By Jeff Otto
Rocky returns from the long layoff with an outing that may please the mainstream, but lets down fans of the franchise.
There’s no denying that 1976’s Rocky
was a great movie. It was the seminal underdog story, a rousing work that has
been emulated over and over ever since, the blueprint for almost every sports
movie of the past three decades. While I enjoyed that movie, I must admit, it
was the Rocky sequels that truly grabbed my attention. Ridiculous? Sure
they were. But what’s more fun than watching the great Rocky Balboa trade fisticuffs
with Thunderlips (Hulk
Hogan in Rocky
III), Clubber Lang (Mr.
T in Rocky III) or the evil steroid abusing Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph
Lundgren in Rocky
IV)? What’s better than endless musical montages interspersed with great
one-liners like “He’ll pound ya into tomorrow Rock!” or “Prediction? …Pain!”
What, I ask you, what?
Those sequels became models for 80’s movie-making. They were just cheesy-good fun and, while I admit they may not hold up all that well these days, they will always hold a soft spot in my heart. I mean, just try to watch Rocky IV without feeling the need to go for a run afterwards or at least do a few push-ups. I dare ya!
And so, it was with high expectations that I entered a recent screening of
the sixth Rocky installment, entitled Rocky
Balboa. I saw the film with my Reelz colleague Thomas Leupp, who shares
a similar soft spot for the series. His favorite is Rocky III while I
prefer the less subtle Rocky IV, but our hearts are in the same place.
The plotline for Rocky Balboa is admittedly preposterous. Rocky is now
in his early 60’s, living a simple life running a restaurant in Philly named
Adrian’s. The place is, of course, named after Rocky’s beloved wife who departed
the franchise sometime between the abysmal Rocky
V (For the record, neither Thomas nor I consider that to be a part of
the franchise) and this latest installment. Rocky has a strained relationship
with his son (Milo
Ventimiglia) and spends much of his time with his endlessly crotchety brother-in-law
Young). Rocky befriends a local woman he knew from years past named Marie
Hughes) and her son Steps (James
Francis Kelly III). I guess the two give Rocky a renewed spirit or something
as he searches for meaning in his life beyond boxing.
When a popular ESPN series pits a prime Rocky Balboa against current Heavyweight
Champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (real life boxer Antonio
Tarver), the digitized Balboa floors Dixon. The pretend bout stirs debate
amongst boxing experts, eventually boosting Rocky’s ego to the point that he
applies for a reinstatement of his boxing license, initially with the intent
of taking on some smaller, club-level fights. But Dixon’s camp, whose popularity
is waning in a weak heavyweight division, sees an opportunity. They approach
Balboa for an exhibition fight: the aging warrior against the young, unbeatable
champion. You can pretty much guess how things go from there.
Now, with such a silly set-up for the story, you’d have to imagine this will play out much like the other Rocky sequels (save V again – remember, it doesn’t really exist). You know, great one-liners, plenty of rousing musical montages and some great fight sequences.
Well, that isn’t what we get. Instead, Rocky Balboa is a desperate attempt to regain the underdog storyline of the first (and possibly a bit of the second) film. It’s the talkiest Rocky of the series, with the least amount of action and the least amount of logic. I mean, really, would a computer fight really excite people this much? They’ve done these kinds of digital fights in the past for fun and people simply didn’t care.
Rocky reuniting with his son is a natural progression for the storyline, but do we really need Rocky to take Marie and the ridiculously-named Steps under his wing as well? After five films, so many great characters have already been established that we really don’t need more added to the mix. Burt Young’s Paulie is still a drunk, but it seems as though something more could have been done with his character. Rocky reunites with his trainer of the past three films, but other than a rousing speech leading into the movie’s sole montage (yep, you only get one montage!) you have no idea where he’s been for the past 15 or so years.
It’s also more than a little hard to swallow the premise of a 60-year-old man (his actual age in the film is never mentioned) coming right out of retirement to fight the champion, even if it is in an exhibition. Wouldn’t it add more to the viability to the fight and give the film some more action if Rocky were to fight a few tune up fights so he could build up to the challenge of fighting the champion?
Tarver is a bore as Mason Dixon. He’s a cliché of a cliché and he isn’t too compelling on screen. Remember guys, casting a real boxer in Rocky V didn’t turn out all that well either. Mason “The Line” Dixon? Get real. Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago would have mopped the floor with this guy.
I’ve had some time to think about Rocky Balboa since my initial viewing. We admittedly went in with strong expectations and a hope that Stallone, who also wrote and directed this one, was going for something different than he in fact was. Perhaps going to see the film with a different level of expectation would change the experience.
In general, people seem to be liking the film. I can’t help but admit that it is a vast improvement over the inconceivably terrible Rocky V. Hell, maybe it’s even a better movie than Thomas and mine’s beloved guilty pleasures of III and IV. The performances are strong and the storyline is compelling at times. As a boxing fan, I still find it all a bit hard to swallow. I was hoping the cheese factor would save that aspect, but Stallone takes everything more seriously than I expected, hoping to actually sell the premise of a 60-year-old giving the reigning young champion a real fight in the ring. Personally, I don’t buy it, but I would have been along for the ride with some more montages, some more classic one-liners and a more compelling foe. As it stands, Rocky Balboa stands as a fair capper to the series that at least wipes the bitter taste of V from our mouths.
Check out reelz.com's Rocky Balboa page for clips from the film and more!