Revisiting Rocky: A Look Back at Rocky Balboa

To read my previous review on Rocky IV – please click here.

To read my previous review on Rocky V – please click here.

To read my previous review on Rocky III – please click here.

To read my previous review on Rocky II – please click here.

To read my previous review on Creed – please click here.

If there is going to be a film franchise, the best idea is to never go above and beyond when a story is worn out.  That is why most of them end after a trilogy.  Stories are contained and memorable.  It’s what makes films like the Back to the Future series or the Godfather trilogy watchable time and time again.  I would even go as far as saying that the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films are watchable as a trilogy because even though the third film had more characters than needed, it got the job done by finishing and wrapping up the storylines that were introduced in the first two films.  Then, there are the series that go on well past their time (I’m looking at you, James Bond!).

So then, it should be no surprise that I was a little leery when it was announced that a sixth Rocky film was in the making.  Not only were they making another Rocky film, but it would be without the inclusion of Talia Shire (Adrian in the previous films) as the film would surround her death in between the time of the fifth and sixth films.  Not only that…but the film doesn’t even get to have a roman numeral in its title.  It’s not called Rocky VI…it’s called Rocky Balboa.  And how can you call a film part of a series when it doesn’t allow for a borrowed numerical entity of our beloved imperial Romans, especially since the film is about an Italian Stallion?  All my rambles about Romans aside, the point is I was really not sure if another film was necessary, but because the previous film had ended in a bizarre and strange way, I suppose this film needed to redeem some of what the Rocky series stood for.

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The beginning of the film introduces us to a now-widowed Rocky (Sylvester Stallone).  As in the first film, Rocky has his own traditions – talking to an Italian priest in English, feeding his turtles (Cuff and Link, oh how I miss yous!), and of course, visiting Adrian in a pet shop to tell her the worst joke of the day.  Here he lives alone again and again he is comforted by visiting Adrian, only this time around it’s her grave.  Visiting her as well is her brother, Paulie (the great Burt Young), who stands distant from the Balboas.  Paulie’s character here is great.  We begin to understand the guilt that has eroded him these past few years, as he feels guilty about the way he treated Adrian.  Paulie’s only way to get past it is to break free from it.  And while Rocky may need his brother-in-law with him as they share that bond of being Adrian’s two closest men in her life, he also knows Paulie best and understands he has to let him grieve in his own way.

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In Rocky V, one of the subplots involved Rocky’s relationship with his son, Robert (the late Sage Stallone).  In that film, Junior was slighted when his father helped Tommy Gunn and didn’t spend much time with him.  In this film, Junior (now played by This is Us’ Milo Ventimiglia) lives his own life with his own job, but has also lived in the shadow of his father’s ongoing fame, causing a fractured relationship between the two.  While not explicitly stated, it is not hard to see that Adrian’s death has caused a division among all three men in her lives, Paulie, Rocky and Robert.

This film is still a love story like the other films, even without Adrian.  Rocky’s devotion to his wife continues throughout the film.  The same kindhearted spirit that ran through Adrian is felt in the spirit of Rocky and how he treats others around him, including the patrons of his restaurant and the returning character of Little Marie (now just Marie – played by Geraldine Hughes).  The relationship is not one of love in the same sense as Adrian and Rocky, but one in which they both fill each other’s solitude and empty lives.  Just like Rocky, Marie is trying her best to make it as a single parent.  And just like Adrian, Marie is the shy girl who’s unsure about the outside world.  Luckily, Rocky is there to save her and get her a job.  (And Marie is there to let Rocky know that “Fighters Fight” in case he forgot…yes, it’s a cheesy line, but still better than telling someone that “if he dies, he dies”.)

There is, of course, a challenge in the form of Mason “The Line” Dixon (played once again by a real life boxer – Antonio Tarver).  This fight, however, doesn’t come from an opponent being picked out of a book, or one of revenge, or one where a boxer insults another boxer’s wife, or because they come from two different nationalities, or jealousy…no, this one comes due to a computer simulation brought to you by ESPN.  And because SIM Rocky defeated SIM Mason, egos are bruised and Rocky is asked to lace up his gloves again.

There are complications, though.  One, Rocky has to get licensed again, a problem since medical issues have halted his career ever since his fight with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).  But luckily, Rocky is around to remind the board of equality and the Bill of Rights and the pursuit of happiness.  The other obstacle is Robert.  Rocky, Jr isn’t too happy with the notion of having his father fight again, but his father has to remind him that selfishness will have no place in their lives.  In what is probably the most inspiring speech in the film series (and maybe even in film history), Rocky reminds him “it’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”  And then caps it off, reminding him he has a mother and not to forget to say “hi”.  Rocky the younger takes all this to heart and finally stands together with his father (because…hey…”fighters fight”).

And then we get introduced again to the unsung hero of pretty much every film, Tony “The Duke” (Tony Burton), who provides my favorite line of his – “Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs”.  And with that comes the music, the training and everybody standing up shadowboxing right along with it.

I want to talk about a couple other key scenes that involve our beloved Paulie.  Towards the beginning of the film, Paulie is the one who stands by him as Rocky explains what he’s feeling about his late wife.  He asks him to explain what is happening “in the basement” (you know, the “heart” of the matter).  And as Rocky and Paulie finally share a moment that is not filled with Paulie’s sarcasm, we understand what pushes Rocky towards all this confusion.  The scene pays off when Paulie is fired from his job and as Rocky follows him out of “Adrian’s” Restaurant – Paulie gets to provide that final inspiration for Rocky to set forth before his match – “You’ll be alright, Rock.  Because of the stuff in the basement”.

Of course, Paulie decides to get back to his unique ways by selecting Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” for the entrance song for Rocky.  The fight is the best fight since the first film, with great choreography and the ability to mix music and fighting and everything together.  At the end, much like the original installment, Rocky doesn’t care about the win or loss…he cares about the fact that he went the distance.  Rocky leaves to a standing ovation and the admiration of his friends and family.

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The last scene – the most poignant scene in the series – Rocky stands at the grave of Adrian.  And just like he’s done in every previous film, he gratefully acknowledges her, only this time in spirit.  “Yo Adrian, we did it.”  And as he walks away, it marks the final shot of the Rocky series…at least, I would have been happy with that ending (but instead his character lives on in the Creed franchise.).

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All in all, the film is beautiful and provides a more satisfying and impactful conclusion than the fifth film would have.  The Rocky story goes full circle with the Rocky-Adrian dynamic coming to a loving conclusion…and although more films follow (hopefully, one last one and that’s it), this is the perfect end to their love and relationship.

That is the reason why I’ve rated this film higher than Creed.  While Creed provides another element in Rocky’s life, this film allows every major character to get a credible finish.  Robert reunites with his father.  Paulie, despite being fired and losing his sister, is able to stand with his brother-in-law.  And Adrian, even in death, provides the strength that everyone needs.

FINAL GRADE:  A-

 

Where does this film rank in your opinion compared to the rest of them?  Do you agree or disagree with the fact that this film is needed?  Is it a proper ending to the series or do you envision it differently?  Hit me up with a comment again.  Next week, we are finally there.  My review on Rocky.