"Rocky! Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!"
I actually had an opportunity to be part of that faceless crowd, probably chanting Rocky "The Italian Stallion" Balboa's name as he goes to the ring, and knocks around Mason "The Line" Dixon, in Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, Nevada. I was in Vegas one entire week of December 2004, and on a cold morning I was watching the tail end of the Las Vegas Marathon (there were a couple of major events in Vegas that weekend, including a rodeo), when the news made an announcement they were looking for hundreds of movie extras for a crowd scene for Rocky Balboa, All you needed to do was to head on down to Mandalay Bay. I thought it would involve plenty of time wasted mulling around, and Sly Stallone would likely not be there, so decided against going there (I was staying at the Flamingo's, so getting to Mandalay Bay by walking there as the roads were slowly opening up, wasn't my idea of fun). Boy, did I regret it now.
I enjoyed Rocky Balboa tremendously, even though it was formulaic and probably a carbon copy of the original in terms of telling an underdog's tale. Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, this is very much his comeback movie as it is for his character Rocky Balboa, when the fifth installment of the franchise was considered the weakest of the lot, and a let down to its predecessors. When the movie was announced, many people sniggered and wrote it off outright, as being nothing new to offer on the table, of letting dead dogs lie, that Stallone was out of ideas and needed to revisit past glories to try and get his career back on track.
However, Rocky Balboa, although it goes full circle and back to the original, is one that is plenty of heart as it parallels loosely the challenges of an ex-star trying to make a return. Of having to address that fire in the belly, of, like Rocky says, clearing stuff in the basement. In this movie, it's been many years since Rocky last fought in the ring, and now into semi-retirement with his laid back style of running an Italian restaurant (with Mexican cooks) named Adrian's (after his wife), sharing ring action stories with his diners, and pining for his deceased wife.
A computerized mock fight between Rocky and the current World Heavyweight Champ Mason The Line Dixon (Antonio Tarver) sparked that feeling of wanting to enter the ring inside Rocky, and what I found intriguing was Mason Dixon actually, and the state of the affairs he represents - those without heart, no passion, in it for the money, and competitors who give up easily when the going gets tough. It's not easy being the champion when you have weak competition, and the publicity machinery go into overdrive in setting up a win-win situation between the two fighters.
Don't expect much interaction between Rocky and Dixon, as they leave most of their combined screen time to the ring. And for those who thinks that this movie is all about slugging it out, are you so wrong. I tip my hat to Stallone for actually writing a movie with adequate sensitivity, in further developing the Rocky character in his twilight years, and that examination of family life, of developing passion in the things that you do. Rocky Jr (now played by Milo Ventimiglia) forms the main emphasis of this examination, of having to grow up in his father's huge shadow, of being the offspring of someone famous, and the tendency of blaming everyone but himself for his being miserable. That dialogue between father and son, I thought was almost what every father and son relationship would have grappled with at one point or another, and it rings home the message, even as you feel that lump in the throat forming.
I felt the much touted bout between Rocky and Dixon was actually quite plain, with fast forwarding used as well as freeze frames, but somehow, the intensity, power, aggression still rang through. In fact, I was almost at the edge of my seat as Rocky and Dixon slugged it out in brutal fashion - gladiator against gladiator, the experienced against the fleet footed, the old school of hard knocks versus the emptiness of current glamour.
And there were the classic iconic moments which get repeated, like that run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in that grey tracksuit, that all too familiar musical theme blaring in the background, and the training montage which all but sends goosebumps. The coming together of familiar faces, of old friends, and family, make this very much an ensemble piece orchestrated to an incredible crescendo when it mattered.
Rocky Balboa is a fitting finale to the franchise, a worthy tribute and a fitting farewell to a legendary, enduring screen hero who's finally decided to hang up his gloves. I won't be surprised that this movie will actually win over some new fans to the original movies, and one thing's for sure, I'm sold, and I'm recommending this.
For anyone wanting a quick summary of all the preceeding movies, you can click on this Wikipedia link.