A good friend of mine (who happens to be the self-proclaimed "biggest Rocky fan ever") asked me what I thought about Rocky Balboa without giving anything away. I told him, "If you absolutely adore the original Rocky, then you will not be disappointed with Rocky Balboa." And that's it in a nutshell -- the sixth (and final) installment in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky franchise doesn't try to to be the best, and it certainly isn't the worst. It just is.
Amazingly, it's been thirty years since Rocky first entered our hearts and souls, seemingly coming from nowhere to win film's top prize: Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Like the film and its star, Rocky Balboa (the character) was basically a nobody -- just a local boxer from the streets of Philadelphia who barely got by in life earning a living working in a meat factory, as well as collecting debts for a loan shark. However, he's given the chance of a lifetime when the heavyweight champ of the world, Apollo Creed, comes to Philly to find a local boxer to fight him for the belt as part of a publicity stunt. Somewhere in between, Rocky falls in love with a girl from the pet shop, Adrian, and it's their relationship that helps define him as a man. With her in his corner, no matter what the outcome, he cannot lose. And it remains that way for years -- through fight after fight, sequel after sequel -- Rocky and Adrian, a love that heals all wounds. But then it happens, and Rocky is dealt a punch he cannot dodge or recover from ...
... Adrian dies. Described by The Champ as "women's cancer," Rocky Balboa finds our hero struggling to get by without being able to lean on his wife for support. He spends most of his time running a quaint little restaurant, Adrian's, in which he often roams about entertaining customers with old stories. As the anniversary of Adrian's death approaches, a reluctant Paulie (Burt Young) joins Rocky on what appears to be an annual tradition: a trip around Philly to all the special places (the ice rink, the pet shop) both Rocky and Adrian shared over the years. It's painful for both men -- Paulie wants to forget the past, while Rocky doesn't want to let it go -- and so these two old friends find a way to get by, taking cracks at one another as always, but with an emptiness that's not only talked about, it's felt ... by Rocky, by Paulie and by all of us.
Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) has grown into a man and taken a big suit-and-tie corporate job as part of a way to escape from underneath the shadows of his father and establish his own identity. Yet, in Philly, where Rocky can't walk down the street or visit his son at work without stopping to high-five a fan or sign the occasional autograph, it's practically impossible for Rocky Jr. to live his own life without Dad popping up in one way, shape or form. Thus, he distances himself from his father and the loneliness Rocky feels is unbearable. That is, until he meets up with Marie (Geraldine Hughes) -- a local bartender with whom Rocky befriended a long time ago (those fans of the original should remember her character). Now all grown up with a mischievous son of her own, Rocky finds comfort in his conversations with Marie and, while it's still too soon for romance, the two discover a connection -- one that spills over to her son, Steps (James Francis Kelly III), who Rocky takes under his wing.
Another thing that's missing from the world (apart from a supporting role by Talia Shire) is the sport of boxing. The current champ (and real-life boxer), Mason "The Line' Dixon (Antonio Tarver), has coasted through roughly thirty matches with no real competition. Thus, fans boo him -- not because he's a mean guy -- but because he wins too easily. When a few bored producers over at ESPN create a computer-generated fight between Rocky and Dixon, the outcome (which has Rocky winning) stirs up curiosity in not only Rocky, but in Dixon's management -- a couple of guys who are desperate to improve their fighter's image with the public.
With no clear cut explanation behind his motivations (other than the fact that there's still some fight left in him), Rocky decides to come out of retirement and apply for a license, only to be turned down for being too old ... or something like that. So, together with Dixon's management, Rocky finds himself face-to-face with yet another publicity stunt -- this time he's much older, and there's a lot more flashy glamor (Vegas, HBO) behind the sport of boxing. It's at this point that Rocky Balboa turns into the kind of film most fans want to see -- there's the training montage, the famous run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, that classic Bill Conti score and, well, the fight. And a pretty good one, at that.
That's not to say Rocky Balboa (the film, not the character) doesn't run into a host of problems along the way. For one, Mason "The Line "Dixon is an extremely poorly written character, so much so that the guy barely has a presence in the film. He's neither bad nor good -- at some points the script wants you to root for him, while at other times it wants you to despise him -- and so, if it wasn't for that last fight, one could almost chalk him up as a non-existent character. Same goes for a cute little subplot involving Rocky and Marie's son, Steps. It just disappears, and Stallone hopes a few shots of the kid thrown in at the end will make up for the lack of a conclusion to that unnecessary part of the story.
It's obvious this film is all about Stallone, who in so many ways mirrors his main character: Living in the past and desperate for one more shot at redemption. Rocky Balboa is like returning to the spot where you shared your wonderful honeymoon years later and discovering that the hotel isn't in good shape, the room kind of smells and the staff isn't as friendly ("Why did we decide to come back here again?). So, instead of finding a way to enjoy yourself in the here and now, you close your eyes, listen to the waves crashing and remember how it once was. If that's enough to put a smile on your face, then scrape together ten bucks and join Rocky for one last round.