Talk about your split decisions. With Sylvester Stallone's iconic character back in the ring in Rocky Balboa, audiences will have to decide if they'll stick to their cinematic standards or if they're in a seasonal mood for giving. Many will fold their arms and laugh inappropriately at Rocky's age-sixty exploits, which include a frankly lazy plot, runaway nostalgia, and armfuls of bad dialogue—and I can't blame them. Rocky Balboa is certainly a bad film. But darn it, it ain't a half-bad movie.
Writer-director-producer-star Stallone's ultimate vanity project is the promised final chapter of a six-film franchise, and as Stallone tells it, to know his alter ego is to love him. He's a man of the people, shucking the jive with the folks at the fish market, ingratiating himself with the Hispanic kitchen staff, fielding enthusiastic yells of "Yo Rocky!" and signing autographs. It's no stretch of the imagination to assume that Stallone (who's been disingenuously referring to himself as a "has-been" on the press tour rounds) sees himself in much the same way.
Rocky's also distinctly a Philly townie. "You live someplace long enough, you are that place," he says. At the old champ's Philadelphia restaurant Adrian's, fans fawn over him as he repeats tales of bygone matches. Though Rocky's lifelong love Adrian has passed away, her brother Paulie (Burt Young) sticks by Rocky's side even as the big lug insists on haunting the couple's decrepit old haunts: the pet shop, the ice rink, the dive bar. "You're livin' backwards, Rocko!" Paulie eventually bellows.
When ESPN runs a "Then vs. Now" feature with a computer simulation pitting the Italian Stallion against Mason "The Line" Dixon (former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver), Rocky wins, but the fallout leaves Dixon's managers smelling the proceeds of a real-life rematch. On reflection, Rocky decides he's still got "stuff in the basement." Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes)—a.k.a. Rocky Jr.—isn't so sure that his dad going back into the ring is a good idea, in no small part because the younger man has yet to make a life for himself in the "big shadow" of his old man.
In every significant way, Rocky Balboa is the emotional equivalent of a TV reunion movie. It's job is nostalgia and wallowing in the wistful passage of time (poor Talia Shire takes a career hit: unlike her character Adrian, she's alive and well). Stallone wisely returns to the looser style of the 1976 original, directed by John G. Avildsen. From the opening title scroll of giant block letters—scored to Bill Conti's Rocky fanfare—to the ridiculous redux, shot for shot, of the "Gonna Fly Now" training montage, with twinkly piano filling every gap in between, Rocky Balboa sets out to prove its inane father-son exchange. Rocky Jr.:"It's a different world now." Rocky: "Only the clothes are different."
Add to the pot that Rocky Balboa seems as if it was entirely funded by product placement (a particular Vegas resort casino, a particular online gambling site, a particular cable network...) and we get to the million-dollar question: why should anyone see what sounds like a cynical, ego-driven piece of crap? Maybe no one should, but nostalgia is genuinely powerful. Though most of Rocky Balboa is laughably transparent, the old underdog architecture is still standing, and Stallone knows it. "It ain't about how hard you hit," Rocky insists. "It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."
This and other dime-store philosophies provide the much-discussed heart of the picture (I say much discussed as Rocky himself keeps discussing it: "the last thing to age on somebody is their heart"). The addled philosopher gets a number of self-affirming speeches in response to "hits" that he takes from the boxing commission, his son, Paulie, et al. It all works because Rocky, when taken seriously but not too seriously, is a great character that allows Stallone to act.
With the sluggish speech and shambling shuffle of a man who's been punch-drunk too often, Rocky seems roughly half-aware of what's going on around him: he's too good-natured and too dumb to know when to quit, whether in a sweet pseudo-romance with a neighborhood barmaid (Geraldine Hughes), with his son, or with his competitor in the ring. If seizing the day by pushing one's luck is a constant Rocky theme, Rocky Balboa narrowly escapes redundancy by also being about the sinking feeling of aging. In all respects, life imitates...art?