Rocky Balboa is the sixth and final installment of the “Rocky films.” It was written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, who stars the title character. The movie co-stars Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, and Milo Ventimiglia. The final film in the Rocky saga shows Rocky, well past his prime, in an exhibition match that gets out of control.
The movie opens with Mason “the line” Dixon (Tarver), the current heavyweight champ winning a title defense match. Mason is not well liked by boxing fans. In fact, he is an unpopular champ. He is, in a way, a victim of his own success. His fights are seen as “fluff” matches, because his wins are quick and ferocious. In fact, the boxing world is fed up with his quick slaughter of unworthy opponents, and he’s accused of purposely only getting in the ring with people he knows can’t handle his punch.
Dixon is taken aback when ESPN broadcasts a show titled “Then and Now,” hosted by Brian Kenny. It portrays a computer simulation of a fight between Rocky Balboa (in his prime) and the current heavyweight boxing champion, Mason Dixon. It is likened to a modern-day version of The Super Fight, a simulation between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano that took place back in 1970. In the Balboa-Dixon simulation, Balboa is predicted to have won KO13, a fact that riles the current champion.
Rocky, for his part, is now a widower. He owns and runs a restaurant named after his wife where he delights fans with stories from his prime. He still has a good relationship with Paulie (Young), but his relationship with his own son (Ventimiglia) is somewhat strained. Robert is trying to make his mark in Corporate America, but cannot get out from under the shadow of his father, a fact that has him irked.
Rocky is still a hero in his Philadelphia neighborhood and still has fans who remember his amazing accomplishments. It’s not an exciting life for someone like Rocky, but it’s respectable. He slowly starts to come out of his self imposed funk when he helps “Little” Marie (Hughe) and her son get back on their feet. He meets Marie in a chance encounter at a bar while walking the old neighborhood reminiscing. “Little” Marie is the girl from the first Rocky film who he told to stop smoking. She responded by saying “Screw you, creep” something she denies when meeting Rocky again.
Marie starts working for Rocky as a hostess at his restaurant, right about the time Paulie gets fired from his long-standing job at the meat packing plant. It is Paulie who puts on ESPN when they broadcast the “Then and Now” special. The special stirs something inside Rocky. He tells Paulie it is a “beast” that has been there since Adrianne died. This “beast” fuels his desire to get back in the ring.
Stallone doesn’t play Rocky like he’s superhuman. Rather than grandstand, he has crafted Rocky Balboa to be an honest portrayal of an athlete in his mid-50s who is trying to make a comeback. His only desire is small, regional bouts, but he gets sucked in to an exhibition match that is the brainchild of Dixon’s promoters. Rocky is hesitant, and you see the conflict of the character on the screen. The decision to fight in the match is not something he takes for granted or decides on a whim, and you almost feel the weight of the decision with the character.
The fight is classic Rocky. Stallone hasn’t forgotten how to make a boxing match look good, how to suck his audience in and make us sit up in our seats in nervous anticipation for our hero. He does right it, too. He makes no bones about his age, or his physical condition. In one scene, before the fight, he tells Dixon, “It ain’t over til it’s over.” Mason disparagingly asks, “What’s that from, the 80s?” To which Rocky replies, “That’s more like the 70’s actually.”
Rocky get pummeled early on, but he is able to draw on that same inner strength that has come to typify the series and gives as good as he gets. However, and what felt a lot less formulaic, was the mental place Rocky goes to summon up his courage. Here memory plays as strong a role for the character as it does the audience. Throughout the flick, quick snippets of flashbacks from the rest of the series are employed to remind us of the thirty years of history that have gotten us here.
As has been proven time and time again, America loves its underdogs. Stallone understands this and this is the driving reason behind why people will go see Rocky Balboa and why critics are already giving it excellent marks. In a lot of ways, this is the film that is the first true sequel to the original. The films in between were all burdened with Rocky being the champ (with the exception of part five, which was burdened with a ridiculously bad script)—removing the impossible odds factor dramatically.
Sure, each film could trot out a seemingly unwinnable fight for Rocky to triumph in, but the character wasn’t coming from the places he’d had to rise above in the original. In those sequels, Rocky was a manufactured underdog. In Rocky Balboa he’s in the same boat he was in thirty years ago, only older, more world-weary, and with the understanding that boxing isn’t about dishing out abuse but how much you can take.