Can we all just close our eyes and pretend that
Rocky V never happened? Because if ever there were a franchise-finisher to be remembered for staging the Italian Stallion's final bout,
Rocky Balboa, due out Dec. 20, portends to be it. Having grown up with this film series, I cheered and I cried at a press screening last week, as the famed palooka-turned-pugilist entered the ring just one more, most memorable time.
The Oscar-winning Rocky and its first follow-up were seminal films, even coining the term "a Rocky story" to sum up the tale of an underdog (in this case, a loan shark's sad-sack collection man) who overcomes the odds to achieve greatness - a bid for both true love and the title.
Rocky III, with the arrival of Mr. T's Clubber Lang, found Rocko facing his fiercest opponent yet - as Burgess Meredith's Mickey reveals (in his raspy growl) that previous comers "wuz hand-picked!" - and then dealing with the loss of the trainer he for so long held dear. Rocky IV, an ode to '80s excess and the Cold War and an unabashed American flag-waving collection of musical montages, nonetheless was a crowd-rouser, as witnessed at the Stamford Trans-Lux theater where I ushered during that winter of '85. Yes, I can quote the film from start to finish ("If he dies, he dies") as well as tell you, based solely on the musical score, exactly when Rocky KO's Drago.
I am not a film reviewer by trade - TVGuide.com has Maitland and Ken for that - and Rocky Balboa may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it really struck a chord with me. It's no spoiler to disclose that in this sixth entry, we find Rocky, some 10 years after the fact, coping with his loss of Adrian to "the woman's cancer." When Rocko isn't regaling the patrons of his Italian eatery with well-worn tales from the ring, he's visiting Adrian's grave, and regularly coerces a boozier-than-ever Paulie ( Burt Young) into touring the marrieds' old haunts (the ice rink, the pet shop...), each stop punctuated by a judicious, at times clever use of Talia Shire flashbacks. Meanwhile, Robert Balboa (né Rocky Jr.) - an earring-wearing punk in V and now a suited-up corporate drone played by Heroes' Milo Ventimiglia - has a fractured relationship with his pop, whose shadow still looms large.
Elsewhere, playing out what seems to be his own version of the Rocky II/Apollo Creed story line, an (of course) undefeated Mason "the Line" Dixon (real-life light-heavyweight fighter Antonio Carver) is taking no pleasure in his title, especially when an ESPN simulation suggests that an in-his-prime Balboa would knock the current champ to tomorro'. And thus, the stage is set for Rocky's final fight, one in which our punch-drunk hero hopes to purge the beast that has been eating at him since Adrian's too-soon passing, to find some sort of apt closure for his storied life.
It shames me none at all to say that Stallone, who wrote and directed Rocky Balboa, had my eyes welling up on several occasions, including during a monologue that will knock you to the mat. And the film does have some moments of original- Rocky greatness. Save for some obtrusive HBO branding during the big fight, there is nothing "cheap" about this cinematic coda. Stallone was obviously trying to salvage the series from the taint of Part V by infusing this film with loads and loads of heart, and boy does it have it. I haven't even mentioned a charming subplot regarding a single mom (Irish-born Geraldine Hughes, in a winning big-screen debut) from the ol' neighborhood whom Rocky befriends.
Can Rocky's will overcome his half-as-old opponent's skill? Can he emerge standing in the fight of - the fight for - his life? Or is America's and filmdom's indefatigable icon down for the count at last and set to leave behind an impressive legacy? Whatever the on-screen outcome, suffice it to say that, even three decades later, the fighter from Philly still packs an emotional punch. Yo, Rocky - you did it.