Well, we're at the end of my journey through the Rocky franchise as we get to the only Rocky movie that I've seen in the theatre, Rocky Balboa.
In the latter half of the 2000s, we got this trend where beloved film characters of the 1980s came back for one last hurrah. Bruce Willis gave us Live Free or Die Hard. Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford re-teamed for one last Indiana Jones. Hell, there was even a strong rumour for a while that the Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino was going to be one last go-around with Dirty Harry. But it all started when Sylvester Stallone decided to give us one more Rocky.
As the years went on, and Stallone and the Rocky fans grew continually dissatisfied with how Rocky V closed out the saga, Stallone started getting ideas together for another Rocky film. It's no secret that Stallone drew a lot of inspiration from real-life boxing stories for the Rocky saga, and I heard Stallone say that the genesis of a Rocky VI began with George Foreman coming out of retirement in the 1990s to reclaim the title. Stallone just started thinking, "If Foreman could do it, why not Rocky?"
Stallone was trying really hard to get Rocky Balboa off the ground for the first half of the 2000s, and I was reading updates on the movie gossip websites constantly. I swear, I just about knew the entire movie walking into it, because I'd been reading about it so much online over the course of five years. So, of course, when it hit theatres in the holiday season of 2006, I succumbed to the hype, and went with a buddy to see it.
It opened just as I'd been reading about for the past few years. Rocky lives a quiet life in his old neighbourhood. He's a man in pain, as he lost his beloved Adrian to cancer a few years earlier. He's growing apart from his son, as his son has been pushing him away, finding it difficult living in the shadow of such a famous father. Rocky makes his living as the owner of a little Italian restaurant called Adrian's, where he also works as the host, mingling with the patrons and sharing stories of his glory days. His best friend and brother-in-law Paulie accuses him and berates him for living in the past.
Meanwhile, over the world of pro boxing, things are not going well. The current champ, Mason "The Line" Dixon, is so dominant, that it's been ages since a true challenger has come along. Dixon is starting to be considered a joke, and he's starting to think it himself.
But things soon happen to bring the past and the present together, courtesy of ESPN. ESPN runs a special where, thanks to statistical analysis and computer animation, they have a match between Dixon and Rocky in his prime. The stats show that Rocky-in-his-prime would easily defeat Dixon. And this gets people talking. And it sparks something inside Rocky. So, Rocky decides to go out, regain his boxing license, and maybe step back into the ring.
I love the scene where Rocky meets with boxing commission to regain his license. When I saw it in the theatre, and read the reviews, I saw I wasn't the only one who felt that it was Stallone's way of directly addressing his critics as to why there should be another Rocky film. Hell, it could be a good summation of Stallone's career at that point. Even though Rocky's been given a clean bill of health, the commission refuses to grant him a license, simply on the grounds that they think he's too old and would get himself killed. Rocky gives 'em the ol' "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" speech, and the commission comes around. It is a good scene.
The news that Rocky might be coming out of retirement soon reaches Dixon's people. So, Dixon's people come up with a stunt that might help Dixon regain some credibility: Rocky vs. Dixon, in an exhibition match for charity. Rocky accepts, cue Gonna Fly Now, and strike up the training montage!
I've got to step out for a minute and once again highlight Bill Conti's music. He revisits a lot of the same, sorrowful, lonely piano music of the first film, and once again, it has that almost dream-like quality to it. And, I must say, after how it was ignored in #4, and only briefly revisited in #5, hearing Gonna Fly Now is like the return of an old friend.
I should also mention one of the bigger subplots. Adrian is gone, but, she always had a role to play in the Rocky formula. So, in place of Adrian, in this one we get Marie. Way back in the first film, Little Marie was the little girl that Rocky walked home, and tried to give her words of encouragement to rise above her station. Well, Rocky's prophecy, that if she believed that she came from nothing and would amount to nothing, came true. While wandering around the old neighbourhood, Rocky stops in at his old bar to find Marie, now a middle-aged single mother, working as the bartender. They strike up a friendship, and Marie almost becomes a surrogate daughter, and Marie's son a surrogate grandson. Rocky, big-hearted as ever, soon gives Marie and her son jobs at his restaurant, and once again starts giving them words of encouragement to rise above their station. Older and wiser, Marie finally starts believing it. It's a nice subplot, and could have used a little more development.
I think Dixon's subplot could have used a little more development, too, as he grows disillusioned with the fame and fortune that surrounds him, and in getting ready for his fight, he turns his back on it all, going back to his old trainer, and the old rundown gym where he got his start. In a quiet moment before the match, Dixon promises to go easy on Rocky, to which Rocky responds that he don't need it. Dixon is surprised as anyone when Rocky proves to be the contender that he craved all along. And when Dixon breaks his hand on Rocky's hip, allowing Rocky to take the advantage, he's surprised and delighted to find a true fight is breaking out.
Just like the first film, Rocky surprises everyone by being able to go the distance, but still loses by split decision. But Rocky doesn't care. Thanks to the fight, he's regained his self-respect, reconciled with his son, excised whatever demons of the past still haunted him, and visits Adrian's grave one last time to deliver his tradition, fight-ending line. "Yo Adrian. We did it."
Unlike all the other sequels, this one perhaps does the best of capturing the style and tone of the first film. It gets close to once again capturing that grit of being down and out and on the streets.
This ends the series on the high point that Stallone wanted. It does the best of capturing the feel of the first, and since it did have the ol' "one last hurrah" feeling over it, there was huge gobs of nostalgia hanging over it. It's a good one. And a good place to end it.