Rocky Balboa

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Who would have thought that the sixth Rocky film would have been a legitimately good movie? Not me. I mean, most of the subsequent sequels were fun, but they were definitely guilty pleasures. They were cartoon filmmaking. But here we have a lovely, sweet movie – a film that’s worthy of ending the series.

If anything, Rocky Balboa is almost a carbon copy of the first film. Rocky is living in a small apartment in Philadelphia, trying to eek a living, and he’s suddenly plucked from relative obscurity to fight an impossible fight. The only major differences are Rocky’s age and the fact that his beloved Adrian is dead.

And it’s the fact that Adrian is dead that gives the film its emotional power. Even though in later films she was reduced to either trying to prevent Rocky from fighting or telling him to ‘win’, it was always a relationship we believed in. We cared about these people in a silly, knuckleheaded way. So to have Adrian gone makes you feel like one of Rocky’s arms has been chopped off.

Our first glimpse of Rocky is of him waking up alone in his bed. Like the first film we see him feeding some pet turtles. He’s back to where he started – he’s alone and something of a bum.

However, he still has Uncle Paulie to hang out with. And together they go to the cemetery to visit Adrian’s grave. ‘Time goes by too fast,’ says Rocky. Although the film can’t be called gloomy, there is a pleasing melancholy to it. Rocky has finally come back down to earth.

One of the best scenes in the film is when Rocky visits the ice rink from the first film – the scene of Rocky and Adrian’s first ‘date’. The rink has been torn down but Rocky can still remember every moment. All the fights and all the championships can’t supplant the joy of falling in love – this is where his heart lies; it’s still with the woman he was supposed to spend the rest of his life with.

And you can feel a sense of anger within Rocky at life having cheated him. He was supposed to grow old with Adrian. They were supposed to see out their last days together. But instead Rocky is cast adrift. And you can see his rage when Paulie makes the mistake of saying that Adrian left him. She didn’t leave, says Rocky. She died. The word ‘leave’ suggests that she wanted to go. But we know she didn’t.

In order to combat the loneliness, Rocky spends a lot of time at his restaurant (named ‘Adrian’s’). And he spends most of his time telling customers war stories about his boxing matches. But you can tell that his heart isn’t in it. He’s told these stories so many times now that they’ve lost all meaning. He might as well be talking about someone else. So Rocky also looks to his son in order to find an important human connection. But he doesn’t have much joy here, either (at least initially). Rocky’s son lives in his father’s shadow and desperately wants to get out of it. Therefore Rocky gets the cold shoulder for a long time.

The only source of joy for Rocky is the burgeoning relationship he develops with Little Marie, a bartender he meets. It’s clear that Rocky isn’t ready to move on from Adrian but finally he has a purpose. He likes this woman and he wants to make her happy. And initially she eyes Rocky with suspicion. She wants to know why he’s being so nice to her. The reason is that he simply wants someone to be nice to – there doesn’t always have to be a reason.

However, this relationship still isn’t enough for Rocky. He still has a lot of pain inside him and wants to get it out. And initially he just wants to have a few small-scale fights. But then due to a silly ‘what if?’ CGI boxing fight that’s broadcast on a sports channel to find out whether a fighter from a previous era could beat the current World Champ, he gets to fight the World Champ for real.

Unlike previous films, the fight at the end isn’t Rocky versus some impossibly monstrous opponent. Instead it’s Rocky against himself. Like the first film, the fight is a quest for self-respect rather than sporting victory. Rocky, and the film, doesn’t really care less about Mason ‘the Line’ Dixon. He’s something of a non-entity. No, the film cares about Rocky re-establishing a sense of self-worth. Through one last fight he wants to exorcise his demons and get on with life.

And of course, this being Rocky, he accomplishes that. Sure the idea of Rocky going the distance is fanciful, but the fight is well filmed and you can’t help but get swept along by it. With every knock down you pray Rocky will get to his feet and every time he has the Champ on the ropes you feel yourself willing him to knock the Champ out. But it’s to the film’s credit that Rocky doesn’t get the victory.

But like the first film, the point of the movie is that the biggest victory in life is to be proud of what you achieve – to be able to look yourself in the mirror and feel content. That’s what Rocky finally accomplishes. He’s happy with who he is and the ghosts of the past are exorcised. Therefore, for the first time, he’s able to look to the future rather than the past.

The final few moments are beautifully done. After the fight, Rocky goes to leave the arena. However, the cheering crowd beckon him to stay a little longer and he soaks in their warmth before finally leaving. And then we see Rocky reaching out and taking the hand of a fan. It’s a lovely little moment. As silly as most of the Rocky films are, he was able to connect with his audience and it’s sad to see him go. But it’s good to see him go off on a high.

But even better than this is that the final scene sees Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave. He says that he couldn’t have done anything without her. And then he walks off, waving at her and the audience before disappearing from sight. It’s a beautiful, understated way to end the series – Rocky vanishes from sight like a ghost. Somewhere in the middle of the series, Rocky may have been about ripped torsos and thinly-veiled man love, but Balboa perfectly ties it in with the spirit of the original. Rocky and his love for Adrian were the driving force. And it’s the fact that they always stayed true to one another that allowed the two of them to obtain the American Dream.

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  1. Good review. I was gonna skip this, but I think I'll actually rent it now. Cheers.
    Got another suggestion for you, on the serious side, have u seen The Sand Pebbles (1966)? On the not so serious side, I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on one of the newer star wars flicks, especially Attack of the Clones. Take care, Tom

  2. Yeah, I've seen The Sand Pebbles. However, I've only seen it once and that viewing was a long time ago. I really want to see it again.

    And as regards the new Star Wars trilogy, yeah, I've been meaning to review those for a while. But it'll take a lot of courage to rewatch them.

  3. Might hire Balboa this weekend and check it out.

    Amazon's got some pretty decently priced 2-disc spec edition of sand pebbles available, it's one of my all time favourites. Glacially-paced old school film making at it's finest.

    RE: the star wars flicks, I hear ya! I made the mistake of going to see the Australian premiere of Revenge of the Sith. The most enjoyable part was goading the costumed geeks outside the cinema into light-sabre-ing each other. I'd suggest lubricating the experience with a few brews...