Rocky Balboa: It ain't over 'till it's over.
Mason 'The Line' Dixon: What's that from? The '80s?
Rocky Balboa: That's probably the '70s
1976, to be exact. It's been a good 16 years away from the franchise for the team since Rocky V hit the screens, and the time spent in hiatus has been a great learning time for Philadelphia's favorite brawler. Despite all odds stacked against it, Rocky Balboa, well, rocks. This film is inconsistent in its presentation, and the dialog is most of the time cringe-worthy. The acting is flat in most parts, and it has no small dose of the ol' Rocky schmaltz. Yet, strange as it sounds, the film works.
The idea for a 6th film in the Rocky series, when Stallone is clearly too old to play a boxer, was imminently laughable, and sounded like a desperate attempt at regaining lost glory. Instead this is a film where Stallone comes back to finish something he started in a way that most makes sense to him in his age. That, then, is also the theme of the film, and Stallone returns Rocky to us as he should - sans the slickness of the sequels.
Rocky's sixth round in the ring is not about fighting or victory, but about redemption, about how an old man wants to make sense of the loneliness and distance all around him, the only way he knows how. He knows he won't win, but Stallone, and by extension Rocky, returns to find a reason to live.
A few years after wife Adrian's death, Rocky (Stallone, duh) is increasingly distant from the world around. He tries to run through the motions, but is getting disillusioned by it. His son (Ventimiglia), now working in the finance district, has a resentment of the shadow his father casts. Rocky tries to find meaning or company in a restaurant he owns where he regales diners with old stories.
Then he meets Li'l Marie (Hughes), a woman he knew from when she was small, and in helping her and her son, he finds a little bit of the lost sense of purpose that haunts him. Simultaneously, a computer simulation shown by a sports channel pits his computerized yesteryear self against the reigning but much hated champion Mason "The Line" Dixon, where, no surprise, Rocky wins. He applies for a license to fight small fights - just so he can feel alive again, and sports managers smell big money. They sign him up for an exhibition match against Dixon.
That's it really - that's the whole film. This is followed by a training montage, and then the big fight caps it all. The whole first act in establishing the characters takes up most of the film, and in doing so, charms us back into liking Rocky. This isn't as much about Rocky the boxer as it is about Rocky the person, and that is the film's strength. Rocky is still the kooky, strange sense of humor laden nice guy, who only wants to be friends with ya, and that is part of the film's appeal.
Everything here is sendback to the original film, but it all serves as more of a celebration of the film than a parody. Rocky always worked when we underestimated him, and he surprised us by winning against the odds. This time, Stallone was sorely misjudged, and boy, does he beat the odds. There is great power in the simple character moments, and the film moves ahead with a gentle pace mirroring that of the protagonist.
The dialog is fresh and crisp in these moments, too. But it goes terribly haywire when talk about the fight goes on in non-Rocky circles. Really, the best lines are reserved for our gentle giant. And when he decides to go all un-gentle again, the training montage with the all too familiar Rocky theme comes up, and I dare any fan of the series to not stand up and cheer. Tantantantaraatantantantaraa....c'mon guys!
It's not that the film doesn't know a 60-year-old boxer is a paradox in himself. Rocky's trainer tells him, "You don't have any speed. Your knees are weak....you've got neck arthritis and calcium deposits in most of your joints..." They formulate a straight hurting regimen, and go for it. The fight itself is short and well-shot. The way it is presented, it is clear that the outcome is not important - what is important is how Rocky regains himself.
Despite the things that click, there are things that go wrong too - apart from the dialog, with the exception of Stallone and Burt Young as Paulie, most of the other actors are trying their best to not embarrass themselves, without endeavoring to savor their parts. The background score is inconsistent, and some editing needs to be called out as more charitable than necessary.
And yet - *sigh* and YET - the film clicks. The Rocky charm works, the bad jokes work, the well shot but uninterestingly choreographed fight works, the relationships work, the Rocky theme... oh boy, it works too. This film had no business being enjoyable, and yet it is. This is a film for Rocky fans, or simply people who like stories with large doses of heart in it. After 21 years, a sequel that the first film truly deserved.