Stay down, Rocky
One last time in the ring is just plain embarrassing
There’s a scene in Rocky Balboa in which Sylvester Stallone’s long-retired Rocky is having a moment of doubt about whether he should be returning to the ring. A girl from the old neighborhood offers the simple argument that fighters fight, and all other logic goes out the window: Fighters fight. Rocky is a fighter. Stallone is Rocky. Stallone will fight … one last time. Does there need to be any more complicated reason for a man in his late 50s to get in a ring to trade blows with the current heavyweight champion?
If all that matters is that you hear those horns ("Gonna fly now!") followed by a training montage, and then a lovable underdog battling a jerky favorite in the final scene, everything else really is moot. Normally, to expect much more from a sports movie is silly. If you get to cheer on the good guy and see some thrilling action along the way, then hooray! But, even though I really wanted to root and cheer along with Rocky one last time, Stallone’s half-baked and confused writing/ directing made it almost impossible.
The basic story is that Rocky is now old, living alone in his old Philly ‘hood and deeply mourning the passing of his beloved Adrian. He runs a restaurant (called Adrian’s, naturally) where he relives his boxing days with customers, and he tries to keep up a relationship with the reluctant son who can’t live down being in the shadow of his dad’s accomplishments. Lots of pontificating on character and life by Rocky (and everyone he comes into contact with) coincides with glimpses of the current champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon, who is suffering public backlash for running up an undefeated record against the current sorry crop of contenders. A one-time “what if” simulated video-game match-up between Balboa and Dixon (played by Olympic gold medalist Antonio Tarver) shown on ESPN is all it takes for the promoters and the public to go wild, and before you know it, Rocky is getting ready to rumble once again.
The Dixon side of the narrative follows the antagonist-nurturing pattern of the previous films, and the Rocky side is, well, embarrassing. It’s just one scene after another of propping up the past, copping scenes, jokes and footage from previous films as Stallone tries to make a story out of it all.
We naturally get a climax in the ring. But the buildup has a weary-looking (albeit impressively muscle-bound) Stallone pointing us in the direction of his previous accomplishments in the series as if to say, “Remember the good times? Remember how much you like this stuff?”
The film does have a couple of things going for it. One is the obvious: It’s Rocky. Two is the soberly shot city of Philadelphia in the winter. From a snowy view from the top of those famous steps at the city’s Museum of Art to the cold, neglected, overgrown buildings in Rocky’s old neighborhood, the view is consistently melancholic and gray. The familiar setting, and a built-in nostalgia for the Rocky myth are two (out of a possible five, in the case of this review) compelling strengths that are pummeled by the film’s embarrassing caricatures, ridiculous plot and incessant speechifying.
It’s been 30 years since the original Rocky came out. Why not just re-release the original—a 30th anniversary special? Audiences would’ve still cheered, egos would’ve still been stroked and money would’ve been made. And, though it hardly seems a concern to those involved, dignity would not have come away so punch-drunk.