When last we saw Rocky Balboa, our prized overachieving contender (played to monosyllabic perfection by Sylvester Stallone
) had prevailed in a street fight against his protégé, Tommy "Machine" Gunn (Tommy Morrison).
The Italian Stallion may have triumphed that day, but the feel-good franchise long since had thrown in the towel. Rocky V did more damage to the character's legacy than Ivan Drago, Clubber Lang, and Apollo Creed combined. It issued a crushing TKO to a collection of films that celebrated victory in the face of impossible odds, and it left a horrible taste in fans' mouths. By all accounts, the final bell had rung on Rocky. Article continues below
But if we've learned anything about Balboa over the years, it's that he never stays on the mat for long. After each significant beating, the thick-skulled bruiser digs deep into his immeasurable heart to find the resolve to stand up, keep fighting and win in the end. Rocky Balboa has to be the boxer's final round. Stallone, writing and directing this proper goodbye, single-handedly infuses the film with an overpowering will to go the distance. And by every account, it is a fantastic Rocky sequel, a melancholic victory lap down memory lane for the iconic underdog.
That doesn't mean Balboa is a great movie. It has its share of flaws. Burt Young
returns as Paulie, whose temper tantrums have always been a wart on the uplifting story line. Newcomer Milo Ventimiglia
steps in to play Rocky's son, a Philly stock trader living in his dad’s shadow, but the underdeveloped character only shows up when our hero -- now 60 and running a restaurant named for his dead wife -- starts to gain a little confidence and needs an obstacle to bring him back down to earth. Here he's fighting the current champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon. But the guy gets precious little screen time; he's the least developed Rocky villain of all.
But Stallone makes enough wise decisions to keep Balboa above water. He returns to the character-driven formula of the first Rocky, spotlighting the man's emotional baggage outside of the ring. (The film contains approximately 10 minutes of boxing, which is more than enough.) Balboa generates sufficient nostalgia, lacing Bill Conti's fist-pumping score behind the familiar training montage. You'll swear it is 1976 all over again.
A candid Stallone has admitted in interviews that his dissatisfaction with Rocky V inspired him to craft Balboa, so the people's champion -- and the character he's most often associated with -- could exit the ring with his head held high. Mission accomplished.