Rocky Balboa & Rocky: A Dual Review/Retrospective

About two months ago I picked up the original Rocky film on a special edition DVD. It sat on my shelf of “movies to be watched” for about….well…. two months. Surprisingly, as many times as it’s aired on TNT and other channels, I’ve never taken the time to real sit down and watch the entire film as it’s meant to be seen. Like everyone else, I had seen so many scenes of Sly hitting meat in a frozen locker or yelling for Adrian after the fight in a pool of blood and tears. And who could forget the most famous scene in a sports movie ever — the morning run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Actually, I probably had seen the entire film — just in pieces. Like my own Tarantino director’s edition of Rocky.

As I watched Rocky for the first time — I mean, truly watched the film — I was amazed at how much I had seen before, but didn’t actually see. The film opens on a shot of an image of Christ. OK, so no big revelation — lots of folks would get that trivia question right. But there’s something very significant about that opening image of Christ. In my eyes, there is a lot of Christ in watching Rocky in that early movie. For one thing, Rocky would bring honor and dignity to the city of Philadelphia, but much like Christ the savior who came to make all things new, those who saw Rocky before he entered into a rigorous training regiment didn’t see him as anything more than the tough guy in the neighborhood with the good heart. Never did they think that this would be the guy who’d go to Russia and for one moment get the world to stop thinking about the nuclear arms race and the U.S. vs. Russia and instead to focus on our humanity and what makes us alike as opposed to our differences.

More than this, I see a strong parallel between Rocky and the Christ spirit that lives in him in the way that he relates to other characters. When most of us see the first shot of Talia Shire in the pet shop, I’m sure we all saw the same homely woman that the director wanted us to see. But Rocky saw something more. The same applied to the way that he saw beauty in pets and animals that interacted with. There was something compassionate about the spirit of a guy who would listen to some of Pauly’s hurtful statements, yet wouldn’t take advantage of his obvious size advantage. Not to mention the compassion he showed to the debtor whose fingers he was supposed to break, but couldn’t bring himself to do so. Rocky’s not perfect. He’s a tough guy who works for the neighborhood loan shark (and, although we didn’t see him do so, probably had to hurt a few people to pay the rent.) But despite these things, when you watch the dichotomy of his character — the big tough boxer who’s tough enough to track down loans, but so soft in heart that he has to mull over what he should say the next time he sees Adrian — you can’t help but fall in love with his spirit.

I’m not ashamed to say that even after all these years and after having seen those famous scenes from the first film at least fifty times that I got a bit emotional at the end of my first viewing of Rocky recently. If you ask the average person what the first film is about, they’ll probably tell you it’s a tale about the undefeatable, never say die, courageous American spirit. They’ll talk about the long hard road to winning the championship. And in training and putting the work in to get what you want. And they’d be right. It’s about those things and so much more. But the real message of the movie — at least the message that I took away — was that winning truly isn’t everything. The real victory comes in setting a realistic goal and then meeting that goal despite your fear of defeat. Many people don’t recall the fact that in the first film, Rocky doesn’t win the fight. And they also don’t remember that the first time Rocky goes out to train in on those Philadelphia streets that he didn’t make it up those stairs with triumph. He barely made it back home. But when you watch the entire film and you realize that it took intense training and desire and courage to train hard enough to eventually make that run through the Philly streets and still launch up those stairs. And when I reached the end of the film and saw how after coming so close to winning the fight, losing to Apollo Creed wasn’t even important. What was important was that he showed up and put his heart into the effort. And as I watched Rocky realize that after you meet your goal and after you go the distance — even in defeat — that the most important thing is being able to share it with that special someone (“Adriaaaaan”); well, that should be enough to make even the hardest tough guy show a bit of emotion.

Rocky was an incredible film in so many ways and it will always have a place in my heart (as well as the hearts of millions of other fans.) So it was with a bit of hesitation that I decided to risk tarnishing that beautiful image and watched Rocky Balboa. After having watched the horrible mess that was Rocky V, I almost wanted to forget that yet another sequel was being made. But Sly won me over and convinced me to see the film — and in the weirdest of ways. I listened to the director’s commentary of Rocky (which was recently recorded for the 30th anniversary of the film’s release). Listening to Sly Stallone talk about how much of his heart and soul went into trying to get this movie made and hearing him describe the image that he was trying to portray of Rocky Balboa as a person spoke to me. It showed me that even now — after all of those over-the-top (pun intended) sequels — he still understands what made the original Rocky so special. And with that, I decided to put Rocky Balboa in the Netflix queue. (I was moved, but not so moved as to spend $9 to see this thing.)

I think it’s important to talk about the first film because Rocky Balboa is really a tribute to the first film, and the first film alone. Each of the sequels takes the film in a different direction and arguably take the Rocky Balboa character further and further away from his true humble everyman nature. And Rocky Balboa makes no secrets about it’s desire to make itself a tribute to the original film. Rocky revisits old sites from his first scenes with Adrian and meets characters that we met along with him back in 1976.

In the plot, we see a fifty-something Rocky who has managed to keep the hearts of his fellow Philadelphia neighbors but who still loves Adrian and who wonders whether he has that one good fight left in him. Talia Shire isn’t officially in the film, but without spoiling key ploy pieces, I thought it was incredibly creative and classy the way that they dealt with her character. The film tries so hard to honor the original film that it even tries to mimic the pacing of Rocky. However, for Rocky Balboa, this slow pacing doesn’t really work, as we already know that Rocky is a good person. Much of the original film’s slower pacing helped build humility into the character. In this recent film, I appreciated the nostalgia, but if you aren’t a big Rocky fan, the early groundwork can prove to be a bit boring.

Antonio Tarver was pretty weak in his portrayal of the fictional character “Mason Dixon”. It would have been a much more emotion filled movie if they’d have gone with a completely unlikeable idiot. Tarver’s not horrible, but he manages to evoke no emotion, and this leads to the final fight having a lot less momentum that it could have otherwise. Poor casting decision if you ask me.

Actually, none of the supporting cast members are even slightly memorable (with the exception of Burt Young, who was born to play the role of Paulie). They cast gives a pretty weak performance, but we forgive it because we know who we’re really there to see – Rocky himself — Sly Stallone.

Speaking of Sly, this was a bit difficult to watch. The plastic surgery that he’s had was incredibly visible as you watch the film. His eyebrows and his skin looked very odd — particularly when contrast against other characters like Burt Young, who see to be letting themselves age much more gracefully. But I must say that Sly gives hope for every many heading into his 60s as his physique looks incredible. It’s inspiring (and also a bit embarrassing for some of us) to watch a man that old be in such good shape. But I must say that I could have dealt without the increased resolution that BluRay offers when I saw close ups of Sly’s face (sorry man — you know I love ya, but it was tough.)

The plot isn’t at all cohesive. It’s all over the place. In trying to be a tribute to the first film, it goes out of it’s way for the sake of nostalgia and at the expense of a plot that doesn’t make you feel as if you can get up and go to the bathroom at any time without missing much.

One very positive note for the film was the way that the actual boxing match was handled. The filmmakers elected to go with HBO as a partner to try and recreate an actual “big fight feel” and boy does it work. A few times I forgot that I was watching a movie. From the moment that we get to Las Vegas to the moment that Jim Lampley and Larry Merchant hype the fight in front of the ring, this has every production effect that a real-life Pay Per View boxing match would. I promise you — watch the first round of the match next to any recent HBO PPV match and the two are shot exactly alike. This works on a few different levels. It brings an authenticity to the “big fight” that Rocky films have typically never had. This also exposes the size difference between the taller Antonio Tarver and the wider Sly Stallone. Sly looks good, but you can see the difference in the effortlessness that Tarver moves vs. the Hollywood style that Rocky employs. Still, I enjoyed this approach very much and found it very refreshing.

(Sadly, they abandon this style midway through the fight and go to the classic Hollywood style — where ironically Rocky’s character must have noticed and begins to perform much more like we’ve seen him in past movies.

The movie has a somewhat predictable ending and is pretty weak in many areas, but for the Rocky fan (particularly the completest) this film is a must. It’s clear in watching the film that this one will probably be the last and as a last film that decides to make itself a tribute to the wonderful story that was original Rocky, Rocky Balboa is alright with me. Not the best film in the world, but enjoyable and worth the ride to see how Rocky has adjusted to life with changed circumstances.


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