When it was released to theaters last year, Rocky Balboa received generally favorable reviews, but even the kindest critic said it was pretty much a film for completists. If you’ve seen Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, and Rocky V (yes, there was a Rocky V), they said, you may as well go whole hog and see this one too.
Up until two years ago, I’d never seen any of the Rocky films. But I’d always been perplexed by the fact that the first had won the “Best Picture” academy award. Seriously? Rocky? It’s just a dumb guy boxing, right? As far as I knew, it was the stereotypical (or perhaps prototypical) “sports film”–lovable underdog with a lot of heart works really hard, experiences setbacks, overcomes obstacles, and, against all odds, wins in the end. Plus, it was written by Sylvester Stallone–how good could it possibly be?
The answer, I discovered when my curiosity got the better of me and I finally rented the thing, was: pretty goddamned good! It was not the slick and generic sports films I’d expected, based on what little I’d seen of Rocky III and IV. Instead, it was melancholy, gritty, and authentic through and through, as much about the means streets of Philadelphia as about the titular character.
Enjoying Rocky did not increase my desire to see the sequels. If anything, it encouraged me to steer clear. I had no desire to see the Hollywood Blockbuster I’d expected the first to be.
Flash-forward to last week when, for some inexplicable reason, I added Rocky Balboa to my Netflix queue and sent it to position #1. Frankly, I was just interested to see what convoluted rationale they’d use to justify a 60-year-old Stallone re-entry to the ring.
Imagine my incredulity when, for the second time, the Rocky film I’d been prepared to mock turned out to be not bad.
Rocky Balboa is written like a direct sequel to the original film, not as the sixth in a series. The events of Rocky II-V happened, but are mentioned only in passing. All you know (or need to know) is that, at some point after the events of the first film, Rocky won the title of Heavyweight Champion, held it for some time, and has long since retired from the ring. Though Rocky’s home is much larger than the amazingly tiny apartment he lived in for the first film, he is still a humble and modest guy, still resides in Philly, and still has Paulie as a best friend. Furthermore, the cinematography of the film is much closer to the rough-hewn Rocky than that of its polished predecessors.
Which isn’t to say that Balboa clears the high bar set by Rocky. There’s a lot of speechifying in this film, which mainly consists of characters shoring up one another’s sagging morale with rousing motivational speeches. The film occasional wanders over the line separating “paying homage to” and “just remaking” scenes from the original film–and routinely barrels across the line between “sentimental” and “schmaltz”. And Rocky’s son simply doesn’t work: the actor’s not that great, the character is ill-defined, and he comes across as little more than a plot element Stallone felt obliged to include since he’d existed in some of the prior movies. (Perhaps in recognition of this fact, Rocky essentially adopts a new son a third of the way into the film. And a dog.)
Still, watching Rocky and Rocky Balboa as I did, with a few years separating the screenings, was very satisfying. I bet it would be even more so if you saw Rocky back in the 70’s or 80’s, and didn’t bother with any of the sequels. It reminded me of the Before Sunrise / Before Sunset duology, with thirty years elapsing between the two films instead of 10, and the romance between a boxer and the Heavyweight championship title. (Cinephiles who bristle at the comparison are probably forgetting that the original Rocky had at least as much indie cred as Linklater’s film–perhaps more, as at least Ethan Hawke was a bankable star at the time of Sunrise’s release).
I wouldn’t recommend Rocky Balboa to everyone. But if you enjoyed the first, and were always more interested in the Rocky the character than in Rocky the franchise, you’ll probably be as pleasantly surprised by the final chapter as I was.