In the Eighties and Nineties Sylvester Stallone made most of his money shooting all-out action movies like Demolition Man, Tango and Cash and, of course, the Rambo Trilogy (the first of which did, I admit, have a well thought out initial set up). I thought that Cliffhanger had a slight advantage with its mountainous locations and was impressed by his diversification in the superior and star-studded thriller Copland, but he is best remembered for two characters: John Rambo and Rocky Balboa. I often forget just how much more than acting Stallone does: he contributed towards many of his own screenplays across the years, and both wrote and directed the majority of the Rocky movies. But after a few years out of the game, I never thought he would even consider returning to either of his two greatest characters but even as I write this, the fourth Rambo movie - John Rambo - is filming for a release within the next twelve months and, of course, the sixth Rocky film has already received no end of acclaim after its theatrical release. But can it make up for the increasingly lacklustre sequels that were spawned from the Oscar-winning original?
“Ain't nothin' over till it's over!”
It's been decades since Rocky Balboa has been in a boxing ring. He spends most of his time running his Italian restaurant and regaling old fight stories to the patrons, living a quiet life and frequenting the grave of the recently deceased love of his life, Adrian. He still hangs with his loudmouth brother-in-law Paulie but generally keeps himself to himself, watching the years tick by and the memories fade away just as the buildings of his youth are being torn down and replaced. All the while the reigning heavyweight champion, Mason Dixon, is finding life at the top remarkably hard - unable to earn the respect or admiration of either his peers or his fans mainly because he has never had a true adversary to challenge his undefeated status.
“Is he looking like he's mad at me or is it maybe the angle I'm standing at?!”
When a computer-simulated virtual fight between Rocky and Dixon comes up with an surprising winner - Rocky - it gives Balboa the inspiration to consider returning to the ring for a few small league bouts. But with Dixon's reputation in tatters, his managers decide that maybe a charity event between the two heavyweight fighters would not be bad publicity. Dixon is concerned that he might really hurt the old-timer, and his concern is shared with just about everybody Rocky knows - they all think he's too old for this. But Rocky has something unfinished about him, something aching that he can no longer keep buried, so he trains to go back into the ring for the final fight of his life.
“I stopped thinking like other people think a long time ago. You know, you have to think the way you think.”
Rocky Balboa is more about closure than anything else. Written, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, the man who brought the character to life in the first place, this is as much about Stallone's return to the screen for one final era of big movies as it is about Rocky's return to the ring for a memorable swansong. And the movie is as much about the journey as it is about the closing fight, with us seeing in intricate detail what has become of the champ in the years since he last did anything momentous in his life. In fact, it is arguably the build-up and smaller-scale to the whole affair that led to the much-deserved rumours of Oscar contention, rather than the necessary combat. Seeing this old-timer and his disjointed relationship with his estranged son, his battle of wits with his scathingly honest friend (and brother-in-law) Paulie and his building a relationship with a new lady in his life (and, in turn, getting to know her son) - this is what the movie is all about. Stallone has succeeded in wholeheartedly returning to where it all began and rekindling the passion and drive within, arguably, his most important cinematic character. He has blasted the horror that was Rocky V out of our memories and left us with a closing chapter to a saga that - prior to this - felt like it had lost its way.
“If you're willing to go through all the battling you got to go through to get where you want to get, who's got the right to stop you?”
The performances are spot on as well, with Burt Young reprising his role as the abrasive but nonetheless enduring Paulie, as well as a bunch of ex-boxers in the roles of ex-boxers (Pedro Lovell, Tony Burton - complete with a great motivational speech - and even Tyson himself in a brief cameo). There are a couple of newcomers: Geraldine Hughes as the new love interest and Milo Ventimiglia as his son, as well as real-life light-heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver as Rocky's nemesis, the reigning champion Mason Dixon. Stallone's script is outstanding, far superior to anything he has contributed to previously, with his simple but moving lines making the character both inspirational and loveable. His words shine through and out-class the boxing on every level, although he does well in the directing department as well, not just on the smaller nostalgic character-building sequences but also in bringing home every single powerful blow and making you flinch and get up and cheer for the underdog as he once again struggles to fight against the odds.
“To beat this guy, you need speed and you don't have it. And your knees can't take the pounding so hard running is out. And you got arthritis in your neck and you got calcium deposits on most of your joints so sparring is out. So what we'll be calling on is good old-fashioned blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty cast-iron pile-driving punches that will have to hurt so much they'll rattle his ancestors.”
Rocky Balboa beats all of the odds to be a great little closing chapter to what had become an increasingly insipid franchise. It goes against expectations, reversing the nature of the last few instalments - where you would be forgiven for fast-forwarding to the fight sequences - to be a movie that you want to watch from start to finish, in which the fight is a necessary conclusion but not the whole story by far. There's more power in any one of the scenes where Rocky chats to his friends and family than in any of the blows he throws, and the movie comes across as a solid, well-conceived full-circle conclusion to a lasting legacy. Still inspirational, still fighting against all odds, it was fantastic to see the return of Rocky.
“It ain't about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!”
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