“Italian food cooked up by a bunch of Mexicans ain’t so special, Rocko.”
— Paulie, Rocky Balboa
I think everyone expected the final Rocky film to be a disaster. Stallone was in a rather dark period in his career with films like Avenging Angelo, D-Tox, and Driven. In fact, it seemed like he took the tepid response to Cop Land pretty hard and responded with a string of bad choices. The man was in an American remake of Get Carter, for chrissakes.
I’m ignoring the presence of Michael Cane in that movie for the time-being.
Seemingly hit cinematic bottom, the world was pretty skeptical when he announced a troika of projects featuring the return of both Rocky and Rambo and a film about the life of Edgar Allen Poe that never materialized. While the Rambo sequel was intended to be first, the money came in for Rocky Balboa. I guess some of the money guys felt that was the more sure-fire success.
In a while, I’ll explain how that is art and life colliding in one moment.
“Skeptical” definitely describes my opinion about the return of the actor’s most iconic character. Rocky had last been seen walking away from a street fight with his son helping him home, which I suppose is less disgraceful than John Rambo’s support of the Mujahideen in Rambo III. Of course, here’s where the tale gets a little bit more interesting. Hating the final form of Rocky V, Stallone pretty much ignores most of what transpired in that film except for the Balboas’ return to the Philadelphia streets of earlier installments. Gone were the mansion, endorsements, and Paulie’s robot/wife.
More on that when I take you back to Rocky IV.
Rocky Balboa, opens in a curious place … the closing moments of a prizefight. It’s curious because it breaks the Rocky film tradition of recapping the previous film. Instead, we’re introduced to Mason “The Line” Dixon. Though he is the champion, and though he’s won the fight, the crowd boos him and throws crap at him. No, seriously! HBO commentators expressly mention it. Dixon’s fights are described as lacking any real sport and Aa the scene fades, one of them asks if there’s a fighter out there with heart.
When the dissolve ends, we find Rocky in the midst of his daily routine. We later learn the day is special because Adrian died at some point before the film begins and this is either the anniversary of that event or her birth. I’m guessing it’s her death, because Rocky and Paulie later take a tour of various locations from the first film. Rocky is still heartbroken from losing her and has clearly pushed pause on his life. When they get to the abandoned lot that used to be the ice rink, even Paulie walks away from him; tired of reliving what used to be. The whole thing could easily tip into heavy-handedness if not for it being so touching.
The relationship between Adrian and Rocky was one of the key things that made people fall in love with the character, the film, and ultimately Stallone back in 1976. While she subsequently became a shrewish caricature who would often shout, “You can’t win, Rocky!” as the script demanded, it was a brave choice to remove her. Without his wife, Rocky is immediately adrift and identifiable. During that tour of all the old memories, (complete with very ethereal flashback moments) the viewer remembers who he was before Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and the defeat of communism. Seeing all of those things again, I think Stallone successfully gets the empathy from the audience that he wants. Or … I don’t know, at least from me. Maybe I’m being too high-minded and film-geeky about this.
So let’s go back a moment because there’s still somebody around to tell Rocky he can’t do it: Robert Balboa Jr. In this film, he’s played by ex-Hero Milo Ventimiglia. He spends most of the film ashamed of his famous father and constantly finding ways to avoid him or rain on his parade. He’s pretty believable in the part. You can buy that he’s Stallone’s son with that gruff manner I’m sure he thinks is charming and he definitely comes off as the child of Adrian with his tendency to assume that worst that could happen will eventually come to pass.
This is still a Stallone movie, so the plot is more a series of scenes where Rocky finds little ways to be a nice guy. He re-meets a character from the first film named “Little Marie.” Now all grown up, she has a child named Steps and a dilapidated home. He gives them both jobs and starts collecting a new odd family that includes Spider Rico, the guy he beat in the opening moments of the entire saga. He eventually reconnects with Robert Jr, and Paulie even comes back after being fired from his job at the meatpacking plant. Again, a lot of the charm from the first film resurfaces as Rocky begins to create something new and get on with his life. Interestingly enough, the relationship between Rocky and Marie is never romantic. Instead, she becomes a friend he really needs.
She even tells him that he can, in fact, win.
Oh, right, there’s that whole fight business. Weaved into the charming tale of Rocky nurturing a new family, there’s the story of Mason Dixon. Reaching the pinnacle of success, Dixon finds his world is pretty hollow. He’s surrounded by hangers-on, showroom cars, and pretty heartless managers. Having enough, he reconnects with his old trainer and watches in stunned silence when ESPN arranges a computer fight between him and Rocky with the old champ coming out the victor. The cartoon fight also inspires Rocky to get his fighting license back.
There’s something autobiographical here in the Dixon character. Stallone has been in the same place as Dixon with hot cars, “hot” women, and a cadre of advisers who led him into safe bets that ultimately damaged his career. Though his story is underdeveloped in the final film, Stallone clearly wants Dixon to find a heart in the game, just as he wants to regain his cinematic heart with this film. It’s an interesting enough idea that I wish Dixon had more screentime to play out this thread. That lack of heart and soul is something Stallone cares about and he’s using the state of professional boxing as a metaphor.
In lieu of making Dixon a villain, Stallone introduces A.J. Benza as L.C., a Dixon promoter who offers Rocky the chance to make that computer fight real. He’s also underdeveloped, but one scene gets to the core of what he represents to Stallone the writer. Right before the fight, he admits he doesn’t care who wins because the money comes in either way. While Stallone clearly enjoys big money, I get the impression he believes he earned every cent with heart and now, at 60, he sees the people who control the money are soulless. They have no pursuits that make the money a sweeter dividend of honest work. Instead, the supposed reason why all that cash is changing hands — whether it’s boxing or filmmaking — is irrelevant.
Which brings us to the collision of film and life. The movie got made for the same reason the exhibition bout happens in the story: the cynical curiosity of seeing a 60 year old man fight. Stallone had a tough time at first finding the money to make the movie, but that crass interest not only made the financing appear, but it got asses in seats.
Instead of the side-show I expected, I got something surprising heartfelt and well-made. Instead of montages and robots, Stallone found the characters that first catapulted him to success. Though we might only have Rocky, Paulie, and Duke left from the first film, we remember Adrian, Mickey, and Apollo. Most importantly, I got a good movie about the dangers of living in the past, which is something a film-nerd can easily do.
Then Stallone rewarded my dedication with this:
Stallone By The Numbers:
Montages: Two, the the traditional training and fight montages.
Frank Stallone songs: One, “Take You Back”
Appearances by Frank: None
Flashbacks: Seven, but each lasts less than a second.