It's been a bit of an ongoing, annual joke among pundits that Sylvester Stallone would revisit his Rambo and Rocky characters one more time, given his work during the past five years has been less than stellar, so when he actually made another Rocky film (plus John Rambo now in production), the expectations among his detractors were pretty low, or at best, a hope the final entry would see Rocky knocked out and DOA on the boxing mat, finally putting an end to the franchise that peaked globally with Rocky III, reached a sublime level of kitsch in Rocky IV, and had the boxer rendered into a battle-scarred, brain-dented ghost in Rocky V.
Rocky V had Stallone reunited with Rocky's original director, John G. Avildsen - himself a director of little-guy-beats-the-odds pictures for much of his career – and teamed the character with a son (played by Stallone's own son, Sage), but in Rocky Balboa, Stallone re-aligns the character's mental state to that of a cogent, fully-functional, small-time restaurateur, and a widower trapped in the powerful memories of his past, with a son who's frankly embarrassed to be a Balboa no matter where he trods in Philadelphia.
As a screenwriter, Stallone's dialogue is usually pretty dismal, and characters often make facile statements and metaphors that kind of exist as connective tissue and building stones for key moments when a character delivers a Deep Personal Statement. Driven and Cliffhanger both showcase his best-worst, and Balboa has its share, but as Stallone recounts in his fairly consistent commentary track on the DVD, those moments in Balboa often reflect his own position as a former A-list star now relegated to the margins by the industry that benefited significantly from his sensational fan base.
In recalling his earnest efforts to get the final chapter in Rocky's life greenlit, the results from studio suits were often ‘over my dead body,' but like his character, Stallone proved stubborn, and perhaps as a forum for his own conflicts, he funneled his own issues into the script and ultimately delivered a performance that pretty much ranks as one of his best.
As an actor, he's comfortable playing the straight man in moments of absurdity, particularly with flippant companions – both Tango & Cash and Judge Dredd offer his best comedic moments compared to the dreadful straight comedies he willingly made in the eighties and nineties to contrast his global image as an action hero – and he's equally strong when his physical attributes (the muscles, the aging, and his inimitable visage) are affixed to a broken or beaten soul, as in Cop Land.
At 60, Stallone's aging perfectly suits the character, and we can respect the combat sequences that close the film because the actor is genuinely trading hits with real-life light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver. Filmed over three days in Las Vegas with a full stadium of extras, both the crowd and actors fed off the excitement, and Stallone's stylistic decision to shift from long takes of major hits during the first two rounds to ‘subliminal' impressions for the finale work quite well. The use of montages is predictable, but like Clint Eastwood, Stallone uses moments from past films to show the physical roughness that slowly emerged from each bout (and film to film).
For Rocky fans, Balboa should be a pleasing, albeit calmer capper to a long franchise that defied sour-mouthed critics, and continues to remain popular. Fans and the curious often like to revisit an entire series, and whether it's for James Bond or Rocky, the whole series (or the best flicks, if time's tight) is frequently revisited on the DVD front. Fans enjoy sharing a character's lifespan, and you could argue treading through the whole Rocky series is a nod of respect for the battered but immutable hero from the streets: it's somehow improper to say goodbye without coming to Rocky's swan song by sharing in some of the baggage that's shaped the character.
Stallone's film does have its share of montages, but the actor/writer/director keeps them to their bare minimum, more as perfunctory bridges to the scenes that really matter: the relationships that keep him grounded, and make Rocky feel alive. That means 2/3's of the film is just character, and while the pacing might be too middle age for action fans, those who've never given up on the character will appreciate Stallone's decision to give Rocky resonance in his final film, rather than treat him like an action figure who goes through the motions one more time.
The peripheral characters are still pretty thin and feel like shadows who once enjoyed their own resonating scenes in longer script drafts (particularly Marie's son Steps, and Rocky's own troubled son, Robert), but the shorter, final script arguably indicates Balboa wasn't wholly made for money, nor actorly ego or vanity; it's a creator saying goodbye to a beloved character, with a lot of contrasting elements from the past.
Even Bill Conti's music, while incessantly repeating the Rocky theme in 3 main renditions, is grounded in the urban and orchestral jazz sound from the 1976 film. Stallone also places the vocal track “Take You Back” over the main titles, making it clear to fans that Balboa will not tread into the glossy, gaudy kineticism of the last batch of sequels. (The irony is that the film's soundtrack album does revisit those elements, functioning as a commemorative platter, although that might be due to the film's sparse score and monothematic design, mandating more thematic variety for the Balboa CD.)
The DVD includes a large collection of deleted scenes, with a slightly longer edit of the ending (giving more time to the character of Marie), and an alternate version of a bar visit where Rocky meets Marie and establishes an important friendship. (It's the most interesting of the lot because it shows how Stallone recognized the connection between the two characters was completely smothered by the bar's busy surrounding. By stripping away peripheral characters and pulling back the performances into saddened and sometimes terse statements shrouded in drabness, the re-shot scene becomes a major highlight in the film.)
Other extras are the usual making-of featurettes and Stallone's affectionate commentary track, although fans should note this release won't be the final version; Stallone notes a bar scene that he intends to expand in the Director's Cut of the film. Unlike the feature film, that second DVD release will be purely for money and ego, but then double-dipping's been endemic to DVD for a while now.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan