Boxing Balboa is not too Rocky
Thirty years and a lot of history has come to pass since Sylvester Stallone brought the iconic character of perennial underdog Rocky Balboa to our screens. Since then he has twice become world champion, fought over 80 professional bouts, beaten up Mr. T, helped to bring peace between Russia and America before retiring only to end up in a street fight with a loud mouth upstart. So when after 17 years since hanging up his gloves, Stallone decided to bring Rocky back for one last hoorah I was both excited and a little concerned. For me the "Rocky" films have been such a huge part of my life that I reckon I may have watched them more times than any other film in my collection. So even though a new one was an unsuspected bonus, concerns such as would Stallone be able to handle the fight scenes again? Would the story be just another rewrite of the first Rocky? And would it be a fitting climax to this wonderful set of films? Were running through my head. The answer, to be honest, is yes and no, as whilst I really enjoyed "Rocky Balboa" it initially left me in two minds as to whether or not this sixth outing was indeed the correct decision.
Having retired from the ring many years earlier and also having lost his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire), to cancer, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone - Driven) finds himself living off his past glories as he enthrals patrons of his restaurant with tales of his boxing triumphs. But when a TV stunt pits Rocky against the current Heavy Weight Boxing Champion, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), in a computer generated fight, the result is a win for the retired slugger, which reignites a desire inside him to re-enter the ring once more. When Dixon challenges Rocky to a one off bout, he has to push himself to once more prove that he is still a champ.
The story itself is a tale of two halves, with the first half being basically a slow trip down memory lane, covering many of the important events in Rocky's life. Whilst I completely enjoyed this trip down memory lane as Rocky revisited locations from mainly the first "Rocky" film, and we get to watch cleverly crafted flashbacks, I can not but help thinking that this reminiscing would alienate anyone who is not so knowledgeable on the "Rocky" films. Saying that it works amazingly well, not only setting the scene for what Rocky is up to at the moment but also helps to explain what Rocky has been up to in the interim years since retiring and the death of Adrian. Interestingly, the writing out of the character Adrian, Rocky's wife, gives the film a slightly different feel, allowing Stallone to flex his acting muscles rather than just his biceps, an area which was sadly missing from the latter "Rocky" films. Scenes between Rocky and Paulie where they are dealing with their feelings over the loss of Adrian really demonstrates that whilst Stallone is not a great actor he is capable of a lot more than many ever give him credit for.
One of the key elements to making this first half work is the introduction of 'little' Marie, a single mum who Rocky had escorted home as a young girl in the first "Rocky" film. Although not a direct replacement for the sadly departed Adrian, the character of Marie also adds an interesting dimension to the film as you are unsure as to whether their friendship is purely platonic, or whether it will progress into something more. Whilst there is definitely a romantic inclination to this story element, it is left slightly ambiguous as to what happens so that you are never entirely sure, which for me was the right decision as Rocky was so in love with Adrian that replacing her to easily with Marie would have spoilt the film.
Running in tandem with this story element is another between Rocky and his son Robert, who has sort of become estranged from his father as he tries to make a life for himself away from the shadow of his father's triumphs. Again this story element allows Stallone to flex his acting muscles in some touching scenes, but sadly they don't spend enough time developing it to it's full potential and it ends up in the predictable territory where you can guess the outcome a long time before we ever get there.
Towards the end of this first half, the film starts to build up some momentum as the nostalgia takes a back seat and the film focuses on the computer generated fight which reignites Rocky's love of boxing. Whilst I liked the idea of using the computer generated fight to link the two halves of the story I must admit to being slightly disappointed in the way it was used or more to do with the speed in which Rocky goes from being a restaurateur back to being a fighter. One minute he is watching this computer generated fight and then the next he has regained his boxing licence, through a passionate plea to the boxing licensing committee, and then we quickly ascend into the traditional "Rocky" territory of the punishing training sequence and the big fight. Every part of this stage of the film has not so much been rushed but more skimmed over, expecting the audience to take a lot for granted. I can appreciate that they were trying to build up the momentum of the film and they definitely achieved this, but part of me feels that they could have easily expanded on this transitional stage without spoiling the momentum, giving the audience a more complete film.
The second half of the film returns to the traditional and somewhat predictable "Rocky" storyline, with the choreographed training sequence and the big fight, but thankfully they have managed to add a new dimension to these elements making it a lot more interesting than initially expected. One of the main differences comes from Rocky being a lot older and in not such a great shape, forcing the usual over the top training sequence to be significantly toned down and far more realistic. What also works particularly well is the difference in styles between Rocky and Dixon, where as Rocky is purely a puncher, Dixon is a trained athlete which is really demonstrated in the big fight. The actual character of Mason Dixon is also a pleasant change from the norm, as where as in the past Rocky has been pitted against obvious villains in Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago and Tommy Gunn, the character of Dixon is pretty much a decent bloke who has suffered from being poorly managed.
One noticeable change to this side of the storyline is the realism of the big fight. In the past the fights have looked overly choreographed and a combination of fake sound effects and obviously missed punches have spoilt them ever so slightly. In "Rocky Balboa" they have taken a very brave step in using purely the sounds of actual punches and believe this or not the majority of the punches you see actually landed. This really did make the whole sequence much more effective and explains why for some of the scenes Stallone's face was extremely puffy and looked like he had over dosed on Botox injections.
One of my biggest fears when it came to "Rocky Balboa" was whether Stallone, who was 60 years old when he made this, would still be able to effectively play the part of the iconic boxer. My fears were definitely unfounded as Stallone looked in amazing shape and whilst obviously a lot slower than in the past managed to make it fit perfectly with the character of Rocky. As previously mentioned, Stallone gets to flex a lot more acting muscle in "Rocky Balboa" and whilst he maybe no Laurence Olivier this is one of his best dramatic performances since the original "Rocky". If I had one criticism is the fact that at times Stallone's face is rather expressionless which is more to do with the facial swelling from all the pre-film training rather than a criticism of his actual acting.
Also returning for the sixth time is the brilliant Burt Young as Rocky's brother-in-law Paulie, who in all reality is as pivotal to the "Rocky" films as Stallone himself. Other than getting older and slightly more cantankerous, the character of Paulie has changed very little and is still as funny as ever with his constant cynicism and constant put downs. What is particularly nice in "Rocky Balboa" is the relationship between Rocky and Paulie as they both share the loss of Adrian but in different ways, providing support for each other.
With the loss of Adrian, played by the talented Talia Shire, it was no surprise that a new female character would be introduced and in my opinion, the re-introduction of 'Little' Marie from the first film but also the casting of Geraldine Hughes was an absolute masterstroke. Trying to directly replace Adrian with like for like would have been a bad idea, so the character of Marie is quite individual, a single mum who having been dealt a relatively rough hand in life has got on with it. That is not to say there are some obvious similarities and a scene during the big fight sequence was a nice homage to one which featured Adrian from one of the earlier "Rocky" films. What is particularly charming about Geraldine's performance is the transformation of her character as her bond with Rocky grows, early on she seems quite insecure and a little down trod but by the end of the film the spirit of Rocky has helped turn her life around. What is also a really nice thing about the casting in "Rocky Balboa" is the use of non-actors, Joe Public, for many of the parts. From the casting of Antonio Tarver a professional boxer as Mason Dixon, through to the characters on the streets and in the bars, these people who have never acted before give a much more honest feel to the film which for me was a fall back to the rawness of the original "Rocky".
One of the charming things about "Rocky Balboa" is that it brings back values such as drama and realism which seemed to have been missing from the majority of the sequels. Writer/ Director Stallone and producers Winkler and Chartoff have done an exceptional job of giving the film and the characters a real motivation which helps drive the film forwards and away from being overly predictable, especially during the final fight. What is also very commendable is in the way they have mixed old with modern from the old footage to the trendy shooting techniques everything about the way the film has been made feels pretty much spot on. This includes the sound track which mixes the classic Bill Conti sound track with a variety of modern pieces giving a nostalgic but current audio presentation.
So did "Rocky Balboa" live up to my expectations? To be honest it did a much better job that I initially expected. For me the first "Rocky" film will always be the best but this does manage to come a close second and for me is a perfect final chapter worthy of the iconic character. Yes, the film is by no means perfect, most notably the nostalgic first half potentially causing alienation for those who are not overly familiar with the "Rocky" history, but for me, as a huge fan of the "Rocky" films, I thoroughly enjoyed this nostalgic trip, as well as probably the most realistic fight scene to have been included in a "Rocky" film.
Tags: Boxing Movies