Well, it’s been a long time coming – 6 movies, 639 minutes of film, and about 6,000 words of review. I have now finally finished watching the Rocky franchise. It’s a bittersweet experience. Sweet because now my wife and all my co-workers can stop listening to me talking about Rocky; bitter because watching Rocky Balboa made me realize just how much of a fan of these movies I have become.
When I first wrote about Rocky I sounded like a miserable curmudgeon who is allergic to moral victories and blue collar exceptionalism. I still stand by what I said because that’s what I felt before I watched the whole franchise and before I fell in love with what it would become.
Released in 2006, Rocky Balboa is set 30 years after the original film. Perhaps even more importantly, it has been 16 years since the release of Rocky V, the movie that, at the time, killed the franchise, seemingly forever. V‘s Wikipedia and IMDb pages are filled with trivia about how it was a movie made for greedy, selfish reasons and is generally despised by its creator, Sylvester Stallone. Before going into hibernation in 1990, the Rocky franchise felt like it was simply a guaranteed revenue stream and it seemed like those involved were willing to go along with whatever kept the gravy train rolling, whether it be Mr. T., teen angst, or robots. Rocky Balboa, on the other hand, feels like a movie that somebody wanted to make.
Rocky Balboa is Stallone’s attempt at redemption, where he can (and does) mine the previous five installations for the kinds of formulas and stories that actually resonate, leaving behind the nonsense and forced conflict that showed up in the weaker entries. A ton of the series’ most powerful themes make returns: paternal bonds, pining for lost love ones and past glory, Paulie being a useless dick, training montages – they’re all revisited and ironed out for maximum impact. With a 14-year break, Stallone is able to suss out exactly what didn’t work before in order to bring a very satisfying conclusion to his magnum opus hexology.
What makes Rocky Balboa so successful is its ability to generate strong feelings of nostalgia, even in someone like me, who has only first watched all six movies within the span of a month. Visually, you cannot help but notice how much time has passed. Rocky tells the story of a fresh-faced young man on a backdrop of grainy film. Rocky Balboa, on the other hand, never tries to avoid the fact that Rocky has grown up to look like garbage, especially in the painfully High Definition final sequence.
Rocky is still a ridiculous human specimen, ripped beyond what anyone at his age should look like but he’s old, beat-up, and exhausted. Narratively, I appreciate that the movie doesn’t try to bash nostalgia into you. Instead, it allows those feelings to bleed out of the characters organically. Rocky is retired and out of touch with what makes him happy; Paulie is grey-haired, fat, and filled with regrets; Robert is all grown up and struggling to find an identity outside of being his father’s son, and Adrian… well Adrian’s dead. While Rocky does go on a grieving tour of some of the major landmarks of the previous films, it does let go of that overt nostalgia and turns, instead, into the story of a man struggling his way through upper middle age, railing against his frustrated feelings like he’s still got something left to prove. He’s got something “in the basement” and the only way he knows how to clean it out is to fight.
I would have a hard time believing that Rocky Balboa is as good in a vacuum. So much of its impact is due to its familiarity with the rest of the series and with its attempts to rectify past errors. Watching Rocky V right before Balboa is most likely the best possible way to do so. The fifth installment casts such a tiny shadow that nearly anything compared to it would look monumental.
Rocky Balboa may very well be the only series to take a world-shattering nosedive before coming back, like a phoenix from the ashes. Horror movies, like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street have been driven into the ground before coming back but the series is generally rebooted rather than continuing the same story years later. Indiana Jones‘ return is also different, as The Last Crusade was an enormous success going into the 19-year hiatus between releases. As far as I can tell, Rocky is the only mainstream instance of shame and box office failure driving a franchise into hibernation before emerging over a decade later with a warhorse sequel that would like to exorcise some junk out of its own basement.
Rocky Balboa is a true Rocky story. It takes a down and out former champion and gives him the opportunity to show that he’s still got something to prove. Sure, it made $165 million dollars but Rocky and Rocky stopped being about accolades a long time ago. It’s about self esteem and the ability to prove to yourself that you deserve the success you get. Rocky Balboa earns that respect.
And just for fun, in case you were wondering, here is my list of my favourite-to-least-favourite movies in the franchise.
1) Rocky Balboa – the most satisfying, complete, polished of the series. It’s figured out the formula and doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t.
2) Rocky IV – for its sheer insanity.
3) Rocky II – takes the formula of the original but works out most of the kinks
4) Rocky V – suffers from a severe lack of dramatic importance but has some of the strongest ideas of the series
5) Rocky – overshadowed by its own importance
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Rocky Balboa is also available from Amazon as part of the Undisputed Collection