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Friday, December 29, 2006

Review of "Rocky Balboa"

I love the Rocky character, think that Rocky was a great movie and that Rocky II was a pretty good one too. Rocky III suffered a bit from some of the excesses of the 1980's, and Rocky IV tried and failed to win the Cold War. Rocky V simply didn't work -- at the end the main character punches out a former protege on the street in his old neighborhood. It seemed like the genre was finished, and that it went out not with a bang but with a backfire. I watch "Rocky" movies from time to time, and today I downloaded Bill Conti's thirtieth anniversary album of the "Rocky" themes just the other day. I also found myself saying "Yo, how you doin'" after I had seen the trailers on TV over the past couple of weeks for Rocky Balboa. My wife, who isn't a native Philadelphian, doesn't totally get the appeal. In Rocky terms, she thought I was getting "mentally irregular."

It's with this background and the background of having read the critics' thoughts about the movie that I went to see Rocky Balboa, the sixth and final installment in the series, a few days ago. The basic premise is that Adrian has died, Rocky really misses her, Paulie is older and still a pain, Mickey is long-since-deceased, and the Rock has an empty feeling in his life. He has a restaurant in South Philadelphia, a nice Italian place with good ambience where he entertains the guests with stories of his fights (Paulie, true to form, wonders aloud as to how good the Italian food can be if it's cooked by four Mexicans).

Rocky is empathic and kind, trying to bond with his yuppie son, a numbers cruncher who works in Philadelphia's newest office building, for a boss whom we'd like to throw a right cross at without any gloves on. Dad wants a warm relationship with his son, but the son is different and distant. Rocky befriends a single mom who bartends at the tappie that he used to frequent in the old days when he was a legbreaker for a second-rate loanshark. He employs the mom as a hostess and the son in the kitchen of Adrian's, and he offers free meals to the guy he knocked out in the first movie, Spider Rego, who has found God and quotes scripture and volunteers to wash dishes in the kichen.

There's a void, and the restaurant doesn't fill it. Rocky wants to fight again, and while he passes all of the medical tests, the Pennsylvania Boxing Commission declines his application for a license. They're concerned about his health, and they don't want to be responsible for a boxer in his late 50's.

But the handlers of the heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon, played by light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver, want him to fight an exhibition against their man, who is 33-0 with 30 knockouts but who can't draw fans because the list of contenders is weak and he hasn't been tested against any challenger. Dixon isn't a bad guy, but he's put in a no-win situation. Lose to Balboa and you ratify what they're saying about you. Beat him and you beat an old man.

Rocky's son asks him not to fight, saying that he's embarrasing him. Rocky and his son have a heart-to-heart chat on Walnut Street about challenging oneself and accepting personal responsibility for one's failures. He pointed out that he didn't let anyone talk to him while pointing a finger in his face (which the boss does in public in one of the opening scenes) and that when things didn't go well he rallied, he just didn't sit there and take it. Make no mistake, he loves his son, but he wants him to be himself and to achieve (and not say his difficulties arise solely because of the large shadow that Rocky casts).

In the end, everyone travels to Las Vegas for the Dixon fight, the fighters engage in a spirited contest, and Rocky emerges, bloodied but unbowed. The old guy acquitted himself very well, to the astonishment of the pundits. He finally purged the last pugilistic demon, the one that every boxer reportedly has within him, the urge to fight that one last fight. The first Rocky was about going the distance, and the last one shows that despite one's journey through life, sometimes all the travels in the world lead you back to the same, familiar place.

Still with the fire inside that says, "go the distance."

The neighborhood has changed, and while Rocky and Paulie have aged, they haven't changed all that much. Their comments are poignant, and Rocky's need to continue to make a contribution and difference, despite having lost his inspiration, his wife, Adrian, are very real. Hence the urge to fight that one last fight, to show that he's more relevant than simply a retired fighter that you can pose for a picture with if you patronize his restaurant.

I really liked the film, and perhaps it's because it's a "Philadelphia" thing. Friends where I live who are from northern New Jersey and New York don't understand it, but there's something about the underdog kid from the river wards with no family taking the "puncher's chance" that life has given him and making the most of it. The entire Rocky series isn't about "if onlys" and laments, it's about finding hope in the most trying of circumstances and bouncing back from adversity. In Rocky Balboa, that adversity isn't about losing to a heavyweight champion or having a corrupt accountant bankrupt the champ, but about personal loss and finding a sense of meaning.

Punchers may not always win the fight, but they always keep on coming, and they always have a chance. And that makes people like them, and films like this, compelling to watch.

Most of us haven't had a heavyweight champ break our nose, but we have had episodes in our lives where it feels like we've been slugged. That, to a degree, is what Rocky Balboa is all about. By making this film, Sylvester Stallone has closed out his series in a classy fashion.


Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

He has indeed, but I still have a lurking fear that this won't be the last chapter .. he's actually filming a Rambo V1, for release in 2008, but I sure hope this is the last time he enters the ring

7:37 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks, Reel Fanatic, for your comments.

What's harder to imagine, Rambo VI or Rocky VI, a 62 year-old fighter or a 62 year-old former soldier?

11:41 AM  

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