Rocky Balboa

Like delicious deer meat kept safely in the freezer, a good film franchise will still tend to go rancid after about four years. By the third summer release, you’ll begin to hate all the characters, the replacement director who has a “new vision,” the plotline that inevitably kills off a major character from the first two movies. Even the original film, which once seemed so original and ingenious, is cast under suspicion because of its relation to this end-of-the-trilogy crap festival. The Rocky movie series actually went five deep until it succumbed to rot, with each of the first four films displaying its own unique charm. The original won an Oscar for Best Picture; the second was required to continue the story; the third introduced “Eye of the Tiger” to American popular culture (while simultaneously helping staff the A-Team); and the fourth brilliantly took advantage of our natural distrust of Russians and their bionic supermen. The fifth, however, ended the series abruptly in 1990 with its titanic horribleness.

I believe the film had same people in it, Rocky’s kid is involved, and there is a fight at the end, which Rocky wins. I’m pretty sure that’s what happens, although I can’t remember because my eyeballs began to vomit during the viewing. The point is, we became convinced as a people that we would never see the Rocky character again. In what? A prequel? No one but Stallone could play the role. But well into his fifties, Sylvester’s weird old guy muscles just seemed too grublike for another turn in the ring. This film couldn’t happen. The star is too old, and the current champs of the box office are too tough. His wife is gone, and nobody believes in him anymore. He’s a has-been, and even if he wanted another shot, nobody would take him seriously. And so the plot of the new film in the Rocky series, simply titled Rocky Balboa was born.

Our champion has returned, on his own terms, to go out with one last bang. Unless there’s some kind of prequel being planned right now. Who knows? In this new installment, Rocky Balboa has aged nicely, still doing pull-ups in the old neighborhood and accepting handshakes from local supporters. He has become a living statue, a dusty relic of a better time that forgot to die so he could be properly remembered. His wife Adrian, however, has died, and it has left Rocky downtrodden and lonely.

The film opens to find Rocky sitting at Adrian’s grave on their anniversary, with an even older and grumpier Uncle Paulie (Burt Young). Paulie is trying to disappear into obscurity, but Rocky refuses to let him. At one point, Paulie is prompted to ask why Rocky just doesn’t forget the past. With his extra time, Balboa has opened an Italian restaurant called-what else-Adrian’s. Its décor is in dim, industrial lighting and dirty brick. The whole film, it seems, was made in earnest, then covered in a mixture of gravel and spittoon water. It's a reflection of a larger trend in moder movies, remaking films with an “edgier” feel in an attempt to contrast with the flashy, puff-chested style of the eighties. Where Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago seemed like cartoonish villains who catered to our racism and xenophobia, Rocky’s new enemy will be more realistic, down-to-earth, in a word: grittier.

Speaking of, the current champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver, an actual boxing champ) is having problems of his own. His fans have turned against him, because he is just too good. The lack of competition in boxing has turned him into a scapegoat, and the people thirst for a brawling, punch-headed hero like Rocky was. So, when Rocky decides he needs to fight again to get some of the remaining fire out of his soul, Dixon’s agents pounce on him. A computer-simulated fight between two greats of different eras (an angle I really liked, since it seemed very believable) came up in Rocky’s favor, and led to rampant speculation among writers and fans. The fight is now possible, and the money is ultra-green.

But Rocky has some hurdles to climb. His son (Milo Ventimiglia) is a typical celebrity offspring, chronically self-involved and suffering an identity crisis. His work buddies rib him about his crotchety dad getting back to fighting, and he yells at Rocky for embarrassing him. The fight is universally laughed at, and Rocky is pronounced an underdog. He has to be, because if he’s the favorite, he always loses. Uncle Paulie is also inexplicably brought back into Rocky’s corner, after having been fired from his day job, and the team is back together for a classic training montage. And yes, he drinks the eggs. He also runs up the steps. He does it all. But this time, the camera is just a little unsteady, for a touch of cinema veritee realness. You know, like in 'The Shield'.

The fight takes place as scheduled, and the result is exactly what you expected when you saw the ads. The champ tries to go easy on ol’ Rock, but he’s having none of it. A few of his patented wild haymakers later, and it’s a slugfest. It’s a bit humorous watching a real boxer fight Rocky-style. He abandons any real technique, something a true fighter would never do. In the end, Rocky goes the distance, teaching us all the lesson that had already been railroad-spiked into our heads the whole movie. You’re never too old to go for your dreams. It’s true for Rocky Balboa, and true for Sylvester Stallone. That is, if he dreamed of making a film that sits solidly in fourth place in the overall series’ ranking, right between number IV and number II. The disc features Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, along with subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. The English subtitles are available, presumably, for those who can’t understand what Stallone is saying. There is an audio commentary with the writer, producer, and star of the film. By that I mean, Stallone and only Stallone. He is an articulate person, who genuinely likes talking about his craft, but he is so hopelessly typecast he is going to die with a Judge Dredd helmet on his grave.

There are two “Making Of” featurettes, one on the entire film, and one just focusing on the climactic fight. The former has mostly to do with the “underdog” nature of the movie itself: how it wasn’t going to get made, then rose up off the canvas for a final round. It discusses in brief Stallone’s age issues, but those who assisted with the film’s production seem to be jumping for the chance to say how great he looks for his age. The fight featurette continues my previous thought about the lack of technique in Rocky’s fights. The director/star tries to make it seem like he tried to make it more realistic, but it is really the experienced Tarver who has to become much more un-realistic for the film. Like I said, it’s odd.

There are actually bloopers on the DVD, cut to montage music that make them seem like they are more important than funny. They are neither. So much for my theory that dramatic films should have gag reels. Maybe it’d be funnier in a war film. There are also included deleted scenes, which tie some of the film’s loose ends, and seemed totally necessary for the final cut. There is also an alternate ending, which is as implausible as it is god-awful.

The final featurette is all about the computer simulation that was featured in the movie for all of six seconds. Apparently Stallone and Tarver were required to show up for motion capture, face-molding, and choreography sessions. The final product is something that seems like it could’ve been pulled off with taller-than-average monkeys. I doubt the makers of such video games as Knockout Kings and Ready 2 Rumble had dig up the corpses of people like Sonny Liston and Rocky Marciano and make them dance so they could create their game characters. The simulation is no more advanced than those games, and only lasts for mere seconds.

Rocky Balboa should’ve stayed on the mat. It isn't fist-pumping fun enough to be a Rocky movie. I'm sure Stallone intended to make a Rocky for the new, harder-edged film fan, and so in the process cut out all the Pitying of the Fool that made the first four movies fun. Stallone says as much in the commentary, noting that the old films dubbed in chains and frying pans hitting meat slabs for the punch sounds. The new film, he explains, has audio from real hits. Why is that better? That's symptomatic of the entire DVD release, they're hoping that real life will capture us more than fantasy. It can, and has been done inother genres (superhero movies come to mind), but it should not be done to Rocky. We need him to beat up terrorists and rich jerks for us. That’s what he’s there for.