Review by Mark Walters


Thirty years ago Sylvester Stallone made a big screen splash in a big way with ROCKY, the story of a Philadelphia underdog who beat the odds and became a legend.  The movie became an instant classic, and is still regarded by many to be one of the finest films ever made.  It spawned four sequels, most of which were very successful, but as each came out the heart exhibited by the first one seemed to fade.  ROCKY IV focused on our hero battling a Russian boxer, and was almost a bit too cartoon-like to be taken seriously.  ROCKY V, released in 1989, simply lacked punch (no pun intended), and left many fans upset.  Now Stallone is returning to the role that made him famous in ROCKY BALBOA.  The character, like the actor, is much older now, and must once again beat the odds to prove something... not necessarily to others, but to himself.

  In this film Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is mourning the death of his wife Adrian (Talia Shire).  He now spends his days managing a restaurant named after her, where he greets customers and tells stories of his boxing exploits.  He continues to hang out with his grizzled friend Pauly (Burt Young), and tries desperately to keep emotionally connected with his son Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who sadly is more concerned with his own career.  Rocky reconnects with a grown up Marie (Geraldine Hughes), the little girl from the neighborhood who he used to look out for.  She becomes a friendly ear for his venting, and Rocky tries to help her once again get her life together.  A computer simulated fight on television between Balboa and the current heavyweight boxing champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), begins to create some serious controversy.  Dixon's popularity level isn't exactly at an all-time high, so his promoters see an opportunity, and approach Rocky with a proposition for a match.  Initially Balboa doesn't seem all that interested, but realizing the rut he's in and the difficulty of filling the void left by Adrian, he eventually comes around to the idea.  The odds are against him, and even those closest to him think it's ridiculous.  But Rocky needs to know if he can still step up to a challenge, and prove it ain't over until it's over.

 This is the film ROCKY fans have been waiting for.  Forget those other sequels, with the exception of ROCKY II, because this final installment is perhaps the most respectable and effective ending for a franchise ever made.  Stallone has created a nostalgic nod to his first effort, and yet found a way to modernize the character in appropriate fashion.  The Rocky in this film is the Rocky we fell in love with in the first movie.  Granted, he's older now, but we still identify with him.  As life goes on, things change and new challenges arise.  Watching him deal with life in the later years is just as fascinating as watching the beginnings of this hero.  Stallone is about as sincere with his performance as he's ever been.  You never get the sense that he's just collecting a check, or taking on something just for the hell of it.  His heart is in this, and it shows.  The first hour of the film deals primarily with Rocky in the old neighborhood, his unresolved feelings over losing Adrian, his poor connection with his son, and his less than satisfying life.  It's a bit of a downer actually, but it works, especially since we know where this is headed.  Once he starts training for the big fight, we're behind him all the way.  It's as if the depressing aspects of the first half help boost out emotions for the rest of the film.  Sly knows how to craft a solid story, and as we can see here age (whether in real life or in character) does not interfere with the quality of his writing.  There's just something about Rocky that everyone can identify with, regardless of where you are in life.  I sincerely enjoyed watching the journey this character takes here.  If nothing Stallone has done after the original ROCKY retains any solid meaning, this film may well serve as the pinnacle of his career since then.  That's not to say I'm hoping he'll retire.  I actually really enjoyed seeing Sly back on the big screen, and I'm hoping this won't be the last time.

  The supporting cast is good too.  Milo Ventimiglia, who I watch religiously on NBC's HEROES, works great in his scenes with Sly.  Their lack of emotional connection is one of the most painful aspects of Rocky's life, and a weaker actor could've ruined those moments.  We want these two guys to come together, and I'm really glad Stallone picked Milo for this part.  Burt Young is about the best he's been with Pauly since the original film.  I get the sense that Sly wanted Burt to shine here, rather than serve as a background character showing up only for familiarity.  In fact just about all of the supporting characters get nice moments.  I really like Geraldine Hughes' performance as Marie.  Adding the character creates a nice parallel to the first film, and she's never overplayed the way she easily could've been.  Her role is there for story purposes, and it works to motivate Rocky during several moments.  Plus without Adrian, Geraldine provides that female counterpart that's rather necessary for our hero to work off of.  You'll also see Tony Burton return as Rocky's trainer, who like Burt Young has appeared in every ROCKY movie to date.  Having those guys in there creates a nice sense of symmetry, and Burton gets some great moments of inspiration for the seasoned boxer.  I'm really glad Stallone cast Antonio Tarver as Mason Dixon.  Having a real fighter on screen created more of a sense of realism.  Tarver is downplayed a bit with his character, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  We know he's the champion, and he's much younger, so the threat is obvious, and it's not necessary to keep repeating that fact.  My hat off to Sly though for making a boxer with zero acting experience come across as anything but wooden.

And that final fight... wow.  Stallone deserves a ton of accolades for getting back in the ring and showing us all that he can still hold his own at 60.  If you've read my interview with him, you know a lot of those hits were the real deal.  Sly looks incredible for his age, but it's believable that Rocky would've remained in good shape considering his life.  Since they filmed the battle at during an actual boxing event, it adds an incredible level or realism.  Plus the camerawork during the fight is done with television cameras, so you almost feel like you're watching a real boxing match.  The more I think about this movie, I really liked it, and it's such an appropriate cap to the franchise.  If you've lost faith in Stallone, see this movie.  If you're a ROCKY fan, see this movie.  Even if you don't like boxing, see this movie.  Films like this are why we go to the theater.  It's an inspirational message that we can all identify with, and it works on all the levels that the original did.  Plus clocking in well under two hours, it never gets long enough to be boring, and these days that's a very respectable thing.  Yo Sly, you did it, and it's good. score - On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, I give ROCKY BALBOA a 9.

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