A full sixteen years after the last installment, Sylvester Stallone’s iconic boxing underdog returned to the silver screen in Rocky Balboa. The success of the film helped to directly lead to the growth of a sub-genre of films that show action stars well past their prime but still able to compete in their various fields. Films like The Expendables, The Last Stand and A Good Day to Die Hard owe a big debt to Rocky Balboa, and it created a fitting final fight for the beloved character to boot.
Former World boxing champion Rocky Balboa (Stallone) finds his name back in the media spotlight after the release of a new boxing computer game that features him and allows players to box as him. This sparks a debate over who is better, Rocky or current World champion (the impossibly named) Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver), after a bit of gentle coercion, Rocky agrees to hold an exhibition match to see who the best really is.
Where Rocky IV jumped into a strange parody of the franchise, Rocky Balboa looks back lovingly over its former highlights and condenses them into one film. There’s financial adversity, familial differences, montages, the classic Rocky ending and in the standout scene an emotional Rocky giving life lessons to his son that could have been written by one of literature’s great masters.
It could so easily have fallen into the traps that Rocky IV suffered from, with an overblown, allegorical, superhero performance from the Italian Stallion, but instead is grounded in a sleazy version of reality. It’s a fun place to visit, and helps to set the scene for the glitzy, glamorous and rousing final fight.
By the time the final bell rings, you must have a cynical heart of stone not to feel anything for the combatants and this has always been Rocky’s greatest strength, the ability to make a believer out of anyone. It’s big, lumbering, familiar and an absolute blast.