Sunday, December 24, 2006

Rocky Balboa

Perhaps the world didn't need a 60-year-old "Rocky Balboa," but as the closing chapter (hopefully!) on this American saga, I did, and I'm mostly glad Sly bothered to make it.

When both "Rocky" and "Rocky II" came out, when I was respectively 6 and 9 years old, I was simply too young to appreciate just how good they were. I'm not ashamed to admit that "Rocky III," with Hulk Hogan, Mr. T. and all the rest of its craziness, was just perfect for a 12-year-old, and it remains a favorite after all these years.

By the time "Rocky IV" hit, I was absolutely certain that I was too cool to stick with it, so even with James Brown on board I didn't. And "Rocky V"? I still, after at least three attempts, can not make it through this cinematic abortion.

So I at least needed "Rocky Balboa" to take me back to the heights of the first two, which I grew to truly appreciate, and it mostly succeeds at that.

The first hour or so is indeed very similar in tone to "Rocky," but this time we have the aging former champ as a widower who owns a restaurant named after his late wife. Just how far he's fallen from grace hit home for me in one scene where he's describing his former glory days to the patrons who gather to hear him each night. It reminded me in all the best ways of Paul Newman's heartbreaking performance at the end of "Requiem for a Heavyweight." Adding to this is Bill Conti's always-welcome "Rocky" score, which floats through the background as a soft piano piece.

And in this too-long-by-a-bit opening chapter, we meet Geraldine Hughes as "little Marie," who we first encountered as young girl in "Rocky" but who's now a beaten-down barmaid and single mom. Rocky of course takes up the cause of helping her, and the two have a natural chemistry that just worked for me. Keep your eye on this still-rising Irish star.

There are, however, at least two major flaws in this portion of the movie. The first is Milo Ventamiglia of TV's "Heroes," who is supposed be Rocky's yuppie son but just adds nothing to the movie. What are supposed to be two touching back-to-back speeches from father to son and vice versa, as Rocky confronts him about his empty life, makes for easily two of the most cringeworthy minutes you'll see on screen this year. (As an aside, however, it did make me think back to Milo's days on "Gilmore Girls," when Lorelai tells Rory she's only attracted to Milo's Jess because "he's seen too many Sylvester Stallone movies." Very funny stuff.)

The second big flaw is that we're given no real reason for Rocky to get back in the ring. The surface reason, a computerized simulation of how he would fare in a fight with the current champ played by Antonio Tarver, I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would. Though it's a shamefully whorish plug for ESPN, it's also a very funny statement about just how far celebrity and reality TV have tainted the world of genuine sport, and how we probably won't ever recover.

But it gives us no real reason for Rocky to take this bait. He doesn't need the money, and we never really feel that he even needs it for his ego. There's some business between Rocko and the always-welcome Burt Young about how this fight will finally let him let go of the crushing memory of Adrian and move on with his life, but that's just pure hokum.

Rock's training regimen is thankfully kept to one montage, and there's only one moment when I felt he really was just way too old to pull this off. It's a quiet one, when Marie comes to visit him on the eve of the fight. In this scene, you can see the arthritic veins just popping out of his shoulder, and it's just gross.

That said, however, you come to see a "Rocky" movie for the big fight, and that's where this one definitely delivers. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will say it's all filmed with flair by Stallone, who has definitely learned a lot in his many years of making these flicks.

The tension is kept high throughout the "exhibition" match between Rocky and champ Mason "The Line" Dixon, and it's the kind of savage ring action you just don't get to see much anymore, and I'll always enjoy. One other thing I enjoyed is that Tarver plays the champ as the spoiled brat all the way to the end, and you can see in his face that he learns absolutely nothing from his encounter with Rocky.

So, in the end, I was glad I gave Rocky this final chance. Despite its flaws, it's a fitting end to the story, so let's just hope it really is the end. You have my solemn promise that I will never again climb in the ring with Rocky after this flick, and that I will not be going to see "Rambo VI: Pearl of the Cobra" (no, I'm not making that up) in 2008. Even a fanatic has limits.


penoi said...

this movie is still not being showed in my country.. but im looking forward to see this final punch of rocky...

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm sure it will be showing around the world, soon, penoi .. there's just no way Rocky isn't determined to conquer the universe

Anonymous said...

I've heard there's a heartbreaking ending.

Reel Fanatic said...

I wouldn't quite describe it that way, Emma, but it does wrap the story nice, hopefully insuring there won't be another one!

Anonymous said...

The Milo storyline is definitely the weakest part of the movie. It feels a little rushed, and not as polished. It feels like they were dealing with time constraints, maybe scheduling conflicts. But I think the material has a lot more resonance when one considers that Stallone has a similar relationship with his own son. It's actually, from what I understand, even more hostile then the one portrayed in the movie. I really think that he's reaching out to his real life son in some of those speeches. (Who actually appeared in Rocky V.) In any case, it's a surprising film, and a fitting end to a classic character.

Reel Fanatic said...

I didn't know that about Sly's own son, Ray ... that would indeed make it more interesting, but I still say, as you echoed, that the fictional storyline was poorly handled at best

Anonymous said...

A funny story I was reading about Rocky Balboa. It is amazing how some people are influenced by loving the older movies.