“Do not let those numbers drive you crazy,” fiftysomething ex-boxer Rocky Balboa tells his yuppie accountant son in the film that bears both their names. “Use an eraser. Get rid of ’em all.”
I never thought I’d use the phrase “metatexual comment” in a review of a Rocky movie, but a thing is what it is. The line occurs in a sweetly awkward scene between a broken-down, working class dad (Sylvester Stallone) and his slick white-collar son (Milo Ventimiglia) in the lobby of a glass-and-steel office building. But while it’s presented as a tossed-off bit of character development, it plays like an unsubtle plea to the viewer: “Forget the other four sequels and give yourself over to this one, because it’s not another unnecessary, money-grubbing, button-pushing, factory-tooled product. It’s a back-to-basics melodrama about a shambling old boxer re-entering the ring for a no-stakes bout with a young, powerful champ, not because he thinks he can beat the kid, but to prove he’s still got heart. Honest to god, we’re not yanking your chain this time. Look, ma, no Roman numeral!” That’s a nice try at encouraging collective amnesia, but after a three-decade career built on commercial, political and sometimes racial opportunism, Stallone’s latest comeback attempt is a dictionary-ready example of too little, too late.
Which isn’t to say Rocky Balboa is unlikable. It’s a nice little movie—clumsy, sometimes inept, but nice—and it shows signs of long-delayed social and artistic evolution on the part of its writer-director-star. The rest of the series trafficked in not-too-coded appeals to white working class racial paranoia (Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang) and even Reagan-era comic book jingoism (Russian hulk Ivan Drago), then lamely tried to cover its tracks with PC switcheroos (revealing that the champ’s stereotypically Irish trainer, Mickey, was actually Jewish, and replacing him with Apollo, who played Good Negro opposite Clubber’s growling, mohawked savage, then got beaten to death by Drago, giving Rocky another martyr to avenge) and it treated its real South Philly locations as a kind of nostalgic white ethnic backlot. This new movie gives Rocky a mixed-race teen to mentor and accepts changes in urban life with a no-big-deal shrug, and even acknowledges Philly’s influx of Mexican-American immigrants; they dominate the staff of Rocky’s vanity restaurant, despite brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) warning that they’ll steal the silver. Stallone and cinematographer J. Clark Mathis even color-codes the hero’s old stomping ground (warm browns and oranges) and Rocky Jr.’s impersonal world of vertical ice cube trays and gentrified row house neighborhoods (operating-room white, steel blue). Rocky himself remains Stallone’s finest creation—a big-hearted pug whose Popeye the Sailor malapropisms and sub-kindergarten observations rarely fail to earn a grin. (Rocky describing an animal shelter: “This is where they keep, like, a wide variety of dogs.”) And considering how long we’ve lived with this character, Stallone’s decision to build Rocky’s physical decline into the story gives the film an unexpected cornball heft. Ditto Stallone’s decision to make Rocky a widower who’s reluctant to pursue a potential new flame, a divorced fortysomething bartender named Marie (Geraldine Hughes), because he’s still madly in love with Adrian (Talia Shire, seen briefly in flashback footage). Hughes, like Shire before her, isn’t given much of a character to play—and her supposedly troubled relationship with her son, Steps (James Francis Kelly III), the aforementioned teen that Rocky semi-adopts, seems to have gotten chewed up in the editing room. But Hughes looks and sounds like a real person, not a Hollywood glamour-puss, and she deserves a medal of valor for getting through the series’s single most cliched inspirational speech without cracking up onscreen. (The capper is, “They say the last thing to actually age on someone is their heart.” That’s plainly untrue: Rocky’s most durable features are his hairpiece and his Joan-Crawford-in-Trog eyebows.)
Unfortunately, these earnest touches don’t add up to much because, like Rockys II-V, this one’s cut from a template so basic that if you showed any one of the movies to a chimp, he could probably type out a shootable new script (though he might need help coming up with a new challenge for the training montage, and when he was through, you’d have to delete all the references to bananas). In Rocky Balboa, our hero’s once again fallen on hard times (this time his distress is mainly emotional; he’s a grieving husband who keeps a folding chair in a tree near his wife’s tombstone and wanders South Philly on palooka Proust tour of meaningful locales); he’s once again given an excuse to get back into the ring, courtesy of an ESPN fantasy boxing game that names him the victor in a matchup against the chump-battering title-holder Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver); he’s warned that if he fights again, he’ll get his ass beat and probably suffer grievous injury, whereupon he mutters some gnomic wisdom and and resumes punching meat, guzzling eggs and jogging up the steps of the Philly Art Museum. Even hardened heartstrings may stir when Stallone cues Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” with its pie-eyed inspirational chorus and variety show orchestra bunka-bunka bassline, and there’s an extra-cinematic thrill in seeing the 60-year old, probably steroid-degraded Stallone deadlift weights, do pull-ups and work his combinations. (His form still stinks, but here, as in the rest of the series, he covers himself by reminding us that Rocky’s a puncher, not a boxer.) The low-stakes matchup is a nice change of pace for the series; so is the bad guy, who’s not really bad, just immature and surrounded by corrupt advisors. There are couple of nice directorial touches; my favorites are the “I am Spartacus”-style closing credits montage, and a lovely early image of Rocky gazing at a vacant lot that once contained an ice rink where he skated with Adrian. (He stands a few yards in front of Paulie’s car, his beefy outline haloed by the headlights—a ghost yearning for a ghost.) But 30 years and upteen reactionary trash-heap blockbusters later, there’s just too damned much to forgive.
Rocky Balboa traffics in humility, vulnerability and smallness, virtues that have been AWOL from pretty much everything Stallone’s made since the original First Blood (a raw, character-driven action film, temperamentally unlike its sequels). Befitting its stand-alone, weirdly naked title, it’s a stripped-down production; like the original, it was shot fast and cheap, this time on High-Definition video instead of 35mm (a format Stallone unfortunately tricks up in the final fight sequence with flash cuts and Natural Born Killers-style color experiments). It’s reliant on ancient tropes and hampered by amateurish continuity problems (characters are sometimes stunned to learn things you thought they already knew), and in an age where most sports films zip along like Fox Sports highlight reels, this one’s paced like an old-timer’s stroll from the Retirement Inn to the Souper Salad. It’s not quite like any other blockbuster on screens right now; for that matter, it’s not like anything Stallone’s been associated with recently. But after a long, lucrative career built mainly on cynically manufactured, artistically worthless programmers like Rocky III-V, the Rambo sequels, Cobra, Lock-Up, The Specialist and their ilk, Stallone’s reached the point where sincerity seems like just another career move.