Rocky Balboa (2006) — A thrilling comeback

“It ain’t about how hard you hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Justin’s rating: I wanna be in the nursing home that this guy lands in.

Justin’s review: When Sylvester Stallone announced that he’d be dusting off his most famous alter ego for one last movie run, the world united in a brief moment to call him stark raving mad. Then the world went on killing each other over political cartoons as it liked, and Sly made his movie anyway. Cynics claimed that he did it for a buck, for one last shot at his former glory, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt and saying he did it for all those things but also because he had a story he wanted to finish, and finish right.

It’s hard to imagine any movie following Rocky being more of an underdog tale, but Rocky Balboa surprised us all by doing just that. There’s all sorts of weird symmetry going on with the series here, making Rocky VI a perfect bookend to the series in a way that Rocky V failed miserably.

Exactly 30 years after Rocky released to win the Best Picture Oscar, both Rocky and Sly Stallone are facing old age and a world telling them that their time to shine is up. While ageism as an issue doesn’t get the recognition of sexism or racism, it’s still a blatant prejudice in the movie industry that women over 40 and men over 50 (with few exceptions) are “used up” and must make way for the sleeker models that roll off Hollywood Blvd. We’ve got some weird thing against seeing older people taking on starring roles, but if Rocky Balboa teaches us anything, it’s that old people still have a good fight left in them, and that ugly dogs named Punchy are welcome in upscale dining establishments.

In the fourth decade of the franchise (!), Rocky is far past his prime and facing the scary prospect of his golden years filled with nothing but nostalgia. His wife Adrian is dead and his son flinches away from his dad’s residual fame. As Rocky runs a quaint restaurant, where he entertains his patrons with boxing tales, the current heavyweight champion Mason Dixon is somewhat grouchy that the fans seem to despise his lack of real competition. When ESPN runs a computer simulated boxing match between Rocky (circa 1976) and Mason (circa 2006) — projecting Rocky as the winner — Mason champs at the prospect of beating up an old man for his lunch money. A few convoluted plot twists later, and Rocky shucks his walker in exchange for some more punishment in the ring.

What surprised critics and audiences alike (including me!) is that Rocky Balboa proves that Rocky has the power to still charm and captivate us in ways that current action stars lack. It’s a good film, an interesting film, and genuinely moving. It’s also got a senior citizen beating the snot out of a young whippersnapper, and that appeals to me greatly.

I shouldn’t be shocked, however. Although I didn’t anticipate it going into this six-film marathon, Rocky isn’t so much about boxing as it is about… well, Rocky. I spent a lot of the time watching the last movie paying attention to his character and trying to dissect what makes him so compelling.

First, Rocky is a genuinely nice guy. For a man who’s into debatably the most manly of sports, he’s got a manageable ego and genuine concern for those around him — even his opponents. Heck, I kept expecting him to kill Paulie since movie two, but here he still extends forgiveness and friendship to a guy who keeps spitting in his face.

At the beginning of the series, I found his personality somewhat off-putting — he kept cracking dumb jokes, talking far beyond the point where most people would’ve gotten the hint and shut up, and pushing his nose in where others don’t want it. But that sort of thing grows on you, and you can see the effect on those around him. He’s an old fashioned nice guy, a role model that people like Marie from the first Rocky should’ve listened to instead of ignoring. Speaking of Marie, she’s back as a down-on-her-luck grownup who Rocky once again extends a helping hand to get her off her feet. It doesn’t quite degenerate into a romance, but more like Rocky playing big brother to all the downtrodden in Philadelphia.

I also greatly admired Rocky’s (and Stallone’s) constant display of faith in the series. It’s nothing blatant, but it’s always there, from the themes (forgiveness, redemption), to Rocky’s prayers before every fight, to the priest he gets to bless him on occasion. In Balboa, Rocky confronts his son with such a terrific speech about fighting on when the world is pounding you down, and it made me think of the biblical analogy of being spiritual warriors under constant assault.

Finally, nobody can deny that Rocky’s got heart. Sure, he may be too easily goaded into every fight that comes his way, but here’s a guy who doesn’t deny who he is, who stands his ground when others would’ve fallen, and who never shies away from a challenge. The end fight might be a little contrived and littered with flashbacks galore, but it got me nonetheless, making me cheer for this stodgy Italian as he refuses to go quietly into that good night.

I give in; I’m a Rocky convert now and always.

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