Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Rocky Balboa is Sylvester Stallone's best movie in 30 years.
It's been 16 years since Rocky V and, to put things in some perspective, Rocky Balboa is the first movie in the series to have a Web site.
Having covered a full range of storylines in the previous movies, this latest installment met with lots of skepticism from the moment it rolled into production. Is it just an ego trip for Stallone? A sly way to make some sort of comeback (again)?
No and maybe.
One of the amazing things about Rocky Balboa is how much boxing takes a back seat to the far deeper themes that run like a raging river through this movie.
Yes, there is a big fight at the film's end. But it's a relatively good-humored exhibition match between Rocky and Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver, a former light heavyweight champion). Dixon, the reigning champion, has lost favor with fans and the boxing industry because of his penchant for taking on unworthy opponents and thereby easily keeping hold of the title.
Rocky's been biding his time for the past decade as the host at Adrian's, the Italian restaurant he started with his wife. Moving from table to table, he charmingly poses for photos with guests and regales them with tales from the ring.
But now Rocky's extremely lonely. It's not really a spoiler to say Adrian passed away four years ago and Rocky's been listless, making an annual tour of the hot spots from the early days. Mick's gym, the Lucky Seven Tavern, the pet shop, the ice rink (which was recently razed).
As his longtime pal and sometime adversary, Paulie (Burt Young, Transamerica), says, Rocky's been "living backwards" these past few years.
Given that setting, Rocky Balboa takes a surprising turn as the most heartfelt movie of the series. Stallone's performance here is laid-back, raw, and 100% genuine.
As the story unfolds, minor characters return. Rocky's opponent in the opening scenes of the first movie, Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell in his only cinematic role), is now a regular customer who insists on washing dishes in return for Rocky's graciousness. And there's Marie (Geraldine Hughes, Duplex), the girl who 30 years ago told off Rocky and called him a creep; now she's working at the tavern.
Rocky was always an open, easy-going character who was able to draw people to him. But there were also people who would try to take advantage of his good nature, kick him to the curb and sling insults.
As Rocky observes in the latest movie, the only thing that's changed in the world is the clothes.
In Adrian's absence, Rocky finds himself reaching out even more to build a new support network; he latches on to Marie's son to fill the father-figure void in the kid's life. And he also finds himself shunned by his own son (Milo Ventimiglia, TV's Heroes), who has struggled with his career in accounting while perpetually living in his father's large shadow.
Eye of the Tiger
It's an interesting question to think about how Rocky Balboa would be received if it weren't the sixth installment in a series. But, at the same time, this movie's overwhelming success is due in part to all the Rocky baggage that has preceded it.
Essentially, this is the Gospel According to Rocky. Stallone deftly and sweetly tells a timeless tale of the human spirit, filling the screen with iconic imagery of Rocky that hasn't been seen in any of the previous movies.
Here, Stallone reminds the world that what matters is self respect and that an honorable goal is to stand toe to toe and say, "I am."
Rocky acknowledges that the older he gets, the more stuff he has to leave behind. At the same time, he still has his demons to fight and he still has "stuff in the basement" to get out of his system. And so, through a series of events kicked off by an ESPN computerized match up between Mason Dixon's skill and Rocky's will, Rocky finds an opportunity to release the beast that burns within.
While getting beat up by Dixon, Rocky struggles to recall his own words, the bit of advice he gave his own son about life. It's about how much you can take and still keep moving forward.
As stated earlier, this movie isn't about the boxing. After that match, Rocky leaves the arena shaking hands and hugging those in his support network. The judges are reading off the results as Rocky walks away; he doesn't care what they think. For Rocky, it wasn't about the boxing.
Like an unexpected punch from a southpaw, Rocky Balboa arrives as a deeply heartfelt conclusion to Stallone's Rocky saga and it is the most soulful movie of 2006.
The disc is loaded and beautifully produced.
The top attractions are roughly 20 minutes of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending and the original version of Rocky's reunion with Li'l Marie at the Lucky Seven Tavern. Which is better, the theatrical cut or the versions presented in this section? It's really a tough call.
Other deleted scenes, including more time between Rocky and Marie's son and a very well done workout sequence, made this reviewer pine for an extended cut.
Happily, Stallone's running commentary answers that pining as he makes a couple tantalizing references to a forthcoming director's cut, including scenes not included in this disc's deleted scenes collection. Amidst the talk of a longer cut, Stallone explains why an extended scene between Rocky and Paulie, after Paulie gets laid off, was truncated. Stallone also includes some interesting tidbits on some of the people who are basically playing themselves. It's great to hear him open up, share his thought processes, make some self-deprecating jokes, and even talk about how Rocky Balboa in essence reflects his own battle with the Hollywood system just to get the movie made.
Also on board is Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa. It's a nice 20-minute documentary that is well worth watching. The disc's two other documentaries, Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky's Final Fight and Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight, are both worthwhile as well. Their titles say it all, and the latter also includes the complete simulated fight.
Finally, on tap simply for the "why not" of it all is a short collection of bloopers.
Picture and Sound
The movie's picture quality is excellent, featuring a fantastic 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation mastered in high definition. The colors are rich and the contrast is perfect.
The stellar Dolby Digital 5.1 track is available in English and French (it's a shame there's no DTS track). There are also English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
How to Use This DVD
Watch Rocky Balboa. Do your best Rocky dance during the end credits.
Next, watch the deleted scenes and judge for yourself which ending you prefer and which Li"l Marie intro works best. Then you have to listen to Stallone's commentary and get enlightened.
At this point, take a breather. Pace yourself and don't be a hero!
For the next round, hit the documentaries and, for good measure, throw in those bloopers.
After all that, eagerly anticipate the director's cut. Double dipping is usually frowned upon, but Stallone deserves another round with this one.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.