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Sunday, December 31, 2006


This was the perfect movie to go out of 2006 with.

I haven't felt this good coming out of a movie in, Lord only knows how long.

No film in recent memory had me coming out of the theater feeling so upbeat and hopeful and affirmed with life as Rocky Balboa has. I saw it yesterday afternoon at the Grande in Greensboro and... it's just resonating with me on so many levels. It'll probably be days before I can really feel like I've completely taken it in.

I'm glad that Rocky V was made now. There were some things that I liked about that movie but it had problems: too many to justify it being the final chapter of the Rocky saga. Sixteen years later there is at last a sense of proper closure for this story. If there had been no Rocky V, there would have probably been no Rocky Balboa to go out on such a high note.

You are no doubt reading in a lot of other places that Rocky Balboa is a terrific "bookend" to the tale of Rocky Balboa, complementing the original Rocky from 1976. That is a great description of this movie. In fact, I would recommend watching Rocky before going in to see Rocky Balboa. You don't need to see any of the sequels (except maybe Rocky II). You just really need to know how Rocky got started, to appreciate all the little nuances to be found in this last round of the Italian Stallion's career. For instance, Rocky still has the two pet turtles that he had in the original movie thirty years ago. All the familiar places, like Rocky's old apartment and the meat-packing plant, are still there... though time has obviously taken its toll, as Rocky laments to Paulie while looking at the fading sign on Mickey's gym.

After the Rocky fanfare opens the movie (once again composed by original Rocky composer Bill Conti) we get introduced to Mason "The Line" Dixon (played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver). As the Rocky movies have famously done before, some parallels to what's going on in the real world are introduced. In this case, Dixon could be a metaphor for what has become of professional boxing. He's beating all of his contenders way too easy. As a result, pay-per-view outlets like HBO are getting tired of carrying his fights. They finally quit televising him altogether, because the field of challengers has become too stagnant. Dixon feels the need to be tested in a real fight: not just to justify his vast earnings but to feel like a worthy opponent in his own right. But no one is to be found...

Meanwhile, we find out what's become of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). The Italian Stallion is pushing 60, and his life is now bereft of the two things that most defined him: boxing, and Adrian. His beloved wife died three years earlier and he just can't let go of her. But he makes do as best as he can, occupying his time with running his restaurant – which he named Adrian's – and sharing stories about his days of boxing Clubber Lang and the other contenders. Rocky also has a relationship – albeit somewhat strained – with his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who feels that he'll never escape from his father's shadow. And as always, Rocky has brother-in-law and best friend Paulie, as Burt Young returns to the role that it just wouldn't be a Rocky movie without.

Two boxers: one at the top of his game but with nothing to satiate his hunger to prove himself, the other past his prime... but feeling something within – Rocky calls it "the beast" – that won't leave him alone. Then one night, ESPN does a computer simulation – or as Paulie puts it "the fake Looney Tunes fight" – between past and present boxers: in this case, Rocky and Dixon. The computer has Rocky beating Dixon. And almost immediately, the catalyst is at work that will drive these two toward confrontation. Rumors start flying and tongues begin wagging across the boxing world. That Rocky applies for his boxing license does nothing to stem the avalanche of interest in a real Rocky/Dixon bout.

Rocky Balboa makes us realize once again just what makes the character of Rocky so special: that he's a good-hearted guy who cares about other people. That hasn't changed in spite of what the years have done to the guy. At their best, the Rocky movies make us care more about the characters than we care about the inevitable boxing match. For me, one of the most delightful things to see happen to Rocky in Rocky Balboa is the friendship – and maybe becoming something more – that he strikes up with Marie (Geraldine Hughes). Rocky becomes something of a "big brother" to Marie's son Steps (James Francis Kelly III). We see Rocky get a dog from the pound. I like to think that through all of this, we see Rocky start building up a family once again...

And that's part of the heartmeat of what Rocky Balboa is. This isn't a movie about getting older and facing one's mortality, no matter what the press and hype might say. This is a movie about meeting life, however it is that you find life or where it is along its path that you are, and making the most of it. I have to wonder if Rocky even really thinks of his returning to the ring as a matter of age: this is something he has to do. And whatever good might be at the end of his quest, he wants to share with the people closest to him. That's a heckuva great outlook on life no matter how young or old you are. Personally, along with his original portrayal of the role in Rocky, I think this may be Sylvester Stallone's finest performance ever. It would be great to see him get some Oscar nods for this.

Mason "The Line" Dixon is the most believable opponent that Rocky has had since Apollo Creed in the first two chapters of the saga. Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago were for the most part cartoon characters... but given how those two were definitely products of the Eighties – a time when EVERYONE was a cartoon character – that's pretty apropos in retrospect. I really liked how Antonio Tarver handled the role.

Burt Young as Paulie: he made me smile every time he was on screen. Paulie was always one of my favorite characters in the Rocky movies. I couldn't help but laugh out loud when I saw him wearing the GoldenPalace.com hat to the match: that's just like Paulie, to probably sell ad space on his head for ten grand.

The fight cinematography in Rocky Balboa might be the best of the entire series. A lot of techniques that weren't available at the time of the earlier chapters are used here, including some great use of color-pass. I had thought for awhile that maybe for consistency's sake that some of the same style of cinematography that was used in the first Rocky movies would be used here, but that is not the case: this is a Rocky movie for the 21st Century, and that's a good thing.

So many good quotes coming out of Rocky Balboa. Like Rocky's speech about "the beast" within and how it needs a release, and his impassioned speech before the boxing commission as he's trying to secure his boxing license again. That great delivery by Rocky's trainer Duke (a very welcome return by Tony Burton, who along with Stallone and Young is the only actor to appear in all six Rocky movies) about how Rocky is going to have to compensate for his age by delivering "blunt force trauma... let's start building some hurtin' bombs!"

But the best line of the whole darn thing, that might not only capture the essence of Rocky Balboa but the entire Rocky series, is this from Rocky to his son:

"Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean, and nasty place an' no matter how tough you think you are, it'll always beat you if you let it. It ain't about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! If you know what you're worth, then go out and get what you're worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits and not pointin' fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that, and that ain’t you! You’re better than that!"
I don't know what else to say on top of that. Like I said earlier, this movie is going to be something that I'm going to be working my mind around for the next few days. Good movies should do that: they're supposed to make you laugh and cry and think a little. Rocky Balboa did all of those things, and more.

This may have been the best movie that I saw in all of 2006. And I can't wait to see it at least once more in theaters.


qemuel said...

Glad you enjoyed the film! I've been playing it over and over again in my head since I saw it, and I agree: ROCKY BALBOA is one of the best films of the year.

Happy New Year!

Anonymous said...

Great post... can't wait for Rocky 7