year ago, that he wanted to make a sixth "Rocky" movie, my reaction was the same as pretty much everyone else's. I thought it was a joke, and if it wasn't a joke, then he was pulling one of the stupidest and saddest stunts of a burned-out actor's career. That he'd run out of ideas.
And everyone--mainstream media, Internet wags, late-night talk show hosts, you name it, they went for blood. Because they felt the same way I did. They knew, we all KNEW, that there was no way in hell a sixth "Rocky" would be anything more than a crapfest. Pathetic. An embarrassment. Another discredit to a franchise that had died long ago.
But then something happened. A few tidbits about the movie came out, and I thought, "huh, well, that's interesting." And then the title got announced, and I started to get what was going on, and I warmed to the concept. And then that beautiful poster, and one hell of a trailer.
And your correspondent, who is very opinionated and absolutely always right about everything, went to go see the sixth Rocky movie. The movie that he just KNEW way back when should not have been made, that he just KNEW could never, ever work.
Ladies and gentlemen, I need to make this clear.
On opening night, I and a good half-theaterful of enthusiastic members clapped, and roared, and cheered, and chanted, and shouted our lungs out for a beautiful epilogue to one of cinema's most treasured and iconic stories.
Yes, folks, it's the long-awaited long-joked-about "Rocky" movie. And against all odds, it is a joy. And next time I flap my lips about a movie that can't work, you can all tell me to shut up.
And everyone who thought this movie couldn't work (read: everyone on the planet) can sit down to a big fat slice of humble pie. Save a big piece for me.
Like “Clerks II” and “Superman Returns” before it this year, “Rocky Balboa” knows when to be the same movie as before and when to be different. And it's a different world; Rocky is older, his beloved Adrian is dead (this is not a spoiler), boxing has changed (and for the worse), his son has grown up and become distant, and life has begun to pass him by. But he's still the same old Rocky, and it is surprisingly touching to see the character come back to life as if we'd never been without him; Stallone's wit and charm infuse the slurred speech with such humor and such likeability, and within five minutes you're wondering why they didn't make fifty movies about this guy. It's a smart move to spend a lot of time early on with the other familiar face, Paulie, too; still the same old Paulie. The characters never left.
Most of "Rocky Balboa" seems to live in the old, run-down world of the original films, making the environment one big massive ghost that haunts Rocky every day. It is not until the fight sequence that things become modernized. Stallone shoots the boxing match at first like an HBO sportscast (making this one of the first truly hybrid mainstream film/HD features) and then abruptly converts to some bizarre Aronofsky-esque hyperkinetic multimedia extravaganza that is unlike anything we'd seen in the series beforehand. Both times, the device works. This ain't your father's "Rocky" fight scene.
Indeed, the HBO sportscast technique takes on a truly amusing effect; as the theater's audience cheers Rocky on (and yes, they do), it is in the same rhythm as they would in watching a boxing match or any other sports game on TV; claps at the end of a round, or whenever our favorite athlete does something big; I was reminded of watching baseball games in bars or college dorms and cheering every time my Yankees scored a hit.
Where the old films employed Adrian for female presence, she is now painfully conspicuous by her absence, and instead we have Geraldine Hughes as 'little Marie'. This could have been a disastrous 'love interest' character, but no; we know full well Rocky has lost the love of his life and is not looking for a sequel, and the relationship that forms between him and Marie is instead something far more complex and interesting. (Listen very carefully to whose theme music is playing when the movie's sole kiss is exchanged.)
Oh yes, rest assured, Adrian gets her share of attention for a dead character; we understand how hard her loss has hit Rocky and Paulie, and the effect it's taken on both their lives.
Also interesting is how the other boxer is treated. Real-life boxer Antonio Tarver plays Rocky's opponent, paper champion Mason Dixon, and he does quite well for an untrained actor, aside from one awkward scene at a press conference; acting is reacting, they say, particularly on film where you can have your closeup while someone else is talking, and you can see the wheels turning in his mind as he performs. His character is not just the bad guy Rocky has to beat; in fact, he has the exact same problem as Rocky, in that he struggles for respect and to make a legacy for himself in a sport that is not giving him his due. You wanted to see Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago humiliated, but with Mason Dixon, you understand where he's coming from, and part of you hopes that, whatever else happens, his match with "people's champion" Rocky will finally earn him credibility. Because he's paying his dues as best he can.
Structurally, the film suffers from the same problem "Rocky II" had; a lot of buildup and waiting around before the real meat of the story. A lot of mourning for Adrian, a lot of mumbling about where life with his son is going, a lot of scenes with Marie and with her son Steps (who could have been left out). And not all these scenes are really required. Not that they're bad scenes; indeed, this is the first "Rocky" since the original to not really have any downright embarrassing parts. Still, it's sad to think this fine film could have been even better if things had balanced out in favor of the good stuff.
There's also some incredibly lazy typography (Impact is okay for the trailer or Web site, but the actual movie?!), and the final fight buries Bill Conti's iconic music far deeper in the mix than it should have been. On a note of continuity, "Eye of the Tiger" really should have been part of the soundtrack. I can think of several good places it could have gone.
Whatever its flaws, it does not matter that this movie isn't a knockout, for it does indeed win on points. It is crafted with genuine affection for its characters, with a deep respect for the audience's love of the old galoot, with good humor and with a real effort to get what's important on screen. There was no face unsmiling or heart untouched as the lights came up in the theater. I would rank it vastly superior to the clunky, meandering "V" and the truly wretched "IV", and about on par with "III"; for the first time since "III", it's a "Rocky" film I won't have any qualms about owning.
Stand-up-and-cheer? No. Sit-down-and-cheer? Absolutely. See it with a crowd.