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Like Rocky himself, 2006’s Rocky Balboa was a true underdog. When news broke that Stallone was dragging his (then) 60-year-old self back in to the ring for one more round, it was met with enough simultaneous eye-rolls to reverse the Earth’s rotation. Sly was mocked as, at best, living in the ’80s and, at worst, being completely delusional. There was no way any of us could conceive of a new Rocky movie that would be in any way plausible, let alone enjoyable beyond ironic spectacle. But Stallone did something nobody predicted: He took a character that defined Hollywood’s blockbuster franchise mentality and dropped him in something like an independent art film. In doing so, Stallone took himself and the icon he created back to their roots. And he did it so well that the seemingly preposterous premise of an AARP-aged boxer going up against the Heavyweight Champ actually comes off as the most human, the most relatable, and the most real Rocky movie since the Oscar-winning original.
News of Rocky Balboa was met with enough simultaneous eye-rolls to reverse the Earth’s rotation
To be fair, Rocky Balboa does ask for two suspensions of disbelief: First, you must forget the extent of the brain damage referenced in Rocky V, and second, you’ve got to believe the boxing commission would allow a man of Rocky’s age—no matter how startlingly fit he appears—to compete in a sanctioned fight. In the grand scheme of what movies ask us to check at the door, those are pretty minor concessions. Besides, Stallone says he’s consulted with medical specialists who’ve confirmed that many athletes with the type of brain injury referenced in Rocky V were, in fact, able to recover and compete professionally. Ok, we’ll buy that. We’re also buying Rocky’s plea to the boxing commission to reconsider their initial rejection of his boxing license, which moved us enough to believe it would have also moved a room full of old men not ready to retire their own hopes and dreams.
The relationships between the characters are the core of the film
But here’s what requires absolutely no suspension of disbelief: The relationships between the characters, old and young, that are the core of the film. By 2006, Rocky is living alone in the same Philly neighborhood he fought his way out of in 1976. He’s lost his fame, his fortune, and his beloved Adrian (to “woman cancer” — one subtle example of how beautifully Stallone crafts Rocky’s character through his words). All he’s got left is an Italian restaurant, some old boxing stories to entertain the diners, and memories he can’t stop wallowing in. But those aren’t memories of Drago, Clubber Lang, or James Brown’s resplendent blue blazer. Nope, Rocky’s memories are of life before he was a champion and he’s holding on tight to the people who were with him when he was just another bum from the neighborhood. There’s a perfectly painted, paternally (and thankfully) platonic relationship between Rocky and “Little Marie,” the girl he befriended back in the day who’s now a single mom working nights at the bar. Pauly is still hanging around, too, and every scene he shares with Rocky shows a deep love, but one buried under three decades of swallowed feelings and barely tolerated ball-busting that the recent crop of on-screen bromances could only hope to grow in to.
By far, though, the most important relationship in Rocky Balboa is the fractured bond Rocky struggles to repair with a son more embarrassed than proud of his has-been dad’s history. It’s the soul of the movie and it’s rendered with more heart than it takes to win some silly little boxing match. Milo Ventimiglia plays Robert Balboa, and the kid not only looks enough like Stallone to be kin, he also subtly channels just enough of Rocky’s mannerisms and expressions to convey the subconscious and sometimes reluctant bond between fathers and sons. It’s the kind of acting that’s too good to be noticed, no matter how much it deserves to be. When the two men finally air their disappointments with each other, the conversation is too-real mess of bottled-up pity, rage, regret, and longing that is both gutting and inspiring as it spills out on the empty street outside Adrian’s Restaurant.
So, yeah, here we are, five paragraphs deep in to an article about a Rocky movie, and we’ve barely mentioned boxing. Don’t worry. It’s there. It’s still a Rocky movie, complete with a training montage and a big, shiny, climactic bout in Vegas. But like the football in Friday Night Lights, the boxing in Rocky Balboa is a point of the plot but not the point of the plot. Had the movie ended, Sopranos-style, with a hard cut to black the moment the first-round bell sounded, it would have still been a completely satisfying film. Maybe even a better one. This is a movie about a man who got kicked off the ladder he spent his life climbing and is left figuring out how accept who and what’s left for him at the bottom. It’s about what it took to get back in the ring, not what happened when he got there. It’s a humble character study that nobody saw coming, which is probably why so few people saw it at all. And that’s a shame. Because it’s the true sequel to the original Rocky and one that still works — and maybe works even better — if you hadn’t seen the four films that happened in between. And while Stallone is getting deservedly praised for his portrayal of Rocky in Creed, Rocky Balboa argues that he should have been accepting those accolades a decade ago.