Rocky Balboa
directed by Sylvester Stallone
(Sony, 2007)

Throughout the entirety of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa, we feel as if we are watching a man and his creation become one. Compared to the vast landscape of film directors in our world, there are few who can truthfully claim complete creation of their subject, and Stallone has the privilege of being one of them. I couldn't deny after watching the film that Stallone had somehow gotten it right. With this sixth installment in the Rocky series, Stallone has wiped away all of the bad press that brewed in the months awaiting the film's release. Instead of a continuation of the disastrous and embarrassing Rocky V, we sat down to watch a beautiful ode to the spirit of the original Rocky.

What is so amazing about Rocky Balboa is that the parallels that have always existed between the character Rocky and Sylvester Stallone actually morph into a straight line by the finale of this last film. We realize Rocky's final fight is the equivalent of Stallone's final film, and vice versa. This film could have easily been another pathetic grasp at box office money (like the majority of the public suspected), but instead it was presented as a poignant remembrance of what made Rocky so incredibly inspiring to the masses in the first place. Once again, Stallone is sharing with his audiences the fears and challenges of his personal life through his beloved character -- no longer is he cranking out the scripts for the sake of appeasing fans and a leech industry.

Much like the original we are brought into Rocky's world at a time when he is at his most vulnerable. However, this time, instead of battling a world in which he is a young and eager nobody, he is battling it as an old, heartbroken has-been. Newly widowed by the death of his wife Adrian (a character that became almost as iconic as Rocky himself) we find him taking nightly tours recounting the love story that we watched blossom in the first film. These tours cleverly give us the opportunity to remember the sweet and untainted tale we fell in love with, and allow Stallone to marinate in his ponderings of how far he has traveled since then.

It is hard to miss this detail throughout the film, because it comes up constantly; the film treats the subject as if the four films in between never existed at all with the exception of recounting Rocky's fighting history in defense of his heavyweight pride. It is not necessarily due to shame concerning these films, but more due to an intense attachment to the purity of his roots. Not that "being a bum" and working for a loan shark is pure. But wasn't there something homey about Rocky minus the mansion and the robot?

It becomes firmly established that Rocky is stuck in a circular life of nostalgia, and thanks to the supporting cast we understand the growing frustration that it is causing those around him. The word of thanks is used in all seriousness, because, like Rocky, we would probably relish the chance to relive it with him all over again ... and again and again and again. Stallone needed characters like Pauley to keep the film from becoming a "Where are They Now" segment. Besides, this is why we have the rewind button. The balance of the film between want and need encompasses all aspects of the hype surrounding it. Like Stallone, we wanted another selfish indulgence in the Rocky story, but we needed closure -- closure with commendable cinematography and a well-written story.

What I constantly noticed while watching the film was how the cinematography reflected this much aged and wiser Rocky. It is sophisticated and without pretension. We enjoy multiple scenes introduced with uncharacteristically high and steady camera angles that pan into the focus of their particular shot. Like Rocky the strength and vigor of the camera is saved for the final fight with moments of passion dispersed throughout the film. Recall the judging panel scene in which we see Rocky fight for his right to box despite his age and how the camera was angled from the point of view of the judges; the intensity of his speech was augmented by a disappointed Rocky bellowing directly into our faces (and those of the judges).

The final fight was stunning, because it had an element that no other Rocky fight had ever had. It had the advantage of decades of memories at its disposal. With the combination of the camerawork and the editing we are privy to Rocky's thoughts and memories. We hear the reel of mental coaching on a constant loop in his head, and we see the flashbacks that appear in black and white in moments of wavering consciousness. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that it is the final fight.

In terms of the storyline, Stallone is true to the formula we know and love, but for this film he creates a narrative that is refreshing as well as familiar. Instead of positioning Rocky as an innocent bystander in the manipulations of an egotistical heavyweight champion, he recognizes and admits the yearning in Rocky to fight one more time. This is perhaps the most important similarity between the creator and his creation. Whether it was the restlessness or the sense of unfinished business both set themselves up to continue on a little bit further with what they love; Rocky with his boxing license renewal and Stallone with his final movie script. All in all, it is an interesting paradox in the film that Rocky somehow jumpstarts his life again by satisfyingly ending a chapter of it.

As for Sylvester Stallone, we cannot say for sure if it is the same for him. We can only recognize the undeniable and unique bond that he has nourished for all of these years with a project and a character that are responsible for his legend in film history.

review by
Molly Ebert

1 August 2009

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