Having missed it in theaters, last night I was able to view the final installment in the “Rocky” saga – Rocky Balboa. I was really looking forward to the release of this one – I’d heard both good and bad things about it, but I couldn’t wait to see it for myself.
The original Rocky came out in 1976 – my Dad and I went to see it together, and it was the first movie we went to as father and son. I was 11 years old at the time, and it’s really the first movie I can recall watching and appreciating – so it’s always been very special to me. I grew up in a very Italian family and household – very ethnically based – so there was that connection with the Balboa character as well. For those of you who remember the time, especially if you were a teen or pre-teen, every young Italian kid wanted to be the Italian Stallion.
Since then, I’ve bought both the video and DVD of Rocky, and have watched it countless times. Most know the story – Stallone did most of the movie himself, low budget, shot the whole thing in less than a month, very earthy and raw. After its release, if you didn’t at some point run up the steps of the library in Philly and dance around on the top with your arms in the air, well, you didn’t go the distance. Balboa became a Philadelphia icon, a make-believe character made real. He was the hero of every little kid who saw the future as too intimidating, or who was told that he couldn’t accomplish this or that. For a kid my age in 1976, Rocky came at just the right time to be an indelible part of my childhood.
I also enjoyed Rocky II when it was released a few years later – but as with just about every other series of sequels, the characters, plots, and atmosphere of the Rocky saga became ridiculous. I’ve only seen the others once, and haven’t watched them again. For me, the Rocky story was the first and second movie, and the rest could go in the trash bin.
So when I’d heard of this final Rocky movie last year, I hoped that Stallone would be able to return to the atmosphere and magic of the original movie. I knew that there was going to be “one more fight” in the old geezer, and I only hoped that the premise of the final bout wouldn’t bring the movie down. Last night I started the movie with anticipation, a lot of high hopes, and a dose of that dread that Stallone would somehow find a way to screw up this final installment. I had deliberately avoided any reviews of the movie since its December release, so I really knew very little of the story until last night.
Without giving away too many details of the movie, I was pleasantly surprised. Stallone, in my opinion, did indeed find that magic of the original Rocky. Instead of the glitzy sets that crept into the second movie, and dominated the rest of them, Stallone found the dark, earthy streets of inner city Philly. If the cameras could have returned 30 years after the first movie to pick up where they left off, they would have captured this movie. The background movie was classic first movie, and I often felt as though I was watching that original flick instead. Stallone’s performance as the aging Balboa reminded me very much of his movie Cop Land (1997), another extremely underrated movie and performance that is likewise one of my favorites. Stallone’s 50-something Rocky showed that he knew who, what and where the character would be. There’s no pretense, no fabricated “wisdom” of the passing of years. When old Rocky dispenses advice during the movie, it’s believable.
The final fight and ending were just right – and the proper way for Rocky to gallop (or limp slightly, as the case may be) off into the sunset. On the DVD, you can watch an “alternate ending,” but in my opinion Stallone chose the right one for the theatrical release.
At the end of the movie, I felt myself saying goodbye to one of my childhood icons. I’m one of those who sees Rocky Balboa as a real character in many ways – the underdog bozo who’s the brunt of everyone’s jokes; the whipping boy of everyone in the room who thinks they’re smarter and better than he. Rocky was clever-dumb; he always knew when he was being made fun of, when others looked down on him. But he’d just give that crooked smile of his, laugh it off, and let his fists do the talking in the ring.
If you loved the first movie, and haven’t seen this final one, do so. In my opinion, the first (plus maybe the second) and the last movie are all you need to see. The story will be complete even without the others.
Goodnight, Rocky. Thanks for giving this Italian kid a little hope along the way. You taught me how to take a punch or two once in a while, and what a terrible breakfast a glass of six raw eggs truly is (yes I and thousands of others tried it!). You went out with dignity, and you peaked like you wanted.
It was a long climb. I think you, and I, were both taught the climb down is just as long as the climb up. And the former is not necessarily any easier than the latter.