Wednesday 25 July 2007

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Wednesday 25 July 2007
WRITER & DIRECTOR: Sylvester Stallone
CAST: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Burt Young (Paulie Panina), Milo Ventimiglia (Rocky Balboa, Jr), Geraldine Hughes (Marie), James Francis Kelly III (Stephenson), Tony Burton (Tony "Duke" Evers) & Antonio Tarver (Mason "The Line" Dixon)

Former boxing champion Rocky Balboa is tempted out of retirement to fight in an exhibition match against the current champ...

It's been 16 years since Sylvester Stallone's iconic creation, Rocky Balboa, last appeared on-screen (in the execrable Rocky V), but an incredible 30 years since the character first won the hearts of moviegoers back in 1975, winning three Oscars (including Best Picture).

The slew of sequels included the competent (79's Rocky II), the dumb (82's Rocky III), the silly (85's Rocky IV) and the hated (90's Rocky V). Sylvester Stallone's acting career has been defined by the character, in the same way Arnold Schwarzenegger never escaped The Terminator. But Rocky wasn't just a memorable acting gig for Stallone, lest we forget he actually wrote the film's Oscar-winning screenplay and continues to be closely associated with the sport of boxing. As a struggling actor in Hollywood, Stallone's story also paralleled his fictional heroes' ambition in many ways.

So here it is: round 6 of the saga, although a "VI" numeral was wisely dropped. It's the sequel that had people sniggering when it was announced, perceived as both a vanity project for Stallone and a last-ditch attempt to resurrect his failing movie career. There's probably some truth in what the cynics think, although Stallone's desire to bring the story full-circle, erasing the mistake of Rocky V for fans, probably figured more prominently in Stallone's mind.

Rocky Balboa finds the former boxing champion still living in his hometown of Philadelphia, running an Italian restaurant called Adrian's (named after his dead wife, who was so prominent in the previous films). He's a much-loved local celeb these days, regailing diners with fight stories, although his white-collar son, Rocky Jr (Milo Ventimiglia), isn't happy standing in the shadow of his illustrious father.

Things get started when a computer simulation of a fight between current champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver) and Rocky "The Italian Stallion" Balboa, ends with Rocky winning by knockout. The buzz surrounding this result gives Dixon's management the idea to stage an exhibition match against the real Rocky. It will be good P.R for the champ, particularly as there are no decent competitors for Dixon to fight from the modern boxing world.

As writer-director, Stallone clearly intends this sixth movie to be a true sequel to the '76 original. Indeed, you could probably skip Rocky II-V and still have a rewarding experience. There aren't many films able to gaze back on a three-decades history, so Stallone takes every opportunity to milk inherent nostalgia.

If you grew up watching the Rocky films, you'll reap more reward from the story than newcomers will, but that isn't to say Rocky Balboa is designed for an exclusive club. It works perfectly well as a standalone movie about a burned-out boxer who decides to reignite the fire in his belly... just one last time.

Stallone is a competent director, but not a great one. The film is rough around the edges and little is done to enliven proceedings. There are a few nice shots (Rocky framed, ghost-like, by headlights as he remmebers his own ghosts at a formerice rink, for example), but it's fairly pedestrian visually. Nothing is distractingly awful, but neither is it as cinematic as you'd hope.

The script is stronger, but even that can be boiled down to a handful of good scenes and some memorable dialogue, drip-fed for over an hour, before the obligatory training montage (set to Bill Conti's classic theme) heralds the start of the Rocky vs Dixon rumble. If you've seen the film's trailer, you've essentially seen the best moments of the film condensed into a few minutes -- minus the result of the bout, of course.

The performances are the thing that pastes over most deficiencies, with Stallone obviously the star-turn as Rocky; the lovable lug who isn't exactly intellectual, but can convey his feelings when pushed into a corner and isn't afraid to stand up for what's right. He's the focus of everything, but never overwhelms the other actors.

Milo Ventimiglia does solid work as his son, a weedy businessman who struggles to find his own direction in life because of his father's fame. Ventimiglia has a few great scenes with Stallone, particularly a confrontation on a street late at night. He's a bit of a drip, but his predicament is relatable for anyone with more successful parents, in whatever arena.

Burt Young is great as Paulie, his presence giving the film a firm grounding, particularly in his exasperation at Rocky's predicament and the fact he's one of the film series' constants. Also back for more is Tony Burton as hard-ass trainer Tony "Duke" Evers, getting to deliver a brilliantly rousing rousing speech in that wonderful voice of his ("let's start building some hurtin' bombs!")

Antonio Tarver is a boxer not an actor, but does okay as Mason Dixon, making him less a villain and more a spoiled child surrounded by bad management. At any rate, it's a good move away from the pantomime villains of Rocky III (Mr T's Clubber Lang) and Rocky IV (Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago).

Geraldine Hughes is essentially given the "Adrian role" as Rocky's love-interest Marie, although their relationship never develops that deeply. Hughes is okay in a role that doesn't require much of her, particularly in the latter third when she's relegated to a cheering/concerned face, along with Burt Young and Milo Ventimiglia.

It's a heart-felt film, with little flash, but plenty of spirit. Like its hero, it's a little shambolic, slow to get going, and rarely surprises you... but it's just about rescued by the finale. The central boxing match is handled well, particularly in its realism (real Vegas crowds, real punches being thrown by the actors, little choreography, realistic sound effects). It's more affecting than the cartoony fights of previous Rocky films, although Stallone unnecessarily tries to spice up proceedings by draining colour and over-editing things in the latter stages. It all gets a bit too tricksy for its own good, but just about keeps its eye on the ball. From the moment the crowd start chanting "Ro-cky! Ro-cky!" you'll be hooked.

I'm not going to ruin the ending by telling you the result, but it leaves you thankful Sly decided to dust-off Rocky Balboa one last time. This isn't a particularly slick movie, or even a great boxing movie, but it's an entertaining and likeable farewell to a cinematic icon.

MGM/20th Century Fox
Budget: $24 million
102 minutes