Flying High Now
Forget everything you know about the joke that Rocky Balboa has become in the three decades since he made his screen debut, and just think back to that first film, to its raw power and surprising sensitivity and hard beauty. This, this new Rocky Balboa, is the true sequel to that film. As refreshingly unHollywood, unsentimental, unpredictable as the original, it is the other bookend, a portrait of the athlete at the other end of his career, electrifying in its gritty subtlety and powerful in its authenticity.
Its gritty realism may be the most stunning aspect of the film — not in the boxing, though the big match that caps the film is thrillingly dynamic; it’s a semblance of a real match, not overly choreographed, and the actors are really hitting each other. It’s everything that comes before the finale that is so exhilarating, that strips away movie artifice to set you down into an unexpectedly poetic world of ordinary faces, working-class honesty, and real, deep-down male emotion. Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and directed as well as stars here, makes most of his film a poignant portrait of a man on the downslide of life — he doesn’t exactly have happiness, maybe, but he has comfortable habit. Adrian’s been dead for years — “woman cancer,” Rocky mumbles by way of explanation, in just one of many of the script’s clipped examples of inarticulate yet compelling expression — and he visits her grave every day to chat easily with her ghost. He runs a pleasant Italian restaurant where he spends evenings telling boxing stories to his customers; another of the film’s perfectly realized touches of awkward yet affecting reality: Rocky’s concession to “evening” or “playing host” is donning the same beat-up blazer every night in the restaurant, just over whatever sweatshirt or T-shirt he’s been wearing all day. His friend and brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young: Kiss the Bride, Mickey Blue Eyes), is still hanging around; he’s got a son, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who’s tired of being in Dad’s shadow. And he’s got a new friend in Marie (Geraldine Hughes). Not a romantic friend — more of Rocky’s touchingly expressive inexpressiveness: “My wife’s gone but she’s not really gone, you know what I mean?” — but he’s just the kind of guy who can’t help but help people, and Marie and her teenaged son become a bit of an extended family to him.
In fact, this portrait of Rocky’s life is so gripping, in a quiet, genuine way, that you almost wish that he hadn’t bothered with the boxing stuff — when the decaying world of inner-city Philadelphia, all burned-out buildings, gray skies, and nonstop rain, gives way to the harsh lights of Las Vegas and the media-hyped showcase match he gets caught up in, the tone of the film shifts dramatically. Not in a way that is inappropriate or doesn’t work — it’s just that the rest of the film is so bracing simply because we don’t often see its like, not recently: its grim reality is like something out of the 1970s, out of early Scorsese. But Rocky’s reentry into public life is a necessity for his story — he hasn’t been living in the past, but he hasn’t been moving forward, either, and as he tells Rocky Jr., when his son begs him not to make a fool of himself in the ring, “It’s about how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.” Time for Rocky to move on.
And so when an ESPN computer simulation pits the 1970s Rocky against the current champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), and calls Rocky the winner, the champ cannot abide this. It’s back into the ring for Rocky in what is supposed to be an exhibition match and turns much uglier. And because the film on the whole is so utterly lacking in the typical Hollywood bullshit, you simply cannot predict how the match will turn out: you can easily imagine a wide gamut of possibilities, starting from “Rocky has a heart attack in the ring and kicks the bucket” all the way to “Geez, this old geezer couldn’t actually win, could he?”
In a lot of ways, Rocky Balboa is basically Rocky Redux — it’s almost the same tale told again, right down to the big training sequence: you know, punching the meat, running up the museum stairs… But when that famous Rocky theme blasts out of the film as the fighter returns to action, it does make your heart skip a couple of beats: this is an iconic character, and this is the absolutely best ending for his story that you can imagine. It’s so good that it makes you forget all the crap Stallone has done in the interim (Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, Driven), between the first Rocky and now, and makes you want to see what else he can do as a filmmaker.