Almost thirty years to the day after ROCKY won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, ROCKY BALBOA, the sixth in the series, hit DVD. You'd have to either try very hard or be a total scrooge to dislike it. Released theatrically just before Christmas last year, ROCKY BALBOA is an old-fashioned, quaintly directed and performed drama driven partially by nostalgia, but mostly by heart.
Ignoring the events of the ignominious ROCKY V (1990), ROCKY BALBOA picks up four years after the death of Adrian (played in earlier films by Talia Shire), beloved wife of former heavyweight champion Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, of course, who also directed and wrote the screenplay). Life just isn't the same for Rocky without Adrian, even though he has a grown son (Milo Ventimiglia) and a nice restaurant, where he dons a blazer and entertains the diners with old fight stories. And, of course, grumpy brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) is still around, even though he's grown weary of Rocky talking about his dead wife all the time.
Stallone the writer bites off more than his 101-minute running time can chew, as he gives Rocky something of a surrogate family. Balboa befriends a lonely barkeeper, Marie (played well by Irish actress Geraldine Hughes), who once cursed Rocky when she was a kid. Now a single mother with a half-Jamaican teenager, Steps (James Francis Kelly III), she initially is suspicious of Rocky's kindness, but comes to like the big lug.
Meanwhile, the plot kicks in, which finds Rocky agreeing to an exhibition match with Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), the current heavyweight champion, after an ESPN computer simulation has the in-his-prime Balboa knocking Dixon out. Surprisingly, Rocky's friends go easy on the nay-saying, and mostly support his decision to fight a man 30 years his junior on pay-per-view television. We do too, if only because it leads to the moment we've been waiting for: the requisite training montage, complete with Rocky downing raw eggs, running up those iconic stone stairs, and working out to Bill Conti's rousing theme.
I saw Stallone bit too much off, because some of his character arcs are inadequately fleshed out. After a couple of early bonding scenes between Rocky and Steps, the young man virtually vanishes from the latter half of the film. Likewise, Balboa's relationships with Marie and with Rocky Jr. feel unfinished.
One can't fault Stallone's sincerity, however, as an actor, writer or director. Considering he hadn't directed a film since 1986's cartoonish ROCKY IV, he steps back behind the camera assuredly, and perks up the climactic bout using digital cameras to give it the look and feel of an actual TV broadcast, complete with on-screen graphics and the use of actual announcers like Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant to play themselves.
It's hard not to look at ROCKY BALBOA and recognize the real-life parallels to Stallone's career. He clearly worked very hard on this film, and it paid off, grossing $70 million at the box office (which, I guarantee you, nobody in Hollywood predicted) and surprisingly positive reviews. I say "surprisingly" only because initial news of another ROCKY sequel drew guffaws from some film fans. Now that they've seen it, the only person laughing is Stallone--all the way to the bank with financing for...wait for it...another Rambo movie.
I can't wait.