Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa
Burt Young as Paulie
Antonio Tarver as Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon
Geraldine Hughes as Marie
Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky Jr.
Tony Burton as Duke
A.J. Benza as L.C.
James Francis Kelly III as Steps
Talia Shire as Adrian
Pedro Lovell as Spider Rico
Ana Gerena as Isabel
Angela Boyd as Angie
Henry G. Sanders as Martin
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
A couple months ago, I had the pleasure of watching the “Rocky Balboa” trailer in Bryant Park in NYC, amongst a sea of fans waiting with baited breath to catch the original film that sparked a phenomenon.
Stallone was not a young guy in this industry when at 30 years old, he wrote a film about a two-bit boxer straddling the line between bum fighter and street thug, and he refused to sell the screenplay without getting cast as the lead. It was a gamble that paid off, and it made Sly a star. If he would’ve quit after that, he could’ve been an absolute legend, a contender if you will, but he didn’t. Stallone was never again as raw or vulnerable or intense as he was in that original film; there were shades of Brando (so they said) in that brief moment of time.
That’s not to say that every film the man made after that was crap (though you might say that about his output over the past decade.) There are popcorn gems aplenty with “Rambo,” “Cliffhanger” and even “Demolition Man,” but there was never a character that reached the audiences quite like Rocky Balboa.
Watching the successive films in this franchise is like a lesson in popular filmmaking during the era each was released. “Rocky II” was released during a new era of sequels–”Beyond the Poseidon Adventure,” “Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” “Damien: Omen II,” “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” “Jaws 2,” “Superman 2,” etc. “Rocky III” was squarely set in the middle of the excess of the Reagan ’80s, while “Rocky IV” couldn’t have been any more of a waning Cold War flick. (Bothhad MTV-style music montages.) “Rocky V” tried to touch base with its indie roots during the rise of indie filmmaking, and now? We’ve got “Rocky Balboa.”
The essence of the Rocky Balboa character is his underdog nature. He’s the king of the second chance (also the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and now the 6th chance) for a lower class guy from Philly with an upper class heart to win the respect of the three Fs: friends, family, and fans.
This time around, Rocky wants one last shot at doing what he loves, what he knows. He’s not interested in winning a title; he just wants to prove that he can still use what he’s got. Stallone took his age into account when writing his character again, and it goes beyond George Foreman territory, who was in his 40s when he made a comeback and won the title. Stallone himself is 60. To get a license to fight, he must face a boxing commission, where he’s also positioned as the underdog. He must convince this jury of non-peers that his pursuit of happiness should not be curtailed when he has passed all the proper physical tests and delivers a powerful speech. It’s not lost on Stallone that the Constitution was born in Philadelphia, and for me, it sent a message that it’s not a document to be bent and broken by politicians, but to be guarded and protected by the common man. “We the people”, folks! Don’t forget! This might be the most true patriotic film I’ve seen in along time.
On the road to “fighting locally”–in the trailer, they cut it off at “local” for some reason maybe to make him seem more anti-intellectual?–he’s presented with an opportunity. Of course he is. A virtual simulation of a past champ (Balboa) vs. a current champ (Mason “The Line” Dixon, played by real-life former light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver) has sparked interest in an actual fight between the two pugilist specialists. (The virtual fight is a nod to the computer “Superfight” between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.) Dixon is an unpopular heavyweight champ, which as Stallone knows, is not unheard of. Former ’80s heavyweight champ Larry Holmes had to deal with that, and he too had to fight an old, popular champ, a broken, on-his-way-out Muhammad Ali. Is Balboa going to take the fight and rise up to the occasion?
This time, it’s a different kind of fight though. Balboa doesn’t have a title on the line. He’s fighting his inner demons now that Adrian has passed away. He’s fighting to gain the respect of his son by showing him that “going toe to toe, saying ‘I am’” is a noble, human struggle. Dixon may be unpopular, but he’s not the type of villain that Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago were. They’re both fighting for respect and honor, and I think that’s part of what gives this film its good heart.
This is a good, solid, moral film. Stallone may not be the greatest writer in the world, but this screenplay is sincere in a way the previous four sequels have missed. It’s interesting that this film doesn’t have a number attached to it, because it might be the one true sequel to “Rocky”.
Rocky wouldn’t be Rocky without a good supporting cast. I think they won the lottery casting Milo Ventimiglia since “Heroes” has become a massive hit. He’s good as Rocky’s young businessman son, trying to rise out from under his father’s heavy shadow. Burt Young returns as Paulie and shows more depth and emotion than he’s shown since the first film (he was nominated for an Oscar, you might forget.) Geraldine Hughes is excellent as (Little) Marie, a character revived from the original. She completes a circle as the recipient of Rocky’s plutonic friendship when he comes across her path at dive bar and she reaches out to him in a low moment to remind him that “Fighters fight”. Another nice nod to the original is the return of “Spider” Rico (Pedro Lovell), who Rocky beat in the opening of the first film. Real-life boxing folks also appear in cameos and minor roles, such as boxing promoter Lou DiBella, Mike Tyson, and HBO commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant and (my personal hero) NY-public-access-guy-turned-broadcaster Max Kellerman.
The Bottom Line:
I’ve always felt that at its core, the soul of “Rocky” was romance, not boxing. Well, I think Stallone has revived that romance. Rocky fans will not be disappointed.
The Rock’s back. Bill Conti’s music’s back. (How can you not get excited by that fanfare?!) Philly’s back. “Rocky Balboa” is a knockout!