Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Premise: The sixth Rocky film finds the aging pugilist (Sylvester Stallone) managing an Italian restaurant and mourning the death of his wife. Rocky is lured out of retirement for an exhibition bout with heavyweight champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver).
What Works: After the critical and commercial failure of Rocky V, the series was dormant for sixteen years. In that time Sylvester Stallone’s career declined and throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s he was making low rent action pictures that only occasionally played in movie theaters. But like his signature character, Stallone had something to prove and 2006’s Rocky Balboa would be the beginning of a career renaissance. In the sixteen years since Rocky V, Stallone had time to consider what the character meant to him and what he wanted to say. In many respects, Rocky Balboa is the film that Rocky V wanted to be but couldn’t because in 1990 it was still an A-list Hollywood property and sufficient time had not yet passed to be nostalgic about it. In fact, Rocky Balboa is another example of the way this series has been at the forefront of Hollywood trends. Rocky II foreshadowed Hollywood’s sequel craze, Rocky III was self-referential before it was hip, Rocky IV adopted the styles of music videos, and Rocky Balboa was one of the first nostalgia sequels. Like later films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this film revisited familiar characters and the tropes that made the franchise so popular. Rocky Balboa reiterates the training montages and iconic imagery associated with this series but unlike the other Rocky sequels, the sixth installment taps into the craving for dignity that made the original film so impactful. In Rocky Balboa the character faces the twilight years of his life and spends his days telling the same old fight stories while mourning his wife. Impressively, Adrian is actually a bigger presence in Rocky Balboa than in most of the other sequels even though she’s not actually in it. Rocky is haunted by her memory and the film is shot through with an atmosphere of melancholy. This is the most accessible Rocky has been since the original film and the movie is sensitive and humane even while it delivers boxing action. In an impressive evolution for this series, that humanity extends to Rocky’s opponent Mason Dixon. Unlike Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago, Dixon is not a bad guy but he is a contemporary athlete, one whose reputation has become more important than his actual athletic ability, and he is trapped by a bad boy image created by managers who are more interested in dollar signs than integrity. This movie puts something at stake for the other fighter and gives him a chance to prove himself and claim his own glory.
What Doesn’t: There are some critical discrepancies between Rocky Balboa and the other films in the series. Most importantly, the brain damage that kept the Italian Stallion out of the ring in Rocky V is never spoken of and presumably vanished. With sixteen years having passed since the last installment, and that film’s unpopularity, it seems as though Stallone hoped no one would notice. Rocky Balboa is also a talky film. The dialogue is good but at times it is a little redundant with the characters reiterating the same maxims. The plot is a little baggy and few sequences could have been arranged and executed more efficiently. The new supporting characters of Rocky Balboa remain on the periphery. Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) and Steps (James Francis Kelly III) aren’t characterized very deeply. The film also misses an opportunity to do something more interesting with Mason Dixon. Overtures are made to his troubled career but the fight would have had more impact if the film fleshed out his personal and career struggles.
DVD extras: The edition of Rocky Balboa included in “The Heavyweight Collection” includes audio commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, bloopers, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Rocky Balboa is easily the best of the Rocky sequels. It jettisons the cartoonish qualities of some of the later films and returns the character to the more human dimensions in which he was created. Rather than just recapitulate the formula, Rocky Balboa is, in part, a commentary on the original film and it brings Rocky’s story to a satisfying and poignant end.
Episode: #123 (December 24, 2006); revised #623 (November 27. 2016)