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REVIEW: As with every sequel in the series, the beginning is the previous film’s end. In flashback, we watch as Rocky (Stallone) comes from behind again, this time defeating the big Soviet fighter, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Problem is, after he’s secured his heavyweight title status, in the locker room, Balboa starts to feel the effects of the beating he took and can’t stop his hands from trembling. He wants to call it quits. They fly home and at the press conference, before Rocky can even explain his retirement, boxing promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) steps up to the lectern and presents the still healing boxer with a challenge: fight the up and coming star pugilist Union Cane (Michael Williams) for the championship in Tokyo. Despite the offer, Rocky declines and heads home.
Once there, he discovers that Paulie (Burt Young) had mistakenly signed over power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant, who, while the Balboa’s were in Russia, lost their money on bad real estate deals. Worse, the accountant never filed property tax payments on the house for six years and Rocky now owes $400,000. The Balboas are broke and the only way out is to fight, but when he goes to the doctors, they tell him he’s got brain damage and won’t be able to acquire the license to return to the ring. Instead of revealing his injuries, Rocky officially retires and accepts the bankruptcy, urged by his ever present wife, Adrian (Talia Shire).
This puts him back to the hard streets and in the old neighborhood. From storage, be dons his old black leather jacket and the famous matching fedora and reopens Mickey’s Gym. Life is simple but happy, until he meets young and hungry Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) and sees potential in the scrappy boxer. He trains him and gets him better and more challenging fights, all the while, neglecting his real son, Rocky Jr. (the late Sage Stallone). Then, when Gunn begins to impress, promotor Duke shows up and tempts the boy away from Balboa with a shot at the title, which Gunn takes. The betrayal is hard for Rocky, and almost inspires him to get back in the ring when no one takes Gunn seriously without facing a true champion.
Written by Stallone but directed by John G. Avildsen, returning to his Academy Award winning role from the original Rocky, the film has a strong sense of nostalgia and does well putting Rocky back in the setting where he made his name. Loaded with callbacks to the first entry, things seem almost like old times as we return to the gritty streets where Rocky got his start. Well, gritty might not be the right word. The 70s are over and it’s the beginning of the 90s so we get hip-hop versions of classic Rocky anthems and lots of acid-washed denim. Still, there’s some great moments where the film allows some of the heart of the original to seep back into the old story. There’s also a nice change to that old story, with Rocky out of the ring the entire film, something that did not go over well with fans. He does have one fight, but it’s on the street and impromptu, stripping away the much beloved montage, which is actually a welcome omission. What the film attempts to do, and mostly succeeds at is dealing with the limitations of age and the consequences of years taking hits to the head (something covered even better in the next film) but fails to go where the series has carefully led its character, where Rocky must meet his ultimate end. Much maligned, the film is not nearly the disaster that its reputation has garnered and features some well-crafted bouts, and a much better performance from Stallone than the last two entries.
Scene Set-Up: Tommy Gunn, under the old-fashioned, Mickey-inspired training routine has climbed the ranks and showing that he can be a contender. Rocky wants to get him there the right way, through the proper fights, earning his way to the top. Duke however, ever the louse, looking for big paydays, thinks he can put Gunn in the ring with the reigning champ, Cane, who got the title after Rocky stepped down. Too young to understand the game, Tommy sees dollar signs and decides to leave Rocky, saying, in an off-handed way, that Rocky lacks the smarts to lead him to the ultimate win. Rocky pleads with the boy to reconsider, to listen to the experience and trust him to get him where he needs to be, but Gunn isn’t having it and abandons Balboa in the street.
The Scene: (Timestamp 01:13:37): As Tommy drives off, Rocky has a kind of seizure that rings in his head and blurs his vision, forcing his knees to buckle. Adrian arrives and pulls him aside. She holds him and tell him to let Tommy go, but Rocky can’t shake the fury. He put everything he had in the young fighter and watching him in the ring was like being in the ring. He’s not stupid like the way people think he is. He hates living back on these streets and losing all the respect. He fires up a volley of contempt and bitterness for the breakdown of his life and calls himself the one thing he believes everyone thinks he is: a bum.
Adrian isn’t having it. She fires back that he’s not alone and never has been. When he was in the ring taking those beatings, she was with him every time, always by his side. Rocky didn’t win those bouts because he had muscle. He won because he had heart, and Tommy has no heart. Mickey knew that about Rocky and that’s why he took him in. She understands that Tommy represents a second life for Rocky, but that if he really wants to pass something on, it should be to his son, who is feeling lost. Tommy may make Rocky feel like he’s winning but he’s actually losing his family. She breaks down and falls into his arms, the words choking in her throat.
Once again, Adrian shines. What’s so effective about this moment is not that Adrian motivates Rocky to get back in the ring as she has so often done but instead for him to fight for himself and the family he is losing. This is truly the core of all her speeches in the film series, but here, it is particularly moving as we get the sense that his is the end for him, and she carries the weight of all those bouts on her heart, fearful each time for her husband’s life. Talia Shire is simply mesmerizing in this all to brief but remarkably powerful moment. Shire has never had the focus that she deserves in this franchise but has been a staple from the beginning, always reliable to come in the third act and get Rocky back on track. But there is something deeper in this moment that has a simple, genuine quality to it. Shire, having been Adrian on film for fourteen years, really carries the weight of those years well. In this highly-charged exchange she reveals a depth we haven’t seen before, that isn’t aimed at inspiration but rather revelation. It is profoundly good.
Stallone too, is at his best, harkening back to the very first film and the rage he had against himself as Mickey (Burgess Meredith) came looking to represent him. He feels not only like he’s failed himself and his family, but the people in the city who look up to him. The crushing burden of being the hero for so many and ending up back where he began is more damaging than he initially lets on and now that he’s lost what he thinks is the last chance to feel like a winner, he collapses internally.
Often forgotten, Rocky and Adrian are one of cinema’s greatest romances, lasting through five films and fourteen years. It’s easy to forget how much the first two films really were about the love between the streetwise fighter and the introverted pet shop girl. When Rocky calls out her name at the end of that first fight, he didn’t want to share his triumph with anyone else but her. Only Adrian. She was all he needed. And here, as the his career ends and they stand in the street in a poignant embrace, their futures uncertain, he reminds himself, and us that it has always been them, he and her. They are what matter. That is truly the real story of Rocky.