Sylvester Stallone brings his story of a fighter from Philadelphia full circle with the final installment of the Rocky films. The retired champion owns a restaurant named after his beloved wife, Adrian, now deceased, as he struggles to cope with her loss and a strained relationship with his grown son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia). A computer simulation suggests a younger Balboa (Stallone) would have beaten the current champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), who is desperate for a fight the public actually cares about. The inevitable match-up is set as an exhibition that allows Rocky to step into the ring one more time.
Unlike Rocky II through V, Rocky Balboa truly returns to the character-driven storytelling that made the first a classic. It doesn’t reach the level of the original, but it offers an excellent capper to this series. I saw Stallone in interviews say he just wasn’t satisfied with Rocky V as the conclusion, and by comparison Balboa shows why.
To be honest, I was disappointed when I heard the movie included one more fight for Rocky. It just seemed like too much of a stretch, even with the real-life example of George Foreman coming out of retirement well into middle age. But, while “the fight” is always a key to the Rocky films, this one, like the first, really wasn’t the center of the movie. Maybe more to the point, winning the fight wasn’t the driving force. That said, it still stirred enough emotion that I wanted Rocky to knock Dixon’s ass out by the end.
This was really more of a celebration of a character that, at least in Philly, has been adored for 30 years. I thought the loss of Talia Shire, who played Adrian and turned down reprising the role again, would be tough to overcome. Instead, she was almost a center piece of the film, as Rocky even admits she’s never far from his thoughts. His tour of all the places that reminded him of her on the anniversary of her passing was a terrific way to tie-in the previous films and include the character.
They tastefully “replace” Adrian by having Balboa befriend the young girl he encouraged to find a better crowd in the original, Marie (now played by Geraldine Hughes). Again, I just thought it was a great way to recognize the past.
Pauley (Burt Young) is still around, and gets off a few good lines as always. Deleted scenes showed an abandoned effort to offer his character a little more depth, but the unspoken loyalty and the connection with Balboa through Adrian (Paulie’s sister) works well.
The line between fantasy and reality is blurred just a little too much, I thought, though seeing Mike Tyson give Dixon crap about not fighting anyone was kind of funny. The fight scenes, billed as some of the most realistic on film, lost something for me. I wanted more of the classic Rocky fight scenes with some more emotion between the fighters. Instead viewers were offered a simulated version of a fight on HBO pay-per-view, complete with the grating commentary of Larry Merchant.
I don’t know if people outside of Philadelphia get Rocky, and I don’t really care. If you’re from the City of Brotherly Love, Rocky Balboa was in and out theaters way too fast. I regret not seeing it with a crowd, but I certainly wasn’t going to miss it altogether. Neither should you — it’s a must-see and well worth watching.