Now here is a movie that never should have worked. By all rights, a sixth entry in a film series that long since run out of steam and sullied the name of the original classic should be a dog, a direct-to-DVD stinker that makes you willing to deal with the devil to get two hours of your life back. When I first heard that sixty-year-old Sylvester Stallone was resurrecting this character, it seemed at the time like the pathetic vanity of a movie star refusing to face the fact of his own mortality. The sight of him strapping on the gloves again should have been laughable.
So what happened?
First of all, Rocky Balboa embraces rather than ignores its star’s advancing age. Even better, it manages to erase much of the bad taste from the last two crap-fests by reminding us what we liked about the first movie. To my own surprise, this movie was made from Stallone’s heart and head rather than his ego.
Beginning three years after the death of Adian, Rocky’s wife, the movie finds the ex-boxer estranged from his son (Milo Ventimiglia), running a restaurant and basically just going through the motions of life. He’s still friends with Paulie (Burt Young), who’s still his old loyal but anti-social self. At one point, he also reconnects with Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who was a young girl in the first film and is now a single mother working as a bartender.
On the other side of the country, current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-world Light Heavyweight Champion Antonio Tarver) wins another easy fight. He’s almost universally disliked as a champion, mostly because he’s never faced another fighter who could seriously challenge him.
Then ESPN stages a computerized boxing match between Dixon and Balboa, to see who was the greater champion, and the virtual Balboa handily defeats Dixon. This has two effects that put the men on a collision course. It inspires Rocky to come out of retirement and it wounds Dixon’s pride enough for him to challenge Rocky to an exhibition fight.
This might all seem a little ridiculous if not for the fact that the story was partially based on 45-year-old George Foreman’s knockout of current heavyweight champion Michael Moorer in 1994.
This is a film of many strengths. Most notably, it returns Rocky Balboa to the likeable, more textured character of the first film and surrounds him with a rich cast of supporting players. His initially chilly relationship with his son could have been mawkish soap opera but it earns its resolution sincerely. Marie is not a love interest but still provides a supportive presence that ably fills the void left by Talia Shire.
Another strong point is that the film doesn’t use Mason Dixon as a villain. Instead, he’s a frustrated young man who’s had everything come to him a little too easily. The ESPN computer match is initially just an affront to his manhood, but the actual fight with Rocky turns into a test that he’s never had from any of his “real” opponents, giving him credibility as a champion for the first time. As Dixon, first-time actor Antonio Tarver acquits himself reasonably well under Stallone’s direction.
Rocky Balboa is also quite intelligently realistic about the current state of boxing. Dixon’s lack of quality of opponents is symptomatic of the anemic condition of the heavyweight division in the real world. Using actual boxing figures like HBO announcers Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant as well as famous ring announcer Michael Buffer gives the film a verisimilitude that helps sell the audience on the credibility of Rocky’s performance in the fight.
After the stylized realism of the boxing scenes in the previous Rocky outings, this film dials it back. The final fight, staged and filmed exactly like an HBO Pay-per-view broadcast, is remarkably realistic, making it all the more an accomplishment that Stallone doesn’t make a fool out of himself.
It doesn’t hurt that the actor was in fantastic shape. By comparison, Antonio Tarver looked small and a bit flabby. No effort is made to hide Stallone’s age but they didn’t really have to, either. Yes, he looks like a man in his fifties but a man in his fifties who could beat the snot out of a room full of bikers.
Stallone probably deliberately left the Roman numeral out of this movie’s title, divorcing it from its lackluster predecessors and letting it stand on its own. Rocky Balboa is the first sequel to the original Rocky that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with its storied forbearer.