CULT CORNER: Rocky Balboa (2006)

Rocky’s journey comes to an end in this triumphant final chapter. 

Who made it?: Sylvester Stallone (Director/Writer), Charles Winkler, David Winkler, Robert Chartoff (Producers), MGM/Columbia Pictures/Revolution Studios.

Who’s in it?: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, A.J. Benza.

Tagline: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

IMDb rating: 7.2/10.

Due to the decline in quality across the Rocky series, in addition to the lengthy period of time since Rocky V, the notion of a sixth Rocky movie seemed scoff-worthy. Yet, against all odds, 2006’s Rocky Balboa proved the naysayers wrong, as Sylvester Stallone (serving as writer, director and star) managed to deliver a heartfelt and entertaining conclusion to the long-running series. Generally speaking, the Rocky sequels were more concerned with Balboa, his nemesis and the fight, but, to conclude the franchise, Stallone dialled back the excesses to recapture the bygone gritty milieu of the 1976 original. Rocky Balboa is a character study concerning the titular character, and the boxing match feels more like a footnote. It is a great pleasure to report that Stallone found an ideal way to bring Rocky back to ground level, while additionally providing the fist-pumping and goosebump-inducing moments that made the series so enduring.

A widower of many years following the death of his wife Adrian, the fifty-something Rocky Balboa resides in his Philadelphia hometown where he spends his time running an Italian restaurant (named Adrian’s – of course!) and telling stories of his glory days to patrons. After seeing a computerised boxing bout between himself in his prime and the current heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Rocky’s interest in the sport is suddenly sparked again and he plans to start fighting in local clubs. Meanwhile, the computerised battle suggested that Rocky would win the match by knockout, which inspires Dixon’s greedy promoters to begin planning the real deal: an exhibition fight between Rocky and Dixon. Despite the odds being firmly stacked against him, Rocky eventually agrees to the match.

Soon enough, the film enters the land of training montages and “hurting bombs” as Rocky prepares for battle. These sequences are a cornerstone of the series, and they’re highly satisfying in this particular instalment. Following about an hour of well-paced character development and dramatic growth, the strains of Bill Conti’s exceptional “Gonna Fly Now” begin to blare. I defy any audience member to not cheer or find their senses roaring to life as they watch Rocky jog up the front steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the final time. And, of course, the climactic fight still stirs the soul. In fact, the bout could be the greatest in the series; evincing a more refined, mature sense of realism and emotion than prior Rocky films. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that, for the first time, just about every punch you see is real.

Rocky Balboa does an incredible job of taking us down memory lane and reminding us why we loved the original Rocky so much. Stallone returned the series to its roots in an effective way, with the tempo being slowed down to allow for character development and with gentle, poignant moments depicting Rocky as he deals with age and loss. These scenes are incredibly affecting. Whilst Rocky Balboa is formula with a capital F, this works in the film’s favour. After all, it would be silly to try and improve or update the formula (Rocky V tried and failed). Fans of the series wanted to see Rocky being put through the motions one last time, proving that heart, sweat and decency will forever trump ego and fancy workout equipment. TheRocky series has always been about the power of the human spirit as embodied in the title character, and Rocky Balboa continues this tradition. The only flaw with the film is that character behaviour seems perfunctory here – Rocky’s decision to get back in the ring feels more at the convenience of the script, whilst Rocky’s son (Milo Ventimiglia) deciding to come around feels undeveloped and rote.

In Balboa, Stallone pulled off some of the best acting he has ever done. His portrayal of Rocky is warm and nuanced, which serves as a reminder of how good the star can be when he cuts down on the machismo and doesn’t let vanity pick his roles. Aging has also helped Stallone humanise the character – his work was imbued with heart and soul, and he regained sight of what originally made Rocky such a cultural phenomenon. This is the same Rocky we knew and loved in the 70s – he’s not very bright, but he is a generous man who’s not good at hiding his emotional pain. While writing the script, Stallone also inserted elements of his own personal philosophy, revealing his hurt at once being so highly regarded for his work before being mercilessly torn down by the same system that once celebrated him. This is exemplified most notably in a monologue Rocky delivers at one stage to his son. It’s a poignant speech, and it’s one of the most affecting moments in the entire series.

In the supporting cast, Burt Young is his usual gruff self as Paulie, and Tony Burton is solid as Duke. Young, Burton and Stallone are thus the only actors to feature in all six Rocky films. Ventimiglia is believable as Rocky’s son, while Tarver pulled off his role of Mason with just the right amount of arrogance.

Rocky Balboa is not a gimmick, nor is it a last-ditch attempt to capitalise on the profitable series and earn a few bucks. Instead, it’s an excellent, warm, engaging film, and far better than it ought to be. Stallone couldn’t do much with Rocky except take him to the same places we’ve seen before with predominantly the same results. Yet, the film has heart, and the character has finally returned to his affable self once again. Rocky Balboa is as strong as the original film, and a fitting requiem for one of cinema’s most popular heavyweights. If the series had ended with Rocky V, it would have remained a joke. With Rocky Balboa, Stallone has given the icon a proper, dignified burial and told a genuinely heartfelt, entertaining story in the process.

Best Scene

The final montage. Sniff.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Sylvester Stallone was actually knocked unconscious while filming the final fight scene.
  • According to Stallone, Carl Weathers wanted a role in the film, even though his character Apollo Creed had died in Rocky IV. Stallone refused, so Weathers refused to grant Stallone permission to use archive footage of him. The brief clip of the fight between Rocky and Apollo was recreated using a body double.
  • The computer simulation fight was based on The Super Fight (1970) which pitted Muhammad Ali against Rocky Marciano. Every possible scenario was considered and filmed and the computer decided that Marciano would win in the 13th round. When told of the result, Ali retorted “that computer was made in Alabama.”
  • The very last scene to be shot was Rocky’s sprint up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Stallone purposely left this shot until the end because he knew it would be such an emotional experience due to the iconic nature of the scene, and he felt it was a good way for him to say goodbye to the character. As he puts it himself, “that run is the distillation of the entire Rocky experience.”

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