'Rocky Balboa' is the first Rocky sequel not to begin with a recap of what happened at the end of the previous film, as all others before it did. This differentiation probably makes sense since 1990's Rocky V, the last Rocky film in the franchise before 'Balboa' was an embarrassingly bad end to an otherwise entertaining, if shallow run of films. In the years since that last film, writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone has had a bad streak with his career, hitting a new low this decade. But just the way the story of the original Rocky from 1976 echoed the relentless pursuit of its writer to tell the tale of an underdog boxer given a once in a lifetime chance at eternal glory, the story of 'Rocky Balboa' bears more than a passing resemblance to Stallone's last ditch attempt at a revival.
The Rocky we meet in this sixth installment is a lonely man, whose age has caught up with his brute strength. Gone are his wife Adrian and the fighting days against opponents who were more super villains than sporting competitors. Running a restaurant named after his deceased wife, Rocky seems half content in greeting diners and fascinating them with stories of his matches or posing for photographs with their families. This tranquility is shaken up when the outcome of a computer simulation of a hypothetical fight between Rocky pitted against the present WBA heavyweight champion Mason Dixon, predicts that Rocky would win. Piqued by what he sees, reminded of his past and feeling distanced by his workaholic son, Rocky applies for a boxing license.
An offer to take on Dixon in an exhibition match is eventually made and Rocky agrees to the match – dubbed 'Will vs. Skill'. My description of the film is probably misleading because none of the exciting, Rocky type stuff happens till at least half way through the film. Because of this, for the first time since the original three decades ago, Rocky isn't a pugilist who also happens to be a human being. As written in this film, he is a full rounded character who retains the odd, quirky likeability of what made him so appealing in the first place. He isn't very smart (at one point, he refers to Jamaica as being European) or too proud; he is just a simple guy and this simplicity is winsome. Played by Stallone, he becomes a person, who we know, and whose past, accomplishments and loss we are now familiar with. When he meets up with little Marie (the young girl who snubbed him on the streets when he tried to help her in the original), it brought a smile to my face and sense of revisiting an old, lost friend.
Roger Ebert once compared Stallone to Marlon Brando and if that description seemed odd then, it becomes more fitting now, with the large presence of the actor, his gait and his fumbled speech. Stallone has always been a better writer than a director (he was nominated for the screenplay to the original), but here, in 'Balboa', he is able stage emotional scenes with engaging fights, probably because he has the advantage of honing his skills for the better part of the last 16 years. The final bout is such an absolute thrill to watch not only because we finally see a good boxing match featuring Rocky (the first since 1985's 'Rocky IV') but also because it is filmed to make us feel as if we were actually watching it on Pay per view, complete with sport statistics of each contestant, the obligatory commentary and a flashing timer for every round that we follow.
A review of this film wouldn't feel complete without a mention of the now celebrated Bill Conti theme music. We are made to wait and wait for it in the film and when it is played, in all its trumpeted glory, to the now expected montage of Rocky training hard and finally pumping his fists after climbing the steps to the top of the Philadelphia Art Museum, we know that this Rocky is a winner. Just the way that people love good underdog tales, they also love good comebacks. And if George Foreman could do it in real life, so can Rocky on film! - Faizan Rashid