December 22, 2014

Rocky Balboa (2006)

18 years after his retirement from professional boxing, Rocky Balboa continues to live in Philadelphia. He owns a restaurant, Adrian's, named after his dead wife. He is partially estranged from his son Robert, a banker struggling to break out from his famous father's shadow. When a TV sports network presents a computer simulation that shows Rocky beating the current heavyweight champion Mason Dixon, Dixon's management approach Rocky with an offer for an exhibition match against the champion.

Let's not waste time beating around the bush: Rocky Balboa is a great movie sequel, picking up a long-retired franchise and giving it precisely the send-off it needs. It does precisely what good sequels should do. It gives audience more of what entertained them in the first place, but it also gives that audience something they haven't seen before. The latter is achieved almost entirely through the time it took for the film to come out. It was released in 2006, 30 years and one week after the release of the original Rocky. Its title character isn't a 30 year-old boxer any more: he's 60 years old. His wife has died of ovarian cancer, his son doesn't spend as much time with him as he should, and all he's really left with are his memories. He re-lives them every night, going from table to table in his restaurant and recounting his famous title fights against Apollo Creed. When he is offered one final chance to get into the ring, he takes it because he wants to re-live that past and prove to himself that it's still a part of him now. While Rocky was about a man getting a chance after almost allowing his life to slip by, Rocky Balboa is about a man who's had that life, and wants to recapture it one last time.

It is the best of the Rocky sequels by a country mile. Like the original film it's a small scale film that deals with small, realistic conflicts. Rocky's conflict with his son is both understandable and readily repaired through conversation and understanding. His grief over Adrian's death (a sad but narratively clever move by Stallone in writing this film) is believable and underplayed. It's the best performance Sylvester Stallone has given since Copland in 1997: subtle, multi-layered and heartfelt.

I really adore the creative choices that Stallone made in writing and directing this film. Rocky connects with Marie (Geraldine Hughes), the young teenager he chastised back in the original film, now a woman in his early 40s raising a teenage son on her own. It would have been easy to turn their growing relationship into a romance, but Stallone chooses not to. As Rocky says, 'my wife is gone, but she ain't gone'. Instead we get a genuinely touching friendship; the kind between two adults that we very rarely get to see in movies. Rocky also develops a friendship with Marie's son Steps (James Francis Kelly III) that is similarly believable and well written.

Antonio Tarver struggles to make a solid impression as champion boxer Mason Dixon, but he's struggling with what is probably the film's weakest role. He represents a later generation of boxer, less charismatic than the Apollo Creed generation and more prone to believing their own hype. It is good, however, that despite his overconfidence and arrogance Dixon never gets represented as the film's villain. He's a professional in the end, and acts accordingly. It's yet another creative choice where the more obvious Hollywood cliche that Stallone embraced in Rocky III and IV has been abandoned in favour of something realistic and grounded.

The expected Rocky standards are all there, including the training montage and the climactic fight in the ring - this time expertly shot as a HBO sports telecast. Burt Young does a fine job returning as Rocky's brother-in-law Paulie, who has not mellowed with age. Tony Burton makes a small but welcome return as Duke Evers, who trained Apollo Creed in the first two films and Rocky in the third and fourth.

Does Rocky win his final march? Of course he doesn't, but then - just as in the original film - winning was never the point. In a beautiful and telling ending to the film, Rocky leaves the ring and heads back to his dressing room without even waiting to hear who won. He's done what he came to do, and he reconnected with his past. Now it's just time to walk off into the sunset. It's the perfect end to a phenomenal movie series, and a beautiful victory lap for one of cinema's best-ever characters. If Sylvester Stallone did nothing else in his career than Rocky, he'd be guaranteed his place in movie history.

You'd think that would be the end too, but while I'm writing this, shooting is about to commence on Creed. It's a new dramatic film about Apollo Creed's grandson (played by Michael B. Jordan) taking up professional boxing. It's written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), and Sylvester Stallone is all signed up to play Rocky once again - this time as a trainer and manager. It's due in cinemas in 2016: I can't wait. Every time Stallone returns to Rocky it's like catching up with a great friend.

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