Rocky Balboa

dir: Sylvester Stallone
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Why did this film have to be made? Was it because of you?

Did anyone want a sixth Rocky film? A film where a guy in his sixties steps into the ring once more at an age where what he should be fighting against is the onset of diabetes and osteoporosis? Whose greatest opponent should be his fragile hips?

I’ll tell you who demanded that this flick get made, who needed to see it through: Stallone himself. It is impossible to separate the motivations of the character from the actor/director. Rocky feels the need to once more step into the ring at a time and place so far passed its use-by date that the very idea is met with incredulity by all around him. Stallone resurrected and made this flick when no-one around him apart from accountants thought it should be made.

“Rocky/Sylvester, you’re too old, no-one thinks you can do it, you’ll embarrass yourself, get over your glory days and live in the present. Just let it go, old man, please, we’re begging you.”

But, like Don Quixote, like King Knut railing against the tide, like Rocky Balboa himself, Stallone refuses to admit his age and to admit his own irrelevancy in this modern day and age.

Stallone himself was recently busted for bringing heroic quantities of HGH (human growth hormone) into Australia, which is illegal. HGH has been used for decades by body-builders and wrestlers to help build and maintain muscle tone and mass, and to deny the passage of time. Now it seems to be joining botox and surgery as another weapon in the arsenal of the vain desperately fighting in vain to avoid aging.

So, the upshot is that there is much to be disgusted about with such a vanity project. On top of that, on top of such an ill-favoured and ill-fated construction, we can also expect metric tonnes of liquid cheese to be poured onto the endeavour. These are Rocky films after all, through which Stallone has done more for the cheese industry than every moo cow currently in existence.

It couldn’t work. Couldn’t possibly work, could it?

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has recently lost his wife Adrian (Talia Shire), and is somewhat estranged from his resentful son (Milo Ventimiglia). He looks, dresses and lives like he’s still the guy from the first flick, and like the last 30 years haven’t elapsed. The only difference is that he runs a successful restaurant now, where he regales his patrons with tales from his time in the ring. From the expressions on some of the faces of the patrons, a mixture of forced politeness and fear, it’s part of the painful experience of dining at Rocky’s.

Rocky, though content, is missing something. He hungers for something inchoate, abstract, unknowable even though it’s pretty obvious. The path leading him back to the ring is a long and confusing one, but it’s as inevitable as anything else in such a story.

What Rocky really wants is relevance; to the people in his life, to the people in his community, to various bums, well-wishers, bartenders. The achievements of his past aren’t quite enough. He mourns Adrian’s death and visits her grave on a seemingly daily basis. He still makes time and allowances for her vile, repugnant, hilarious brother Paulie (Burt Young). He craves the love and attention of his resentful son, who is suffocating under his father’s shadow.

He decides to become some kind of chivalrous patron to a woman he knew in his youth, and decides to be a benevolent father figure to her son. In his spare time, he tries to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to kiss and make up.

In between winning the Nobel Peace prize, he gets dragooned almost involuntarily into a exhibition match with the current heavyweight champ Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver). The improbably named champ gets no love, because all of his fights looked rigged because they end in the first few minutes, kind of reminiscent of the travesty matches Dredrick Tatum, I mean, Iron Mike Tyson fought in the uglier stages of his jeer-worthy, ear-biting career.

The champ resents the fact that no-one respects him, but his old-school handlers say the reason is because no-one has really tested him thus far. No one has put the fear into him, or pushed him to his limits. Can you guess who will step up and go toe-to-toe with the champ?

In case you’re wondering, it’s not Gore Vidal or Germaine Greer who steps into the ring. It’s not me, either. Rocky undergoes probably the quickest training montage in any of his films and fights the fight of his life to prove, something, I’m not sure what and to whom.

The training and fight take up just under half an hour of screen time. The other hour is all character and flashback, heavily laden with references to scenes, moments and dialogue from the other films, especially the first. Yes, there is even a scene of Rocky beating the meat in the abattoir. Breathe a sigh of relief over that one, please.

Now, nothing turns me on more than watching a 61 year-old-man punching an animal’s dead carcass, but the real amazement lies in viewing this man’ s incredible physique. It’s amazing that he still has all those muscles, even with all the hormones and steroids he’s clearly taking, but it’s even more amazing to see that his body looks like a giant strained testicle with arms, legs and a head.

The fight, after all the dramatic wherewithal and nostalgia, is mostly an afterthought, but a pleasing one nonetheless. The fight in reality would be over the moment this gargantuan current champ laid half a glove on such an old man’s head. But this is the Rocky franchise. No-one has done more to convince people that boxing matches involve the toughest of the tough giving and receiving hundreds of full strength punches to the head.

The fight, for such an unrealistic endeavour, actually manages to convince us of something which isn’t believable, because it acknowledges many of the physical realities of what such combat between these opponents would entail. Against all probability, against all the odds, Rocky Balboa succeeds most where it wants to, managing not to drown in the murky depths of all the cheese on offer. Goddamnit, it worked. I almost hate Sylvester Stallone for reminding me of the joy felt through watching his first ultimate underdog story, but I cannot begrudge him his chance to ride (or fight) again to prove that he can still do it. Since I had tears in my eyes at the end, how much can I criticise the film, shamelessly manipulative as it is?

I could accurately list all the adjectives appropriate here that would damn any other movie to ridicule and straight-to-dvd status, but it wouldn’t detract from the experience I had, virtually against my will, in enjoying the film. It is a fitting end to this franchise, and, we could only hope, a fitting end to Stallone’s life. But considering the fact that Stallone is also making another Rambo film (unsurprisingly named John Rambo, mirroring the obviousness of how it’s really Stallone’s desperate plea to be loved again that has initiated these productions), I think the old dog will refuse to go into that good night without a fight.

And who can blame him.

6 times such a fight should have been labelled a crime against humanity out of 10

“Do you have a reservation?
- Do I look like a freakin' Indian?” – ah, the delightfully racist Paulie, Rocky Balboa.