For the month of January, the contenders of Deadshirt are looking at the high highs (and low lows) of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise. For each installment, Deadshirt film editor Max Robinson sits ringside with another Deadshirt staffer to discuss the film. Max and Chuck Winters go the distance and discuss Rocky Balboa’s surprising rebirth of the Rocky franchise.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Max: Rocky V was, well, a big snooze, to put it lightly. But Stallone’s first return to the Rocky franchise, Rocky Balboa, is a markedly better film in pretty much every respect. Stallone returns to direct, and I think the major thing here is that Rocky Balboa *feels* like a real drama in a way the Rocky sequels really don’t. At worst, the film leans on the original film as too much of a touchstone, but I gotta say, I really dig it. Chuck, what’s your take?
Chuck: First, I have to admit: I haven’t seen Rocky V. I read the back and forth between you and David to catch up, and my theory — if I’m even entitled to one — is that V was made out of desperation. There were some good intentions there, some interesting ideas that carried over, but it couldn’t really work because there was a certain level of cognitive dissonance to it. Stallone was doing it because he needed another Rocky, and that was the only place it could go.
Rocky Balboa, on the other hand, feels like it comes from Stallone’s soul. Like this was something he HAD to put out there, a story he had to tell. You’re seeing the parallels with the first movie, and they certainly exist, but I’m seeing the parallels with Stallone’s life at the time. He’s as low as an actor can get, he’s doing DTV horror movies for fuck’s sake, and there’s a sense that he’s well aware of the skepticism that a sixth Rocky movie is going to be met with. Pauline even has a line, something like “It takes a lot of heart to go back in that ring, knowing you’re going to take a beating.” That’s pretty much one of the big dramatic arcs of the movie: the drive to do something that you know is going to look ridiculous on the surface, because it’s what you need for yourself. And if Stallone just stopped there, it’d be an interesting enough movie, but he also kind of comes up with one of the most interesting opponents Rocky’s ever faced, though I wonder if we’d agree on that.
Max: Rocky’s hunger for the title in the original film was grounded in Stallone’s real life down and out desperation as a young broke guy and, absolutely, Rocky Balboa feels grounded in the fact that Stallone’s clearly making this film as a labor of love. That we’re past the point where Rocky “needs” to win in this one is a big help too: He’s once again doing this to prove to himself he can go the distance, with the greatest odds he’s ever faced in the ring.
I’m glad you brought up (real life boxer) Antonio Tarver’s Mason “The Line” Dixon, because I definitely thought he was interesting as an opponent for Rocky, even if Tarver’s not much of an actor. After three films of Rocky fighting capital B Bad Guys in the ring, it was refreshing that Dixon’s kind of an asshole but still a recognizably human foe. Dixon’s the heavyweight champ, but no one takes him seriously because his victories came easy. Having the shadow of self-doubt hang over both Rocky and Dixon was a cool move, I thought.
Chuck: Sly wrung a lot of juice out of Tarver’s limited acting talents, that’s for sure. A lot of it’s down to clever directing, I think. One of the more underappreciated parts of the early movies was Rocky visiting the priest before each of his big fights. That tradition carries over with Spider Rico reading Rocky a bible passage before he goes out to fight Dixon, but there’s a cool thing Stallone the director does to kind of ground Dixon early in the film: when he goes to visit his old trainer, Stallone stages it EXACTLY like Rocky’s visits to the priest, with Dixon (in Rocky’s place) on the ground below, and the trainer (in the priest’s place) in the window above.
There’s actually so many cool little moments in the film, moments that work beyond simple fanservice, that I wonder if we’ll have time to get to them all, but let’s stick with the filmcraft for now, because good LORD Sly directed the hell out of this movie. I heard someone suggest that Sly was on a bit of a Michael Mann kick, and I’m not sure I see that, but this movie is beautifully shot, particularly the night scenes. Stallone makes great use of contrast and shadows, and gives the image a bit of a grain that makes the final product feel down to earth without trying to ape ’70s cinema.
I actually found myself looking up the DP midway through the film, and was shocked to discover he moved on to fucking Norbit and not much else of note.
Max: I did literally the same thing like five minutes in! Amazed J. Clark Mathis’s resume is pretty unremarkable aside from this, it’s a gorgeous-looking film. Definitely agree about the Mann vibe, a big part of why this movie works is how stripped down it is visually. At times, it’s like you’re watching a sports documentary rather than a big studio picture. On a personal level, a big part of what I dig about the Rocky films is how much character his neighborhood has, and Stallone gets a ton of mileage out of that here. Rocky and Paulie visiting Adrian’s grave then looking at old, largely vanished locations from the first film is perhaps a bit maudlin, but there’s a weight to what you’re seeing.
Chuck: So much of this film could have felt maudlin. I think what helps is that Sly, as a storyteller, is acutely aware of both the pull of nostalgia and the passage of time. Part of the point he’s making is that it’s easy to be caught up in the past glories of life and love, but time will take that away from you, as it takes all things away from you, and your only option is to push onward, and be your best self. Rocky’s trying the restaurant thing; it’s a living, but every time he repeats a story from the glory days, he looks like he’d rather be doing anything else. He’s a fighter; he’s gotta fight.
What makes Dixon such a great antagonist for this story is that he’s never had to fight, creating a marked contrast to old man Rocky, and as they go at each other in the ring, he comes to respect Rocky because he’s FINALLY being taken the distance, and it’s teaching him exactly what he’s made of. I thought the film was already great before that fight, but it really comes together when they come out of their corners for the last round. Dixon tells him, “You’re a crazy old man,” and Rocky just smiles and says “You’ll get there.” It’s a perfect moment.
Max: Let’s back up a bit: What’d you think of the semi-romance angle with Marie? “Little Marie” was a teenage character we first met in the original Rocky, now a 40-year-old mother and bartender played by Geraldine Hughes in this film. I thought Stallone and Hughes had some great chemistry and, even though it starts to feel like we’re retreading the Adrian beats from the first film, Marie felt like a real person, and their intimate friendship didn’t feel forced. The Rocky franchise is one of the few big film series where we watch a consistent cast of characters age in real time. Marie was a minor but significant character in the first film, and here she shows up again having lived, loved and lost just like Rocky has.
Chuck: There were so many ways it could go wrong, but Sly and Hughes walk a delicate, interesting line with the character. It’s certainly not much of a romance. (Rocky explicitly says, “Adrian’s gone, but she’s not gone.”) Nor is it really a surrogate father-daughter relationship, either. It’s something very deep, yet delicate, a kind of close friendship between people of the opposite sex that you don’t often see in movies, and it happens quite honestly. These two come right at each other because, as you said, their lives ended up following similar trajectories, and they’re both able to just connect with each other, which is something Rocky is desperate for, given how little he has left.
Actually, all the old characters that carried over find themselves in places that make sense. Paulie’s the most impressive: he spent much of the series as a scheming comic relief, but Burt Young plays him here as a man at the end of his road, carrying a lot of regret. “You treated her good and got the good times; I treated her bad and got the bad times!” It’s a heartbreaking performance. Milo Ventamiglia doesn’t do too badly as Robert; I kind of wish he was a less obvious wiener when he has his big confrontation with Dad (the one that ends with Rocky’s awesome “keep moving forward” speech), but again, the kind of person he is makes sense, and once he establishes himself back in Rocky’s corner, it’s a joy to watch him cheer on his dad.
Max: The existing characters’ appearing here never feels like “hey, remember this guy?” which is great. Even Pedro Lovell’s Spider Rico, who hangs out and eats more or less free meals thanks to Rocky, feels like a natural part of this world. This is the only Rocky sequel that utilized Paulie in an interesting way, and the bit where he just unloads on Rocky after he gets a gold watch and a see-ya-later from the meat packing plant he’s worked at for 30 years felt very real and very scary. Ventamiglia’s fine here; you sort of wish he had more to do, but I think the kind of half-baked subplot with Rocky befriending Marie’s teenage son sorta got in the way.
Chuck: Before we get into final thoughts, can we talk a bit about Bill Conti’s score? Stallone dragged him out of retirement one last time, and the work he did for him almost seems to parallel the film itself. The way film scores are done these days is changing, and it’s like Conti took one look at that world, realized there wasn’t a place for him in it, and decided to remind everybody, one last time, why he’s Bill Fucking Conti. His delicate music does a great job of accompanying and enhancing the drama of the film’s first half without being overbearing, so when it’s time to start training, he can goddamn UNLOAD with the updated “Gonna Fly Now” arrangement and make it feel just as righteous as it’s almost always felt. Then he starts playing straight-up war marches during the big fight, which makes everything feel that much more epic.
Max: I’ve said in earlier installments that Conti’s score is a crucial part of what makes Rocky work and, like you said, it’s lovely and perfectly understated in a movie that’s all about bringing Rocky back to a less flashy setup. Overall, how did you feel about this one, Chuck?
Chuck: I think this needed to be a great movie to justify its own existence, and it ended up being a near-perfect one. It’s a rare example of somebody going back to an old well, particularly in a society that’s increasingly obsessed with the past, and reaping incredible dividends from it. (It’s even more amazing that he would do it again with his next film, Rambo.) It’s kind of amazing that the guy who was (somewhat rightfully) ridiculed by critics as everything that was wrong with Hollywood in the ’90s would be the guy who could show Hollywood how it’s done in the aughts.
Max: Rocky Balboa’s just a very nice movie, y’know? Stallone swung for the fences, and while it’s a little corny and a little half-baked in some spots, it gets by on heart and a renewed sense of focus. This movie, more than anything, reminds you of why Rocky as a character has endured like he has.
NEXT: A NEW HOPE