Rocky is back, which means so is Sylvestor Stallone with his latest bid at fame. Stallone attempts a major career resurrection with Rocky Balboa, his sixth film in a franchise that most people were happy to see dead a decade ago. The success of the aging boxer in this film is almost synonymous with Stallone's acting career - after some years of greatness, he is now old, past his prime and more embarrassing than anything else.
Let's face it: Rocky Balboa is a feeble attempt at helping Stallone return to greatness. Stallone hasn't done anything remarkable since 1997's Cop Land and he knows it. He hurts box office more than he helps it, and he knows his choices are limited. So what does one do when he realizes his career is going nowhere and his best stuff is behind him? Why, he turns to the franchises that boosted his career. Stallone already has Rambo IV hitting theaters in 2008 - it's only a matter of time before we see Judge Dredd 2. While some may laugh at the pathetic nature of doing sequels to franchises long since dead, I don't see the problem. If all you have left are the franchises that carried you for over a decade, you might as well give the audience more of the same, whether they ask it or not (just because they don't ask for it doesn't mean tht at least some don't want it).
And Rocky Balboa is more of the same. It is not exceptional in any way, and looks and feels like one of the older Rocky movies only set in modern day and with older actors. The movie has long bouts of minor drama and meandering before hitting the training sequences, which still play along to the same old Rocky music. There's a final fight at the end, and then it's over.
That being said, Rocky Balboa is a solid entry in the franchise. It may break no new barriers and suffer from the very absurdity of the concept (a boxer in his fifties returning to take on the current, twenty-something and undefeated Heavyweight Champion), but Stallone has pulled off what people were secretly rooting for him to do - a movie that continues his minor legacy, embraces it and acknowledges all the problems with it as well. As mentioned before, this new Rocky parallels Stallone's own career situation, and while at times this hurts the dramatic nature of the film, it is necessary, as Stallone clearly realized, to address such issues. His son yells at him for embarrassing himself by trying to extend a career that has fizzled, Rocky himself knows the good times have passed as Adrian has died and others are nearing their end, and newer, younger and faster people are in the game, but aren't nearly as popular as the oldies (possibly a poke at the fact that in the 80's there was Schwarzenegger and Stallone, but now there are no quintessential action heroes).
Rocky Balboa works in its simplicity. Rocky goes from one scene to the next, always plodding along as his old body isn't as fast or strong as it used to be. Stallone delivers a good performance, but how good depends on your perception of the man. As he is the character that he created, he works perfectly, but some people can't get past the fact that this is washed-up Stallone. A few people chuckled in scenes where Rocky was crying or looking back on fond memories, but I saw nothing laughable in his performance.
The movie does take an extremely long time to get to the point, however. Most of the movie has nothing to do with fighting, and is instead about Rocky coming to grips about reality, working on a shaky relationship with his son, managing his restaurant, starting up a new (possible) romance with a younger woman and accepting that his old life is no longer there. For those looking for a more fight-oriented movie (which is just about every person in the theater), some of these dramatic scenes tend to drag on a bit too long.
But when the training sequence starts and the Rocky music chimes in, you know everything is finally kicking into high gear. The Rocky music may be a little cheesy, but it still works for the simple fact that it is the Rocky music. Stallone surprisingly spends little time on the training, which shocked me because in this round more than any others is when Rocky would have struggled the most to get to optimal shape. When the movie skips to the final fight sequence only minutes later, it is hard to accept that Stallone went from long term retirement to the boxing ring in a single song.
As for the final fight sequence, it is effective though certainly not the best done in recent years. Stallone goes a little overboard with making the fight artsy, and he shies away from diving into the fight to make the audience feel every blow. Compared to films such as Ali, which had a blow-by-blow showdown, the fight here is much more basic. Still, Stallone manages to pull the audience in enough to the point where your hands will be sweating in anticipation - will Rocky make it the ten rounds, will he be embarrassed, will he be killed, or, by chance, will he win?
Rocky Balboa never completely escapes the cheesiness of it concept and some of the core elements of the Rocky franchise that seem a bit outdated nowadays, but Stallone has done what few imagined he could do: he has written and starred in a profitable, entertaining film. It isn't a great movie, but it is a good movie, and is a sign that Stallone still may have one or two punches left in him.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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