Rocky Balboa (2006) / Drama-Action

MPAA Rated: PG for violence and some language
Running Time: 102 min.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, A.J. Benza, James Francis Kelly III, Pedro Lovell, Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, Mike Tyson (cameo), Frank Stallone (cameo)
Director: Sylvester Stallone

Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
Review published December 23, 2006

It strikes me that Rocky Balboa is, to the world of cinema, everything that the exhibition fight is at the heart of the film.  Both the film and the boxing match within it have no real bearing in terms of their importance in their respective art forms, put on just for the fans.  Both feature unlikely scenarios that make you snicker when you first hear of them.  Both surprise you by not punking out, with both Sylvester Stallone (Shade, Cop Land) and his character, Rocky Balboa, putting heart, body, and soul on the line, able to actually go the distance and do what no one thought either could ever do -- triumph again well past their prime.

In the film, Rocky Balboa is well into his retirement from boxing, now a restaurant owner in his old neighborhood in Philadelphia, where he spends his days entertaining the paying customers with his anecdotes of his glory days as the former heavyweight champion of the world.  His faithful wife, Adrian, has passed away, a victim of cancer, while his son, Robert (Ventimiglia, Winter Break), is making waves in the corporate world.  All Rocky has left are his memories -- of his wife, his former life, and the days when he was somebody, and this pattern is driving his brother-in-law, Paulie (Young, Pluto Nash), absolutely bananas.

Rocky's comfortable life is due for an upheaval when a computer simulated fight between Rocky Balboa (at his peak) is pitted against the current champion, the vastly unpopular Mason Dixon (Tarver), and Balboa ends up the winner by K.O.  With Dixon's popularity at its nadir, and with no real contenders in sight to make money from, Dixon's promoters have a wild idea that will bring them a bit of publicity, and hopefully rekindle interest in the current champ.  The idea?  Give Rocky Balboa one final fight against a world champ in an exhibition match.  With the odds against him, and all of the naysayers voicing their rejection of the notion, Rocky finds the wherewithal to prove once again that just because you're down, it doesn't mean you're out.

Rocky Balboa is more of a likeable film than it is a good one.  If there never were five Rocky films that came before it, this would seem a ridiculous premise for a major motion picture.  In fact, even with the five films, it's still a ridiculous premise.  And yet, for all of its more outwardly laughable aspects, Stallone does the same thing getting in front of the camera (as well as behind it) that Balboa does when he steps in the ring: he makes everyone stop laughing.  Unlike some of the previous commercially-minded efforts, this one is fuelled almost strictly from the heart, and the love for which Stallone has for his most famous of characters is imbued in every frame.

Sylvester Stallone's impetus for making the film was due to his displeasure at how his previous series-ender, Rocky V, put an uneasy cap on the franchise.  Although he wrote the script for the film, Stallone, as well as the fans (like myself), didn't want to see Rocky Balboa lose everything he had built up for the previous four films.  Stallone wanted one last hurrah for Balboa's story while he still had the fire in him.  If nothing else, Stallone deserves credit for actually making a film that exceeds every expectation, doing everything it sets out to do, and leaving the series with a truly feel-good final fight that will allow Stallone and fans alike to smile again.

While not the sort of film one will praise for cinematic excellence, Rocky Balboa's true triumph is in making the formula work one more time, and do it in a wholly delightful, respectful, and dare I say it, plausible fashion from beginning to end.  It's truly hard to imagine any conceivable version of Rocky VI, at this late stage of the game, actually working better than this one, not only in terms of likeability, but also in the merits of the story and characters. 

For the fans who've stuck through the series during the thick and the thin, it's impossible not to be moved as the credits start to roll, and we see the clips of actual fans performing the famous Rocky run up the steps and victory dance.  This is a film made with the audience in mind -- a loving tribute that will no doubt have the millions who come out to see it in a theater with a reason to walk out content that the Rocky story truly has given all that it has to give, and comes out victorious. 

As a critic, I can't proclaim this to be the best film of the year (not even close), but on a personal level, as a longtime fan, I'm proud to say, it is the probably most satisfying.

-- Previous entries in the series not mentioned in the review: Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, and Rocky IV.

Qwipster's rating

©2006 Vince Leo