Rocky Balboa (2006)
And now, the sequel to Rocky. Well, the fifth sequel to be exact, but the ones in between are meant to be not so great (I haven't bothered to watch them), and this is apparently the only one that matches the first in style and tone. It's been hailed as a true sequel in spirit, an assessment I can get behind having just watched the original.
Set 30 years after the first one, the film introduces us to an aged and despondent Rocky Balboa. His wife Adrian has passed away, but he clings on to her memory and spends his time reliving old memories and visiting places that were important to them (many of them are locations from the first movie). His life is empty, and he goes through the motions as he manages his little restaurant (named Adrian's) and tries to connect with his estranged son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who is tired of living in his father's shadow. Just like in the original movie, Rocky's life is shaken up by two things. First, he meets a woman named Marie (Geraldine Hughes) whom he met as a kid in the first movie. They develop a friendship, and Rocky takes her son under his wing to keep him out of trouble. The second thing that happens is a computer simulated fight that pits a virtual Rocky against a virtual version of the current Champion Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), in which the simulation decides that Rocky in his prime would have come out victorious.
Despite skepticism from all quarters, Rocky decides to get back into boxing. When news of this reaches the Dixon camp, they organize an exhibition match between Dixon and Rocky to help revitalize Dixon's sagging popularity. With the support of his friends, including Paulie (Burt Young), Marie and her son, and the support of the initially reluctant Robert, Rocky trains his way through a rousing montage (set to THAT music) and confronts Dixon in an exhibition match that the commentators call an 'execution match' because of Rocky's age.
Most of the film focuses on Rocky's monotonous routine and the subsequent development of his relationships with the people in his life. It follows his 'reawakening' and the rekindling of his desire to maintain some self respect instead of just fading away. As with the original, the film is very focused on character and setting. It's about people and their place in the world, and it examines both people starting out in the world and those approaching the twilight of their lives. The former are struggling to get a foothold, while the latter are trying to get past regrets and find some meaningful purpose. It's easy to give a damn about these people because their problems are relatable.
The story, unfortunately, has too many elements at play, and some of them end up feeling sketchy as a result - there are far more characters than in the original, and the screenplay can't do justice to them all. The buildup of events is excellent but the final training and fight sequences are too brief, with the latter being like something out of another movie. The fight just isn't that exciting and it's shot in a weird 'TV' style that takes you right out of the drama. Still, it's hard not to get caught up in it because of all the goodwill that most of the film has already engendered. The performances are generally good, with the only truly weak link being Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky's son. The best of the bunch is undoubtedly Stallone, who once again brings dignity and charm to the role of the slow witted Italian Stallion. Also noteworthy is Antonia Tarver as the brash and clinically ruthless Dixon.
At the end of the day 'Balboa' is inferior to the original in almost every way, but it has the same earnestness and heart that made the classic such a favourite. One could argue that it hangs too heavily on the coattails of its progenitor (right down to the music!), and while that is true to some extent it still manages to stand on its own as a separate entity.
The film was met with ridicule when it was announced, but much like the eponymous character he portrays, Stallone defied the odds and surprised everyone by coming out of the doldrums with a quality old-school film that embodies the same spirit as the original. It serves as a fitting conclusion to the story of Rocky Balboa; Stallone, like Rocky, had the last laugh. Now I may have to go and check out the other four movies to see the less beloved aspects of that story.