A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…
Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
Now a widower in his late 50s, Rocky is tempted to get back into the ring for an exhibition bout with the current world champion…
What does Stallone do? After 16 years away, Rocky Balboa returned – and Sylvester Stallone returned to play him, write the script and direct the film. The actor hadn’t been happy with Rocky V, so wanted to tie the series off in a more appropriate way… When we check back in with Rocky, he’s a lonely, grieving widower (Adrian has died of ‘woman cancer’). After a day commemorating his wife’s passing in which he trawls round his old haunts and remembers events from previous Rocky films, he bumps into a woman he knew when she was a child 30 years earlier. Marie is now a single mother and works in a bar; they strike up a touching friendship of mutual support, and Rocky also acts as a mentor to her wayward son. Meanwhile, a TV show debates whether Rocky in his prime would have beaten the current world champ, Mason Dixon, and this gets Rocky thinking. When Mason’s agent suggests a non-title fight – from which everyone would earn a boatload – Rocky agrees and gets to training seriously. (He’s seemingly got over the debilitating brain damage he was diagnosed with in Rocky V.) When the two get into the ring at a glitzy, showbiz event at a Las Vegas hotel, Rocky knows he can’t win on speed or skill, so his tactic is to try brut force. Mason floors him a couple of times, but Rocky holds in there. He loses a split decision (the judges are 2-1), but walks away with his head held high… Across six films, Stallone has progressed from a kind of cut-price Robert De Niro to a middle-aged Joey Tribbiani. But here he’s recaptured the knockabout charm that typified the early movies.
Other main characters:
* Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion, but is unpopular with public and press alike because it’s believed he’s won his belts by defeating no-hopers. Then an ESPN-style panel show discusses whether he could beat a 1980s Rocky Balboa, and a computer simulation reckons Rocky would win. Mason is angered by these slights, but his people just see dollar signs and plot to tempt Rocky out of his long retirement for a money-spinning exhibition fight… While still a bit cocky, Mason isn’t an arrogant, unfeeling thug like Rocky III’s Clubber Lang – before the fight, he assures Rocky that he won’t be trying to hurt him unnecessarily.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) now works at a packing plant. He gets laid off just as Rocky is gearing up to fight Mason, so conveniently has lots of spare time to join his support team.
* Rocky’s son, Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia), is now a grown-up with the kind of big-business job that means he hangs out with yuppies. He’s a bit embarrassed by his father (‘You throw a big shadow,’ he says) and is far from encouraging when Rocky says he’s going to fight again – he fears his dad will be humiliated and this will lead to endless teasing from his pals. Rocky, not unreasonably and not unkindly, tells him he’s being an arse; he needs to stop caring what morons think and just live his life. Robert eventually comes round to the idea so much that he joins Rocky’s support team.
* Marie (Geraldine Hughes) appeared in the first Rocky movie as a local teenage girl who Rocky protectively walked home one night and told to quit smoking and get her act together. Now she’s a bar-worker in her 40s with a son called Steps (short for Stephenson). When the manager at the restaurant Rocky owns takes maternity leave, he offers the job to Marie. She lacks confidence but Rock talks her round (the pair really are two downtrodden peas in a pod). She repays her pal’s belief in her when she gives him a pep-talk and encourages him to fight Mason… Hughes plays the role really well, treating the film like a low-budget drama rather than a Hollywood franchise film. Rocky and Marie’s poignant relationship – no sex, refreshingly; just a quiet understanding – is the highlight of the movie. (In 1976’s Rocky, Marie was played by Jodi Letizia.)
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) appears in flashback clips from previous films when Rocky remembers his late wife.
Key scene: This half-decent film has a serious blight. It’s really ugly to look at. It offends a cineaste’s sensibilities. Dialogue scenes are shot harshly and coldly – they look cheap, to be honest – while the bizarre decision has been made to present Rocky and Dixon’s fight as if it were coverage on a pay-TV channel. (At least to begin with: it then goes all hyper-edited and tricksy.) The video look, too-fluid camerawork and chintzy lighting do nothing for the story or for the film as a whole. A shame.
Review: We’re back to the earthy tone of the original Rocky, and genuinely so this time. Rocky Balboa feels authentic and confident in a way that the ersatz and artificial Rocky V never managed. (That film felt like what it was: millionaires playing at being poor.) Rocky may get stopped by the public wanting selfies, but he’s a faded star, past his prime. At his restaurant, he acts as host and trots out practised anecdotes about his glory days to customers who hardly seem enthralled. So it’s a plausible storyline when the carrot of a big-time bout with Mason Dixon is dangled in front of him. It’s not, it must be said, the most gripping drama. Mason is a vastly underdeveloped character and his sections of the film lack any real tension or interest. (He and Rocky barely meet outside the ring, let alone develop the kind of connection Rocky had with previous opponents Apollo, Lang and Drago.) But there’s an undeniable sweetness, especially when concerned with Marie and Rocky’s relationship.
Seven heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-drivin’ punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors out of 10