I’m fairly sure there’s never been a film like Rocky Balboa before. The closest is probably Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Rocky Balboa is about its story and its characters, but it’s also about the audience’s pre-exisiting relationship not with the characters, but with Rocky movies as a piece of history. Stallone uses this relationship early and sparsely, to establish Balboa as something worth watching. Once he’s done, he moves on to more interesting things, but Balboa maintains a mystique about it. The idea of a movie character aging in a film’s absence is one infrequently dealt with and usually poorly (The Color of Money). As a concept, it ought to work. (Clint Eastwood once said he’d do a ‘Dirty Harry Goes Fishing’ sequel). But Rocky Balboa is the first time I can think of it’s worked and it works really, really well. It’s easily the best film of the series (which, minus the first one, isn’t hard).
The boxing aspect of Rocky Balboa comes in so late, it’s actually unimportant to what’s going on in the movie itself. If Rocky had been a bowling champion, it’d be the same degree. Well, maybe not bowling. Arm-wrestling maybe. (I can’t remember the name of Stallone’s arm-wrestling movie). He’s old and he’s alone and it’s about him working his way out of a long rut, trying to reform a family around himself. When the boxing finally does come along, it seems like it might not even–if it weren’t a Rocky movie–go anywhere.
Stallone directs Balboa quieter than I’ve seen anyone direct a modern film in a long time. It’s a loving, patient approach and it works beautifully. Only when it gets to the boxing match, shot to look like a televised bout (on DV), does the film lose that understated beauty. Watching it, I wondered if Stallone intended it to look different because it actually was so removed from the rest of the film. I also wondered if it’d look different on DVD, once everything had been digitized. During the boxing match Stallone stumbles a little, trying to find the right way to present the story in film. These stumbles are never annoying though, just visible.
The acting from the principles is great–Stallone’s very aware of what he can and can not do and he only gives himself the stuff he can do. Similarly, Burt Young’s got a bunch of great stuff to do too. Geraldine Hughes plays a grown-up version of a character from the first film and she’s fantastic. Antonio Tarver is fine as the adversary, with some too weak scenes but enough to be a problem. As Rocky Jr., Milo Ventimiglia acts a little bit too much with his styled hair, but Stallone does a lot of work in those scenes and carries him through. The other scenes Ventimiglia’s in, he needs to look like a men’s watch model and manages. The stuff between Stallone and Young is great, but familiar. The stuff between Stallone and Hughes is great and new and somehow more rewarding, because this relationship is what kick-starts Rocky Balboa‘s story.
Going in to Balboa, I wasn’t expecting much. I was expecting something decent or at least inoffensively watchable, but certainly not something great. It was a really nice and totally unbelievable surprise.