Rocky Retrospective: Rocky Balboa.

Posted: November 13, 2016 in Rocky Retrospective
Tags: , , ,

2016 is the 40th anniversary of the movie Rocky, and also happens to be the year I turn 40. There’s probably no other set of movies that are so ingrained into my life. I’d thought a lot about writing about this series, so here goes. What I’m going to do is write a piece about each movie, not just a review, but how each film was a part of my life. I would start with Creed, but I did review that when it came out, which was just last year so I don’t think I have anything new to say about it. So I’ll start with 2006‘s Rocky Balboa and move backwards from there.

Rocky V came out in 1990, and at the time was billed to be “the last Rocky film.” However, it was neither a financial or critical success. Throughout the 90’s there were rumors off and on of Stallone wanting to do another, but they never got off the ground. In fact, on the DVD commentary track of Rocky Balboa, Stallone recalls a studio executive telling him another Rocky movie will get made “over my dead body.”

Eventually through a change in management the project got green lit. I remember hearing about it in the news, and even though I was a big fan, I was till like “man just let it go Sly.” While Rocky V wasn’t as good I thought it wrapped the series up well under the premise that this would be it. Plus, what could a Rocky movie set in the 21st century possibly be about?

Cut to 2006. At some point I was at home surfing the internet, and, back when YouTube was a brand new thing (which is a whole story in itself, YouTube was launched in 2005), somehow, someway I stumbled upon this video.

This was super intriguing to me (I remember wondering if he said “What is it you said today kid,” or “What is it you said to the kid?”). I was surprised how dark it was. Nothing about the plot, just this message that life is absolutely brutal, but you just gotta keep moving and take the hits.

Not to get too heavy, but around this time I was going through a real low point in my life. I’m a teacher by trade, but found myself in a different profession. For various reasons I ended up taking a job teaching in South Korea in the summer of 2006. If I remember correctly a second trailer dropped after I got to Korea, followed by a third. These last two trailers revealed more of the plot, and I watched them religiously, but with cautious enthusiasm.

The release date date was December 20th, right before my 30th birthday. In Korea often times the big blockbuster movies open prior to their American release dates, but other movies come later. It did not come to Korea right away, but eventually arrived in February of 2007.

Rocky Balboa was the only Rocky I’d actually seen in the theaters (until last year’s Creed). The theater was packed, and I turned to a Korean next to me asking if he was a Rocky fan. He said “All my life.”

It was a pleasant surprise. I remember early on thinking to myself “Wow this is actually really good.” If you haven’t seen it, the basic plot is Adrian has died, and Rocky’s been racked with grief since. Not knowing what to do with himself, he decides to be active in boxing again, but his intentions are not to do big fights. In his mind he sees himself doing small local fights just to be active. Meanwhile, the current Heavyweight boxing champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon is very unpopular, and is accused of taking easy matches. Balboa is reluctantly goaded into accepting an exhibition match with Dixon. Rocky faces public ridicule and doubt for fighting at his age, but he uses this fight to exorcise his demons and deal with the grief of losing is wife. Just as the first movie did, Rocky Balboa paralleled where Stallone was in his life at the time. Stallone faced the same ridicule for making another Rocky that the fictional character faced for having another fight, and it worked. The whole movie had the theme of doing what you needed to do despite the criticism you will catch for doing it.

On the DVD commentary Stallone says this scene below reflects the frustration he faced in trying to get this movie made.

“It’s your right to listen to your gut, it aint nobody’s right to say no when you earned the right to be where you wanna be and do what you wanna do.” I can honestly say this scene shook me when I first saw it in the theater.

Then there’s this scene.

Stallone says it is his understanding that this scene affected people most. It’s the same speech from the teaser trailer, only done more dramatic, with the added line “that’s how winning is done!” The son is really seeing what his father is made of, and there is Rocky on the screen, telling his son, telling me, telling the audience directly, this is life, this is what it takes to get through life.

Only Stallone could have directed Rocky Balboa, however, another director might have developed Mason’s character more, for  it is as much his story as it is Rocky’s. One way the script gets around how Mason wouldn’t beat Rocky right away, is that Mason’s hand gets broken in the second round. This puts him in his own Joseph Campbell like journey where he must prove himself, his own trial by fire.

Having said that, one way we judge art, apart from its technique and aesthetics, is how it affects us personally. Granted, a lot of the emotional weight of this movie rests on knowing its previous entries, but I doubt there will be many movies in the rest of my lifetime that will genuinely affect me this much. A message from my favorite movie character of how you gotta do what you gotta do lined up just about perfectly for me. Rocky Balboa is simply the best Rocky sequel, and is almost the best of the series.

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