Hello again everyone and welcome to the second edition of Jason Reviews A Movie. We kicked this off a few months ago with Saw III and I, at least, enjoyed it, so we’re going again.
Just a reminder, these reviews consist of three parts. First, I’ll give you my general thoughts, spoiler-free, then I’ll rate the film from * to ****, then you’ll get ample Spoiler Space, after which I’ll get into a bit more spoilerish detail.
So, with that in mind, we turn our thoughts to the latest, and last, chapter in the pulp saga of an American pop icon. Yo, I speak only of one man...
I re-watched the first five Rocky movies within 96 hours of sitting down in a packed theater to take in the new one, so I was well refreshed in the champ’s legend and lore. That being the case, I was able to appreciate all the reference Rocky Balboa makes to the first film as it attempts, as Rocky V did, to bring the man and his story full circle.
Fortunately, it won’t take a third try; the second time’s the charm.
It’s been 16 years since we last saw former two-time World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa and the new film makes some attempt to inform the gap. Five years after he left backstabbing protégé Tommy Gunn bleeding in the gutter, Rocky opened an Italian restaurant, and might have lived happily ever after, if not for the death of his beloved wife Adrian in 2002. Rocky Balboa opens with the ex-champ (writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone, looking like Sin City’s Marv without benefit of prosthesis, and that’s a good thing) touring the scenes of his and Adrian’s greatest moments with brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) reluctantly in tow. For Rocky, time has flown too fast. Paulie is just marking it.
Elsewhere, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia of NBC’s Heroes) tries as desperately to get ahead in his corporate job as he does to make sure everyone calls him Robert.
Meanwhile, the current heavyweight champion of the world, Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life pug Antonio Tarver), finds the pickings, and the Pay-Per-View paydays, slim. Boxing fans turn on him following one too many Mike Tyson-esque PPV walks in the park.
Enter ESPN who, through computer simulation, pit the aimless Dixon against Rocky Balboa in his prime. The result, a surprise to some, sees The Italian Stallion cross The Line and leave the champ lying. One thought immediately surges to Dixon’s handlers’ minds...
And so the stage is set for The Big Fight. Before he gets there, Rocky will have to sort out his relationship with his son, negotiate a new one with a neighborhood single mom (Geraldine Hughes), and figure out how in the world a 60-year old former punching bag will stand toe-to-toe with the current World Heavyweight Champion. For the last, he calls on Duke (Tony Burton, along with Stallone and Young, the only actor to appear in all six Rocky films), Apollo Creed’s old corner man, who devises yet another new strategy for Rocky to get the job done. I’ve always appreciated the effort Stallone’s scripts put into giving Rocky a new style of opponent to which he must adapt.
That’s the How of the fight covered, but what’s the Why? Rocky’s not fighting for the title this time, nor is he really looking to prove he can still do it. I’ll leave it to Rocky to explain to you why he’s climbing back into the ring. He does a better job than you might expect and the reason is more personal than ever.
I had a lot of fun with Rocky Balboa, mostly due to Rocky himself. Stallone is as magnetic here as he was in the original Rocky; this is a man you like and want to know. There’s a ton of heart and soul left in the broken-down hulk of Rocky’s body. It’s this part of the man, not his flying fists, that rivets the viewer more so than in any previous Rocky film.
Likewise is Stallone the director working with more passion than in past series outings. There’s a bit more flash here, especially when we get peaks into Rocky’s head during The Big Fight.
Completing the triple threat, Stallone the writer gives us texture, both in Rocky’s world of Philadelphian decay and the people it crumbles around. Paulie, as lovable a misanthropic screw-up as he ever was, has a few moments of genuine tenderness. Hughes brings a quiet desperation to her role of a lifelong urban prisoner who dare not wish for more than survival. Even Mason Dixon gets a hint of humanity, elevating him above the one-dimensional boogeymen of Rockys III through V.
You’re not going to see the bounds of cinematic art tested watching Rocky Balboa, but you will get a solid, earnest story told with a knowing sense of humor and a respect for its characters. It's a fitting valediction for a worthy, heroic character who has helped his fans believe in themselves as they believe in him.
Rating: * * *
and, for reference...
Rocky: * * * ½
Rocky II: * * *
Rocky III: * * ½
Rocky IV: * * ½
Rocky V: * * ½
I’ll see you back here next time for Jason Reviews a Movie.
Various ESPN and HBO personnel play themselves, adding to The Big Fight’s authenticity. Larry Merchant is not a Rocky Balboa fan.
In addition to Duke (whose full name, we learn, is Tony “Duke” Evers), a few other characters from Rocky lore return. One is The Italian Stallion’s first on-screen opponent, Spider Rico, in an extended cameo.
One character I did not miss, perhaps surprisingly to some, is Adrian. I think it was a good move on Stallone’s part to use her death to help drive the story here and, let’s face it, Rocky loved Adrian a lot more than we ever did. Talia Shire’s performance grew more overwrought with each film.
The Big Fight bookends the series nicely.
Even during The Big Fight, I didn’t think Rocky Jr. really “got it”. I’m not sure if that’s a deficiency in Ventimiglia’s performance or a nuance of Stallone’s script.
Clubber Lang (as a studio analyst) and Ivan Drago (bed-ridden and dying of AIDS) were, at some point, rumored to return for the new film. They don’t.