Sylvester Stallone will be the first to admit that, like a lot of real-life heavyweight champions, Rocky Balboa went from beloved underdog hero to a late-night monologue punch line, thanks to increasingly cartoonish sequels featuring the likes of Hulk Hogan, Mr. T., Dolph Lundgren and some hack named Tommy Morrison.
When it was announced Stallone was planning a sixth edition of the Rocky franchise, some 30 years after the original and a decade and a half after the last instalment, you had to wonder: Who was he going to fight, Joan Rivers?
Well, here's the good news for those of us who will always have a soft spot for the Italian Stallion: Rocky Balboa is not the embarrassment many expected it to be. It's actually the best Rocky movie since the original -- a fitting and triumphant final chapter for one of the most iconic characters in the history of motion pictures. Stallone (and original Rocky director John G. Avildsen) tried to take us back to Rocky's roots in Rocky V, but he was KO'd by his own corny and meandering script, and the charisma-free Morrison as Tommy "Machine" Gunn, the protege turned opponent.
In Rocky Balboa, written and directed by Stallone with relative restraint and great heart, Rocky is again back in the old neighborhood, but this time it feels like he's there as the consequence of a natural flow of circumstances. This is about where we'd expect him to be at this point. Not exactly down and out, but living the days of a man without urgent purpose. Rocky's in his 50s now, and he runs a nice little Italian restaurant named after his late wife, Adrian. (We see Talia Shire only in a few brief flashbacks.) There's a back room in the eatery filled with Rocky memorabilia from the glory days, and the Rock himself comes in most nights to shake hands with the customers, pose for photos and tell the same stories over and over. (And over.)
Remember Spider Rico, the ham-and-egger who battled with Rocky in that dingy gym during the opening minutes of the first film, the two of them slugging it out for a combined purse of less than a hundred bucks? He's more than a little punchy these days, but he's harmless, and Rocky makes sure Spider has a booth in the restaurant and a warm meal every night. (In a nice touch, Pedro "One Punch" Lovell, a knockout artist who once fought and lost to Ken Norton on national TV, reprises his role as Spider three decades later. According to IMDB.com, those are the only two acting jobs Lovell has ever had.)
Rocky's old friend Paulie is still kicking around the neighborhood, and Rocky's son (Milo Ventimiglia of the TV hit Heroes) is now a would-be businessman in his early 20s who loves his pop but is understandably weary of his friends bellowing "Rocky Junior!" when they're out on the town, and Philadelphians yelling "Yo, Rock!" at his father and taking pictures with their cellphone cameras.
Each year on the anniversary of Adrian's death, Rocky takes Paulie on a tour of the old haunts: the pet shop where Adrian worked, Rocky's old apartment, the site of the ice rink where they had their first date. One night, he even walks into the old tavern where he and Paulie used to hang out, and the 40-ish bartender tells him she used to be little Marie, the girl who told the Rock "Screw you!" back in the mid-1970s after he walked her home one night and tried to warn her about the mean streets. They strike up a touching friendship that might turn into a romance somewhere down the road.
As an actor, writer and director, Stallone handles all of these vignettes with just the right mixture of sentiment, humour and realism. For this reviewer, who remembers seeing the original Rocky multiple times as a teenager at the old River Oaks Theater in Calumet City, Ill., seeing Rocky reconnect with some of his old associates and revisiting the familiar haunts was a multi-layered serving of nostalgia. It was like a class reunion where past conflicts are forgiven and everybody remembers the good times.
Still, through all these lovely scenes, there's the 800-pound boxing glove in the room. This is a Rocky film, and Rocky has to fight, and how in the world are the 60-something Stallone and his 50-something alter ego going to pull this off without humiliation? By confronting the issue head-on.
When a video game fantasy matchup with the current champion (Antonio Tarver as Mason "The Line" Dixon, and you're right, that's a terrible nickname) shows Rocky coming out on top, the money men step forward with an offer for Rocky to fight the champ for real in Vegas -- in a controlled exhibition, of course. When Rocky accepts the challenge, the media experts call it a folly, and his son begs him not to do it. Even his old friend Duke (Tony Burton), who used to train Apollo Creed back in the day, says they're going to have to tailor Rocky's training program to account for his arthritis and other ailments.
If you think we're going to get one last training sequence and a rousing, bruising fight that becomes something more than an exhibition before the final bell sounds on Rocky's boxing career, you would not be wrong. Thirty years after Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed tangled on New Year's Eve in a bicentennial stunt that turned into the greatest boxing match of all time, the Rock exits the ring on his own terms. Yes, it's corny and improbable, but it works.