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REVIEW: Rocky’s first words are, “Time goes by too fast,” and right away sets the necessary tone. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is long retired from boxing, his career a memory for most. He works as the owner and storyteller at a small but successful Italian restaurant where he goes table to table recounting famous bouts with patrons. He looks weathered, tired, but mostly happy. Adrian has passed, dying from cancer four years earlier, having only his grown son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) as family. He even reconnects with an old familiar face, “Little” Marie (Geraldine Hughes), the troubled girl he tried to steer to the right path thirty years earlier on the tough streets of Philadelphia. She owns a small bar and has a son who soon looks to Rocky as a father figure. But times are hard. Rocky is haunted by the past, the strained relationship he has with Robert, who is trying to become corporate, and with how much times are changing. But mostly he longs for Adrian. The days pass, unforgiving.
Meanwhile, in the boxing world, a new champion is making a name. Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is undisputed and winning over the world as a charismatic and entertaining fighter that has fans angered as he seems to have no opponents who can match him, blaming him for fighting in mis-matched bouts. Naturally, as happens with all great athletes though, comparisons are made, and when ESPN broadcasts a computer simulated video of a fight between Mason and Balboa (in his prime), Rocky comes out on top. This fires up the champion and incites some angry debates, but in the suburbs of Philly, inspires an aging fighter to quietly return to the ring. When Rocky applies for his license, news breaks and Dixon promoters approach him for a charity bout in Las Vegas in hopes of elevating Mason’s spiraling public image. The two eventually agree and the media storm around it pits the “has-been” Rocky against the current champ’s lack of credibility.
Written and directed by Stallone, Rocky Balboa is the ending the character truly deserves, giving Rocky a far better closure than that of the previous entry. Stallone, if you’ll forgive the phrase, doesn’t pull any punches, and addresses his age and physical condition throughout without letting it drain the story of realism. Old Rocky stand-by Tony “Duke” Evers (Tony Burton), Creed’s former trainer and series regular, points to Rocky’s arthritic hands as an issue, so concentrates on brute strength and mass as the best defense. It really humanizes Rocky and truly strips away the cartoon invulnerability he had in the Rocky IV and V. Stallone does right by keeping the nostalgia at a minimum and concentrating more on relationships and endings rather than on mining the audience for memories. There is nothing forced about this film and moments feel rich with authenticity, almost as if we are watching Sylvester Stallone’s story rather than his pugilist alter ego. For those who grew up with the fighting hero, it hits with stinging honesty, and forces our own personal reflection. When it all comes to an inevitable, but thrilling end, Stallone challenges us to think about ourselves, time, heroes, winning, and much more. It’s a triumph in Stallone’s career, and the perfect bookend to a story about going the distance.
Scene Setup: The fight with Dixon doesn’t have everyone excited. Robert is especially against it and tries to dissuade his father from getting back into the ring. What’s more, Robert is feeling suppressed by much of life’s opportunities, living in the “big shadow” his father casts. Rocky has had trouble connecting with his son the past few years, and with Adrian gone, is feeling he needs more time with the last of his family, but Robert always seems uncomfortable, a little distant.
The Scene: Outside Adrian’s restaurant, Rocky and Robert meet and Robert confronts his father about the hurdles he’s faced in his life because of his family name. He tells his father that he doesn’t have to fight anymore, but Rocky says he does. This prompts Robert to admit that it’s not easy being his son. People see him but think of Rocky. He’s gotten everything in life only because his name is Balboa, and it hurts. He’s just now starting to be recognized for himself, his own accomplishments and this fight, which puts Rocky and the Balboa name back in the media, is only going to end badly, first for Rocky because of his age, and for him because once again he is lost in the deep shadow of the name. But now it won’t be for the winning it will be for the joke that he’s become, the washed-up has-been who’ll get trounced in the ring. This defeat will have profound effect on Robert and he’s angry that Rocky doesn’t seem to care.
Rocky answers this by telling him he remembers when he was small enough to fit in his father’s hand and that when he was young, he was always a strong kid with a lot of heart. But somewhere along the way, the boy changed and when life got hard he looked for something to blame, including a big shadow. He tells him that world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, that nothing hits harder than life itself, but it isn’t about how hard you can get hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. He raises his voice and tells him that pointing the finger at someone else for why we fail is what cowards do and he’s better than that. He’ll always love his son, but he’s never going to get what he wants in life if he doesn’t start believing in himself.
For the first time in the series, Rocky gets “the speech,” the always there motivating moment in the movie, and he delivers it with as powerful a punch as anything he’s given in the ring. In every film prior, it has been someone motivating Rocky to find the strength, typically his wife, but at last, Rocky gets his turn and even more refreshingly, it has nothing to do with boxing. Like the previous film, “the speech” comes at night in the wet streets, and just as convincingly. Stallone is simply remarkable here, his gruff aged voice raw with what feels like absolute genuine emotion. Is he talking to Robert, to himself, or to all of us? Earlier, when the Boxing Commission declined his license renewal, he gave a stirring speech about being denied a right, saying that if you’re willing to go through all the battles to get to where you want to get, who has the right to stop you? It won him his chance. This feels like an extension of that speech and is incredibly effective. It’s not punctuated by any of Bill Conti’s already motivational score, but just Stallone’s impressive oration. It’s truly moving.
In the film, Rocky says, “The older I get, the more things I gotta leave behind.” Never has a line in the Rocky film meant so much. Here, Rocky leaves behind the wife he loved, the career he had, and the memories of his triumphs. But through it all, he keeps moving forward. So as we say goodbye to Rocky Balboa, we must take the hits that life gives and keep moving forward . . . oh wait, what? He’s not done yet.