“Rocky Balboa” does not stand alone.
In order to appreciate it, you have to at least watch “Rocky” (1976), the film that started it all.
In order to fully appreciate it, you have to endure the four films in between.
“Rocky” is a movie with heart. It is, at its essence, not a boxing movie, but a love story. The Philadelphia pug is fighting, not just to win the heavyweight boxing championship. He is fighting to win the heart of Adrian (Talia Shire), the shy and plain pet shop clerk.
With each subsequent film, as the numbers began to pile up behind Rocky’s name, I got more and more discouraged. I heard Sly Stallone once talk about the excess of the 80″s in “Rocky II – V”. He got that right. Those films are excessive, messy affairs. I could almost feel the line being played out, though I didn’t know why.
When it was announced that the final film in the franchise was coming out, I had misgivings about watching it.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Behold, at last, another “Rocky” movie with a heart.
I think it surpasses the first film, even while relying on it as a point of reference. There are many echoes back to the first film.This especially happens during the ‘Anniversary Tour” that Rocky takes along with his friend and brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young). On it, he visits some of the old sites where he first courted Adrian. (Between “Rocky V” and “RB,” Adrian dies of cancer.)
“You’re livin’ your life backwards!” Paulie complains, and he’s right. We know he’s right. The question is, “Where does Rocky go from here?”
Enter Marie (Geraldine Hughes).
We met her in the first film as an adolescent girl hanging with the wrong crowd. Rocky walks her home one night, trying to set her on the right path. She responds by telling him, “Screw you, creepo!”
Now we see her again, thirty years later. She’s tending bar in the old neighbor hood. She and Rocky get acquainted again and he’s soon defending her against the same type of people she used to hang out with.
This is a beautiful part about of “RB”: watching how Rocky relates to the people around him.
For Marie and her son, Steps (James Francis Kelly III), he becomes like a guardian angel, offering them both work at his restaurant and trying to give Marie a more positive image of herself.
For his estranged son, Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who chafes at trying to live in the huge shadow of a local legend, he reaches out, trying to get closer to him, trying to encourage him to be his own man.
For the cantankerous Paulie, he tries, as he always has, to smooth out his rough edges.
Like I said, Rocky Balboa doesn’t stand alone.
He is at the center of a group of people who, in turn, rally around him as he prepares to fight the reigning heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), in an exhibition fight for charity.
Why? Why, at the age of 60, does Rocky want to fight again?
He tells Paulie that “there’s still stuff in the basement,” and many older guys perk up their ears. They know just what he’s talking about.
Before I go further, let me remind you that this is a “Rocky” film and you know that there’s going to be a fight at the end. But I found that the heart of the movie happens before the gloves are even put on.
The real fight going on in “RB” has to do with the “stuff in the basement.” Rocky’s real fight is with himself, trying to redefine his life, not so much after his boxing career is over, but after the death of his beloved Adrian.
I like Rocky at 60. I love the heart of the man who reaches out to those around him, even as he struggles within himself.
The night before his fight in Las Vegas with Dixon, Marie comes to his hotel room door. She gives him a picture of Adrian that she brought from the restaurant. Then she tells him, “You go out there and you show them that the last thing to age on a person is their heart.”
That, my friends, is the movie’s message. That is the movie’s heart.
So, go ahead, watch the first “Rocky” movie. If you can stand it, wade through the next four films.
Then sit back and treat yourself to “Rocky Balboa,” the crown jewel of the series.
To Sly Stallone’s credit, he saved the best for last.