Rocky Balboa is a sad, somber and good little film. It is often thoughtful and sensitively directed; a gentle giant, “with the big shadow”. Like Rocky himself, it’s not too bright, but with a good heart. Personally, I find it amusing that what is considered an afterthought by the moviegoing public becomes the best film in the series for 30 years. Then again, Rocky always worked hardest when no one believed in him – the tone of writer, director and star Sylvester Stallone’s picture is entirely that.
Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is the respect-clamoring champion with a reputation for fast knockouts and upsetting sports fans. Does he have a heart worthy of respect, asks the film, in a sly bash at the current state of heavyweight boxing – mired in mediocrity. A TV sports programme provides a hilarious CG-based computer simulation, forming a thin bridge to support the plot. The champion’s promoters devise a publicity stunt to bring the 34-year-old Dixon and 62-year-old Philadelphia folk-hero Rocky together in an exhibition match. It’s implausible, to say the least. It gets better – although there is still much to cringe at.
Seventy per cent of the movie is an, often gooey, reminiscing session, simple dialogue and acting – but is certainly some of Stallone’s finest work in front of the camera. His Rocky is inarticulate, passionate and lovable. “You live in a place long enough, you become that place…” Love of his life, Adrian died several years back, and there’s a hole in his heart that he can’t quite fill – even with his friends, family and work. He meets Little Marie (Geraldine Hughes) – and they share old memories of the neighbourhood and childhood insults. “Good insults last a lifetime”, Rocky grins.
Bill Conti’s music, gently reinforces themes from the previous films. The training theme is lightly arranged and used as a feast for Rocky Jr. He is a corporate man, too busy plugging numbers and trying to make a name for himself to spend time with the father. A restaurant – named Adrian, naturally – comes complete with Rocky telling stories of past glories. And of course, Adrian’s irascible brother Paulie and Rocky bicker.
Director Stallone rejects the overblown slickness that marred the later installments, most notably Rocky IV – ugh! – preferring to deal in the beating hearts among the grime and crumbling streets – a modestly sappy undercurrent runs throughout. The scene in which he takes Marie’s boy – Steps – under his wing, taking him to the dog pound, in lesser hands would reek of saccharine. But here it flowers using nothing more than belief and heart.
It is in the conversations about the past with Paulie, Marie and Rocky’s estranged son in which the material really works and demands to be heard. Rocky and Junior’s relationship has a pleasing arc and Marie’s platonic friendship gives the film a little dramatic weight – the lack of sexuality is a refreshing turn, and enhances their scenes together.
The movie is a collection of memories folded together like a house of cards. If it wasn’t quite as tacky, it would be delicate, sensitive and easily damaged. The film feels both undernourished and overlong – as though subplots were cut for time, and others stagnate without their presence.
Clark Mathis’ photography is full of blooming lights, high-contrast and light colour bleaching to lend the film a gritty melancholy reality. That is, until the inevitable fight itself, whereupon HBO high-definition photography takes over, and Sean Albertson’s editing helps give the film a heavy rhythm. Modern filmmaking tools kit out Rocky with digital intermediate effects a la Sin City – with it’s black and white interspersed with stark colour, and unsubtle sound mixing. It’s well done for a fight scene. Or as philosopher Rocky would put it, “It is what it is”.
Rocky Balboa does not disappoint when it comes to the staples of a Rocky picture – the hard-earned training (raw egg chugging and knuckle meat-tenderisers are welcome, present and correct) and thrilling fight footage – this viewer was shocked at shuddering in pleasure as the crowd bellows the familiar “Rock-eee, Rock-eee”. It also leaves no doubt that this is it, the final shot cements the welcome closure.
The first real surprise of the year wins on points, and heart. Just try not liking the big ol’ hunk of muscle. I dare ya’.