Director: Sylvester Stallone
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Burt Young
Running Time: 102 min.
**1/2 (out of ****)
While many laughed when Sylvester Stallone announced plans to make a sixth and final Rocky film, I thought it was a great idea. The franchise never really got the sendoff it deserved and other than an interesting turn in 1997's otherwise forgettable Cop Land, Stallone really hasn't found his footing as an actor ever since the original Rocky. That's not because he's a bad actor. While he isn't going to be accepting any Academy Awards any time soon, if he's given the right role he can be effective and entertaining.
In Rocky Balboa, Stallone once again gives a surpringly confident and touching performance as the "Italian Stallion" that's a joy to watch. Imagine my disappointment then when I discovered that the movie surrounding it doesn't really amount to much. It almost feels like a pilot for a failed television series. There's an expression that says a movie is made in the editing room. I don't think I completely knew what that meant until seeing this film.
It's 2006 and Rocky Balboa is now in the minds of many, himself included, a washed-up has been. Life has dealt him some rough blows. His beloved Adrian has passed away from "woman cancer" as he calls it and now he runs a restaurant in her name while in his spare time sulking around the streets of Philadelphia with a hangdog expression on his face. His son, Rocky Jr. (Heroes' Milo Ventimiglia in a nothing performance) doesn't want anything to do with him and now even Paulie (the returning Burt Young) is getting sick of Rocky's inability to move on in the wake of Adrian's passing. When a computer generated dream match theorizes that Rocky in his prime would defeat the current heavyweight champion, the cleverly named Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Carver), something is awakened in him. He's making a comeback to fight Dixon, even though everyone thinks he's out of his mind.
The only person with any faith in him is Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a girl he walked home when she was just a kid and has now reconnected with after a night at a bar. She's almost as lonely and depressed as he is and they make a perfect match. I liked that touch in the story, except the relationship doesn't really go anywhere and everything feels so rushed that it can't have any emotional impact. The first hour of this film is actually very good (even if it's so depressing you'll want to hang yourself) and Stallone gives maybe the finest performance of his career. You really feel for this guy and it reminds you why Rocky was such an iconic figure in American cinema. He may not be the brightest guy but he has a huge heart and Stallone plays him just right.
I can't tell you how badly I wanted to love this film or how much I respect Stallone for making it, but he makes a crucial misstep in the film's second half that pretty much ruined everything for me. After Rocky has his revelation that he's going to challenge Dixon we have our big training montage set to "I'm Gonna Fly Now"(this time he runs the steps with his dog) and then we're in the big fight. That's it. Virtually no build-up at all. His son argues with him about going through with the fight, yet seems absolutely fine with it by the next scene. He's even in his dad's corner. Rocky's an out of shape mess one second and the next he's in the ring completely ripped and shredded. It's like half the movie was left on the cutting room floor. Of course there's the weigh-in with Rocky and Dixon where.... well, nothing. Absolutely nothing happens.
Probably the worst part of this movie is Mason Dixon. I know this is a Rocky movie and I don't expect the villain to have a ton of depth, but would it hurt if he had a little charisma? He doesn't even look like a world champion. He's not in good shape (which they actually acknowledge, but that doesn't excuse the error in judgement), isn't physically imposing and Tarver (who's shockingly a real pro boxer) has absolutely no screen presence. His performance makes Tommy Morrison's in Rocky V seem Oscar worthy. If there was ever a situation that called for a larger than life, charismatic, "float like a butterfly sting like a bee" type character this was it. Imagine Mekhi Pfeiffer or Jamie Foxx in the role. Now that would be something and add an incredible amount of fuel and emotion to the final fight.
Even worse, this "champion" is portrayed as a complete wuss who only fights people he can crush. So now Stallone has written himself into a corner. If Rocky wins he's beaten a guy who sucks. If he loses, then he looks even worse than that. I appreciate the Rocky films are not about winning and losing, but they are about accomplishing something for yourself against all odds. If the opponent is weak than regardless of the outcome it makes Rocky look bad. He's accomplished nothing either way. If this really is the last film in the series, or even if it isn't, Stallone should have come out with guns blazing and an incredible antagonist for Rocky to play off of. I'm not saying a cliched villain, just a strong opponent at least.
The good news is that the big fight is exciting and fantastically filmed. It could be be the most exciting fight in all of the Rocky movies, but even this has some problems. For one, there's a stupid and unnecessary cameo from Mike Tyson that takes us right out of the movie. I'm not sure what purpose it served other than to further remind us how bland Rocky's opponent in the ring is. Then there are flashbacks of Adrian and Rocky's past together inserted into the fight. Was this really necessary? We get the point. Adrian was his life. We know this already. Plus, It's just visually bizarre and out of place to see Adrian's head floating above the ring in the middle of this major physical battle.
There are actually a lot of flashbacks during the film. So much so that you have to wonder if the movie and Stallone himself are as guilty of living in the past as his character. If you think about it the whole movie is just a replay of the original, with very few of the elements that made that film so special. It runs 102 minutes but it feels more like 10. This final installment (if it is the final one) wasn't the time to hold back. But I'm sure all the diehard Rocky fans out there are going to love this and won't care at all what I say. They're just happy Stallone made a decent Rocky movie and would have probably liked anything he put on screen. Rocky Balboa will please them, but the potential was there to do so much more.