Rocky Balboa is a curious movie. As the latest movie in a series that went steadily downhill after the first installment, the expectations were as low as they could ever get. But, like Rocky himself, it is a surprising triumph. Not a universal one, though – it is about an old boxer coming back to the ring for one last fight, but the only thing about it that doesn’t work is the fight itself.
For more than three-fourths of its running time, the movie is just a quiet, well-observed portrait of a man we cheered for three decades ago, when he landed an unexpected title bout with the reigning champion and won his self-respect, and the love of his life, by going the distance. Now he runs a restaurant named after his beloved Adrian (who passed away a few years ago), does a few pull-ups from the bar outside his house every morning, and lives a quiet life surrounded by the relics of a life long past. “If you live in a place long enough, you become that place,” he says at one point. This segment is slow, patient and has an emotional power that defies all explanation.
A lot of screen time in this segment concerns Marie, the girl he once walked home and gave some advice to in the first Rocky movie, who has now become a bartender with sad eyes and a beaten-down attitude. When he becomes reacquainted with her, he does what little he can to improve her life. In a lesser movie, she would’ve become a love interest; Stallone, however, understands Rocky better. He still sees her as “Little Marie”, the girl who he tried to straighten out when she was a kid. She needed help then, and she needs it now; they’ve both grown older, but relative to each other, they’re still the same. There’s even a quiet little moment when she wonders about this, but recognizes his feelings for what they are. The gentle, unforced nature of this relationship is one of the best aspects of the movie.
And then there’s the fight. Rocky decides to get back into the ring, mostly just because he wants to return to the one thing he loved the most other than Adrian. He plans to fight a few small-time bouts. But fate has other plans. A computer program that simulates how he would’ve performed against the reigning heavyweight champion (had he been in his prime) throws him up as the winner, and the money-makers are suddenly interested. They convince him to fight an exhibition match against the champ, the obviously nicknamed Mason “The Line” Dixon. He agrees.
What follows is the customary montage of him jogging through the cold weather and doing push-ups and weights and what not, ending with him pumping his fists on top of the steps at the Philadelphia art museum – I suppose Stallone realized that, if he didn’t do that, longtime Rocky fans would be offended beyond all belief. Following which there’s the fight, where Rocky turns up, as usual, to be more than a handful for his celebrated opponent. This part not only stretches credibility, but also feels strangely obligatory. You root for Rocky, sure, but only because you’ve grown up rooting for him.
However, that glitch apart, this is a solid motion picture with more to offer than the standard sports movie. If this is, as Stallone says, the last in the series, it is indeed heartening to see it going out on a high.