Yo, Adrian may be dead in Rocky Balboa, but she’s not the only lifeless thing about Sylvester Stallone’s sixth (and what feels like 18th) installment in the boxing series. A sequel absolutely no one desired, the film is a throwback to the Oscar-winning 1976 original, meaning Stallone spends an inordinate amount of energy capturing the ambiance of Rocky’s Philly hometown while charting the 60-year-old pugilist-turned-restaurateur’s struggles to accept his advancing age. As a result of this retro approach, the modest, character-driven early section—in which Stallone takes great pains to re-humanize his iconic tough guy via a relationship with a white bartender (Geraldine Hughes) and her African-American son (James Francis Kelly III)—exhibits a maturity absent from the cartoonish Rocky III and IV. Yet the question remains: Who wants character-driven maturity from a Rocky movie? The underdog hero’s ‘80s-rific battles with Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago were the franchise’s high-water marks, their outsized cheesiness twice as entertaining (and half as faux-profound) as the somber grittiness of the initial, “serious” episodes. Stallone yearns to investigate the loneliness of a man who can’t get over the past, an endeavor which entails unwieldy speeches (delivered by the actor in his patented “yews guys” patois) and reflective shots of the city’s skyline. Such pre-fight pathos, however, never transcends its basic purpose of providing some pretext—any pretext—for Rocky’s eventual last hurrah in the ring. After much agonizing about metaphorical “stuff in the basement” with racist old pal Paulie (Burt Young, still stealing scenes), and then successfully reconnecting with his estranged son (Milo Ventimiglia), Rocky agrees to an exhibition match against a disrespected heavyweight title-holder (actual boxer Antonio Carver) who’s furious over an ESPN computer simulation that said he would lose to the Italian Stallion. It’s no spoiler to reveal that, despite arthritis and calcium deposits, Rocky ultimately displays the true heart of a champion—nor is it a surprise that this earnest, flashback-riddled tale is, if not an embarrassment, thoroughly unnecessary. The real disappointment of Rocky Balboa, however, comes from the fact that buried within its turgid solemnity lies the potential for entertaining extravagance—specifically, in a cameo from a star ideally suited to play one of Rocky’s larger-than-life villains: Mike Tyson.
The film's image had more integrity on the big screen. On a television set, the grunginess of Philadelphia has been spruced up. But while colors are more saturated, the image is imperfect, with the occasional combing effect on display, as well as some artifacts (look at the painting in Rocky's restaurant) and edge enhancement. Rocky, though, still knows how to pack a punch, conveyed energetically on the available surround track.
Sylvester Stallone confirms that he wanted to make something of an old-man picture with Rocky Balboa (the moral of the story is, apparently, "respect your elders"). He alludes to a director's cut at one point that I don't think anyone cares to see and some of his observations are a little screwy (namely his description of Rocky's restaurant as "feminine"), but he definitely has a gift for contrast, as evidenced by his need to keep a scene in the movie that evokes Rocky's comfort wading through lower-class settings. Without it, the scene where an awkward Rocky visits his son's workplace would have almost been worthless. Rounding out the disc is a making-of featurette, seven deleted scenes and the alternate ending fans were probably expecting, a blooper reel, a featurette on the filming of the final fight, a featurette on the creation of the film's computer fight, and a bunch of previews.
Not a great movie but still better than half the movies nominated for an Academy Award this year.