Beating the Meat, One Last Time

The Stallion delivers a solid blow to latest opponent Mason “The Line” Dixon’s northern colonies.
Rocky Balboa
Dir. and writ. Sylvester Stallone; feat. Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Milo Ventimiglia, Geraldine Hughes, Antonio Tarver (PG)
Be honest. When you first heard another sequel to Rocky was being made, the first thing you thought was, “Sylvester Stallone is desperate for a comeback.” Right? This was probably followed by, “What’s next, a sequel to Rambo? Oh wait, they’re doing that one, too? Sonuvabitch, Stallone is that desperate.” But here’s the thing: No matter how desperate Stallone might be, no matter how much his career deserves your ridicule, the writer, director, and star of Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment in the franchise, doesn’t deserve as much of it as usual this December. This might be the first time in cinematic history in which the fifth sequel to anything made critics (like this one) feel obligated to defend it from the rock-bottom expectations they
themselves — and OK, three really bad Rocky sequels — created. Long story short: “Go see Rocky Balboa. Really. No — really. This isn’t a joke. Stop laughing.”

Whether you can believe that or not, it’s still true. Rocky Balboa recaptures the spirit of the original and, for the first time since Rocky II, feels like a Rocky movie that belongs in the series. In fact, this is the Rocky III that should have been. When the DVD box set containing all six finally drops, take III, IV, and V and sell them on eBay — or, even more appropriately, smash them with Hulk-like vigor and pretend like they never happened. Rocky Balboa, from here on out shall be, forevermore, the concluding episode in the Rocky trilogy that never was.

Clearly, for the latest installment, Stallone had no choice but to make his aging pugilist, an underdog again — which, of course, was the element that made Rocky such a vital movie about hope during the cynical, Vietnam-scarred ’70s (and which role the character fit perfectly in the original, kind of fit in II, and didn’t fit at all in the remaining three). But not just an underdog with something to prove, which would have packed about as much dramatic punch as a Mike Tyson biopic. Here, Rocky has lost his beloved Adrian to “woman’s cancer” and, trapped by the memory of her, can’t find the courage to face the final third of his life. He’s got demons eating him alive, and the only way he knows how to exorcise them is to do the one thing he’s always been best at: fighting with his heart until nothing is left. Luckily, there’s a heavyweight champ who lacks heart, but loves his bling. He’s a younger, albeit less interesting Apollo Creed.

There are other plotlines, too: Rocky’s son has a chip on his shoulder, there’s a possible love interest, Burt Young’s Paulie still has anger-management issues … but Rocky’s determination to survive is the heart of the story; the concluding fight is just a metaphor for how he’s going to do it. Rocky Balboa won’t erase the memory of Rocky V, Tommy Morrison, and that stupid street fight, but it will go a long way toward making up for it. Honest.


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