“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.” Perhaps it was the beneficiary of low expectations…Still, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, however fundamentally formulaic at its core, proved a much more satisfying moviegoing experience than the first half of Monday’s double-feature, The Good Shepherd. I’ve never been much more than a casual Rocky fan: I was way too young to appreciate the first two, more nuanced movies when they came out, and have clearer childhood memories of Balboa trouncing cartoon boxing villains Clubber Lang (III) and Ivan Drago (IV) than I do of him going the distance against Apollo Creed. (Still, even when I was eleven, the Italian Stallion singlehandedly winning the Cold War in Rocky IV seemed cheesy, and Rocky V is, of course, best forgotten.)
Nevertheless, more a character study than an 80’s-style action flick, Rocky Balboa is — thankfully — a throwback to the early days of Philly’s finest, when the big lug spent more time just wooing the nerdy-cute gal at the pet store than he did wrestling Hulk Hogan and sorting out geopolitical wrongs. Here, we’re more often than not simply following a lion in — if not winter, than in really late fall — going about his day in the city he loves and searching for one more shining, meaningful moment before twilight beckons. And, I’m forced to admit: By the time Rocky gets his one last shot — the big bout that takes up the final third of the film — it would take a harder heart than mine not to be swept up somewhat by the ride.
As Rocky Balboa begins, we discover that the Italian Stallion has not only lost most of his money from previous films (Sorry, sports fans, Paulie’s ridiculous robot is seemingly no more) but also his heart and soul, Adrian, who has succumbed to cancer. Clearly still very aggrieved, Rocky spends his days wandering around he and Adrian’s old haunts with the still-vexatious Paulie (Burt Young), trying to establish a connection with his mildly prodigal son (Milo Ventimiglia, a.k.a. Heroes‘ Peter Petrelli), and recounting old war stories to bored patrons at his restaurant. Then, one day after reconnecting with Little Marie (Geraldine Hughes) from the first film (Spider Rico is kicking around too), Rocky gets a hankering to deal with his ghosts by fighting again. “Sometimes I feel like there’s this beast inside me,” he tells Paulie in one of the film’s more affecting monologues. “I’ve got stuff in the basement.” And, as it turns out, the money-hungry managers of the current champ — Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) — are looking to improve their client’s public profile by setting up a friendly “sparring” exhibition with a still-popular has-been…
You can guess the rest (except perhaps the ending, which I won’t give away here.) So, yes, the film is both predictable and wildly improbable, but somehow, it kinda works. Perhaps it’s because Stallone here seems to emphasize Rocky, aged and bloody but still unbowed, as an exemplar of the Philadelphia spirit, an historic American city that’s taken its share of knocks in recent decades — from deindustrialization to those woeful sports teams — but still keeps on keepin’ on. Or perhaps it’s because Sly, looking more beaten-up, bloated, and wounded than we’re ever accustomed to seeing him, brings a measure of pathos to his tale of one last hurrah just by showing up. Rocky Balboa isn’t one for the ages or anything, but it is very good for what it is — a schmaltzy but well-written and enjoyable piece of uplift and a worthy last outing for one of cinema’s most popular and enduring pugilists. In a surprise upset, the sixth and final round goes to Stallone.