Vol. 2, Issue #5 March 30th - April 12th, 2007

DVD Review:
Rocky Balboa
By: Damon Blalack

Watching the familiar character of Rocky Balboa, dressed in the same dark clothing and pork-pie hat, yet thirty years older than the first time he appeared onscreen in 1976, is a bit of a touching experience for audiences that went to see this final chapter theatrically in December, or are catching up to it now on DVD. As with the best films, the music is a 50/50 blend of the total experience. Part of what made the original film soar was not only Bill Conti’s blazing trumpet-heavy inspirational theme “Gonna Fly Now”, but also all the small thematic touches he laced through the characters’ emotional journeys.

Who can forget Rocky tempting Adrian to come into his apartment for the night, the subtle music underscoring the tension that rides back and forth between them, as she fights nervous tension and uncertainty against the one-shot she may ever have at romance? Watching her, watching him; Rocky plying her with reassurances that he’s a nice guy and won’t bite; that he’s genuinely interested in her for who she is inside, not because he thinks she’s an easy lay for the evening. And all the while this tug-of-war is played out as much audibly as it is visually. This is part of the magic that became the Rocky mythos. It was this subtlety of the human condition that brought in 10 Oscar nominations the following spring, for which it won three, including Best Picture.

Though Rocky would journey into a super-heroic rise to stardom through the subsequent pictures of the 1980’s, and then fall from grace, returning to his blue-collar roots in the early nineties (in the unjustly maligned part 5), the drama was never as hard-hitting as it was in the first film. That’s not to say that the subsequent sequels lack merit, for the more fanfare-driven parts 3 and 4 are thrill-rides as fun now as they were in the heady early 1980’s, when America, and the rest of the World following by example, seemed on the brink of some new utopia. This spirit was led by our larger-than-life heroes such as Rocky Balboa, as embodied in increasingly more idealized visions of an evolving character, replete with punches in the ring that echoed the sounds of big guns, chains, and lion roars.

This eventual excess was a big reason I loved part 5, because it presented a visceral reality that the early 1990’s began to reflect: That maybe we’d all been deluded during the 80’s, and that global utopia was much further off than we’d anticipated. Our once-giant heroes had fallen like the best of us, and had to deal with day-to-day life the same as anyone else. Rocky was washed-up and broke, and his relationship to his son, as well as with the public, was tarnished; the way Rocky stood his ground with humility and self-respect by the end of that film made me root for him all the more. But so with that, the world bid Rocky Balboa, once a worldwide hero, adieu for good. Part 5 soured many people on what by then surely seemed a tired franchise, or at least one in which there was nowhere else to go. But as real-life down-and-out boxer George Foreman would prove, underdog stories can be repeated to great success.

Such was the inspiration to writer/director Stallone, who knew that Balboa’s fate was left in the mire. Surely a character that had helped inspire so many along the way, a veritable bastion of success and drive to everyone, from filmmakers (for Stallone’s rags-to-riches writing/acting success), to athletes, to children in their everyday studies, could surely return in triumph to be the classic underdog once again that he’d always embodied. And in this case it was truly working again from near the ground-up. Gone was the forward momentum that propelled sequel after sequel in the early days. By now the thought of a nearly sixty-year old Stallone revisiting a character that’d been left in the mud was a complete joke in the industry, and to a large extent, to the public at large. When rumors of such a return began to surface online circa 1999, jokes about Stallone’s age and doubts that he could regain his former glory began to swell on messageboards, and the future of the film seeing a lease on life looked grim.

But when all hope seemed gone (Stallone now more than half a decade older than when it was first proposed), it was suddenly reported that he’d acquired the necessary funding, and that the film would commence shooting December 2005. But would he redeem the character enough that a mainstream audience could love and root for him again? The happy answer is yes, and he’s offered up the best film of his career since the original Rocky. The fact that it didn’t garner Oscar nominations this time out doesn’t speak anything to the quality of the film; It’s a little-known fact that the studios have to shell out millions of dollars to nominate and advertise a film for Academy consideration, and smaller companies like MGM (its crazy one can now describe the former giant that way) aren’t willing to pony up those type of funds, particularly for something that’s a sequel. No matter how good the film is and that Stallone displayed class in going without a numbered title, Rocky Balboa is still at heart a sequel involving characters and situations people have partially experienced before; The Academy of Arts and Sciences rarely recognizes repeat performances, for usually justifiable reasons.

But what is heartening is the sheer amount of good-will the film received from most critics and audiences alike. Many people were undoubtedly wary of the film after Rocky’s sixteen-year absence, but word of mouth brought many to the theatre, and many more now finding it at home on DVD. The film portrays a true underdog story that inspires; it entertains, it provides food for thought, its main strength (like the greatest films) is that it focuses on character, not action, being more a meditation on the nature of aging than on boxing. But when that inevitable boxing match does come to a head, it’s logical, utterly realistic, and thrilling. Stallone cast a real-life former light-heavyweight champion (Antonio Tarver) for the protagonist role to keep verisimilitude in the ring. Though the fight was choreographed to a degree, the punches they trade in the ring are real, shot in real-time between rounds at a live Las Vegas Pay-Per-View event using the HBO team’s resources. It’s unbelievable that Stallone is in such great shape at his age (60), and he demonstrates it all the way.

On viewing the film a second time recently, I kept notice of what I reacted to best, already expecting the beats as they came. What grabbed me was so unexpected for a sequel: The little character moments draw you in close, and make you really feel the textures of Rocky’s Philadelphia. But the scene that affected me with the most weight? It’s when Rocky hesitates, nervous in asking “Little Marie”, the street-girl who chastised him in the first film but now a mother herself, if she’d like to join him on a date some time. In a clever role-reversal from the first film, we once again hear Bill Conti’s music swell with the two-note inner-heartstrings motif, very briefly, very subtly, but it’s enough to make the connection and make us feel goosebumps at his anticipation. We want him to succeed again, at all costs. When you can have such well-crafted moments such as this within the same film that offers a rousing scene that had live audiences chanting “Rocky Rocky Rocky!” during the final match, what else can you want in a film? Fans couldn’t have asked for a better or more fitting final chapter to bring closure on 30 years of the inspirational cinematic icon.

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