I’m not going to lie to you, folks. Rocky Balboa is bad. But it’s not nearly as dreadful as I’d long feared, when it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to appeal to The TV Whore’s Philly origins and have him cover it (apparently, he’d rather review a cooking show. I’ll let his football buddies know.). Beyond being bad, however, Rocky Balboa is impossibly sad. Sad because the film mostly serves as a reminder that the world has passed Sylvester Stallone and his Rocky character by. Sad because it’s hard to laugh at an aging former superstar and his aging former superstar character when you feel so much pity for them. And sad because Rocky Balboa might not have been that bad a film, in 1982. But now it’s like seeing a little old lady with blue hair slap on three inches of pancake makeup, some smeared lipstick, a few orange highlights, and a pair of stilettos and try to seduce a 23-year-old beefcake. It’s creepy. It’s heartbreaking. And it just makes you want to give the old lady a hug and tell her to go back to “Wheel of Fortune.”
In fact, there was a small part of me that wanted to see the movie succeed, if only so that Stallone could recapture a tiny bit of the dignity he’d left behind in Rocky V and all the subsequent films (Judge Dredd, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Oscar, Driven) that basically erased whatever esteem the man once held in our collective pop consciousness (Cop Land notwithstanding). After Arnold went into politics, Stallone became the last holdover from the era of dumb, musclebound ’80s action flicks, and though I never liked a damn one of them, it still put a small lump in my throat to see the once-mighty fall so low.
Rocky Balboa picks up in the present, 16 years, I guess, since Rocky V. Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) is all grown up now, and an accountant for some corporate outfit. But he and his father aren’t on intimate terms, on account of Rocky Jr.’s resentment toward the shadow that Rocky’s legacy casts over his life.
Balboa himself is a seemingly content man: He runs a successful restaurant, is not hard up for money, and is a legend in Philly, where everyone knows and respects him. Unfortunately, Adrian is dead (the restaurant is named in her memory), having passed away several years earlier from cancer, so Rocky is a bit on the lonely side. He and Paulie (Burt Young, who is either drunken and deranged in real life or playing as much here — I can’t tell) spend much of their time reminiscing and visiting old haunts (replete with flashbacks to earlier Rocky films), where Rocky gets weepy and nostalgic about Adrian while Paulie only gets increasingly surly (or, at least, that’s what I think he was trying to project — dude can’t act, even a little bit).
One of the old haunts is a bar, which leads Balboa to Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a bartender with whom Rocky forms a platonic relationship (platonic, so as to not shit on the grave of Adrian). Rocky helps Marie out by getting her a job at his restaurant and acting as mentor to her teenage son, Steps (James Francis Kelly III), whose only purpose in the film seems to be to stick around long enough to name a dog that Balboa has adopted from a shelter (both Steps and the mutt appear to be part of a couple of storylines that were later abandoned, left on the cutting room floor — probably for good reason).
Anyway, at some point much, much later in the film than you’d either expect or desire, ESPN runs that computer-simulated fantasy bout, matching Rocky Balboa in his prime against the current undefeated champion of the world, Mason “The Line” Dixon (it’s good to see that Stallone still has a penchant for inflammatory, colorful names, at least). Dixon (Antonio Tarver), well … he’s a punk. He’s cocky and arrogant, and a bit of a creampuff, taking only fights he knows will lead to victory, which doesn’t endear him to any fan base — he’s sort of the modern-day Mike Tyson, who just happens to make a completely unnecessary cameo in the film.
Once Rocky sees the fantasy bout (and his victory in it), he decides he wants to get back in the ring, despite lacking any motivation to do so. Really. None whatsoever. No pride on the line. No lack of money. No Cold War bullshit. No need to prove anything. Nothing, except maybe a distaste for Three 6 Mafia. Rocky just decides, after a weepy scene with Paulie (and seriously, no one needs to see Sly cry; he looks like the goddamn Toxic Avenger), that he wants to fight again. Because he’s bored, I guess.
So, he ultimately reckons that, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows,” reunites with his son, and gets back in the ring. The good news, for Rocky fans at least, is that “Gonna Fly Now” makes a rousing return for the training montage, which has Balboa punching meat and running up those famed Museum of Art steps and delivering another fist to the sky. (Sadly, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” makes no such return appearance — I know; I was crestfallen, too.)
Stallone once again writes and directs, as he did for three of the first five installments (though he wrote all five). Once he gets in the ring, he films the scenes as though he’s just discovered Microsoft Paint. He throws in a few unnecessary black-and-white shots, a few grainy ones, and then a few more where the color of blood seeps through the black and white, and — I think — he even adds a few of those stock graphics you find as background images in make-your-own-video machines at amusement parks. It’s pretty awful. The boxing match, at some point, actually gets so completely absurd that you find yourself giving in to it. You just have to shake your head, laugh a little, and offer the tiniest of props to Stallone for daring to expose his geriatric chisel to the world. It’s cheesy. It’s lame. But, it’s so harmless that it’s hard to feel outraged by it.
Obviously, I won’t clue anyone in as to how the exhibition match turned out, except to say that, sadly, Rocky Balboa doesn’t suffer a brain aneurysm and die, which introduces an otherworldly fear that, potentially, this might not be the last we see of Rocky. But the film does have one saving grace: its almost poetic treatment of Philly. Sure, it’s a poem written by an illiterate, nine-year-old Mongoloid, but it’s still kind of sweet, in the same way that receiving a hand-painted drawing from a toddler for Christmas is. It’s a shame, however, that you can’t hang Rocky Balboa on the refrigerator and forget about it until Rambo IV comes along.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is currently halfway through a three-year ‘sentence’ in upstate, NY, where he lives with his wife. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Rocky Balboa / Dustin Rowles
Film | December 26, 2006 | Comments ()