In Rocky Balboa , the sixth movie about Sylvester Stallone’s mythic boxer, an aging Rocky decides to fight one last time. Everyone tells him that he’s nuts, or worse, that he’s destroying his legacy. Stallone, now sixty years old, must have heard a lot of that when he was trying to get the project off the ground. The movie, which he wrote and directed, has the brimstone whiff of unfinished business. As Rocky explains to his brother-in-law Paulie, "There’s still some stuff in the basement".
Rocky’s beloved wife Adrian, played in the other movies by Talia Shire, has died. Rocky now runs a little restaurant named after her. Like a basalt slab in a dinner jacket, Rocky moves between tables telling war stories. This is not egotism; it’s what the people want from their local hero, and he wears his fame lightly. Stallone knows a thing or two about how people react to celebrities.
The film must end in the ring, but Stallone is in no hurry to get there; and that’s a pleasure. We learn about Rocky’s relationships: to his son, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), overshadowed by the Balboa legend; and to a poor woman from the neighborhood, Marie (Geraldine Hughes), with the eyes of a whipped dog, astonished that Rocky finds her worth defending. The neighborhood itself is trafficked by spirits and in decay; Paulie (Burt Young) says the whole world is falling apart. But Rocky is okay with loss: "When you live in a place long enough, you become that place," he says. "The older I get, the more I leave behind. That’s life."
Simple sentiments, yes – but Rocky has earned the right. No genius to begin with, he has taken his share of blows to the head, and has to fight to get the slurred sentences out. That’s endearing, as it is when he turns on the corny charm that first wooed Adrian. Stallone’s face is care-worn and fascinating, a great place for tears. You don’t expect them – you don’t expect flashes of anger, either – but passion keeps coming through. Maybe he gives one too many speeches, but they work.
And if Rocky’s face tells a story, wait until you see his body. We’re given time to get used to it, first in a sleeveless tee shirt under careful lighting, then in the ring, from a low angle, with a belt over the belly. When fully revealed, that body is an awesome sight, and it’s to Stallone’s credit as a filmmaker that we absolutely believe he has a chance against a heavyweight half his age.
The other boxer, Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), isn’t fleshed out, so the final rumble doesn’t hit on as many cylinders as it could. But it still has a complexity: we’re not sure we want Rocky to win. We want him to teach. The whole film, in fact, is a summation of a thirty-year-old franchise’s collective wisdom. Which, a little surprisingly, is considerable.
This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast at wfiu.org. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.