Hey yo, champ, aren't you a little scared?"
Mason 'The Line' Dixon, heavyweight champion of the world, does not waste a shot sizing up his 60-year-old opponent. "I don't get scared," he exhales scornfully before walking away.
Wish we could say the same thing. It's been more than 15 years since we saw Rocky on the screen, and he hasn't aged gracefully. The last two Rocky movies were embarrassing -- IV a theme-less cardboard film wrapped in the American flag, and V bad enough to make us wish the Italian Stallion away for good. Yet he remains, 'cause well, a fighter's gotta fight.' Honestly, seeing Sylvester Stallone at 60, we ain't quite so sure of that.
And as he tells his son right after Dixon's dismissive snort, Rocky Balboa is scared too. "You know, I think you try harder when you're scared; that's when it's worked best for me."
And work it damned well does, carving a fitting, touching finale to a grand legacy.
In many ways, writer-director Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa parallel each other, punch for punch. Both underdogs rose to glory with the same measly budgeted 1976 film, and both have since lived life in the extreme spotlight -- and eventually, in its glaring absence. Sly, one of the biggest movie stars in history, has fallen to leaner films, and despite a cult of fans, remains an action superstar inevitably past his prime.
Balboa hasn't been having the finest time either. He's touching 60, and living inescapably in mourning. His wife Adrian (Talia Shire) has passed away, dead of 'the woman cancer,' and the big lug finds himself on his own, utterly clueless. He runs an unspectacular Italian restaurant -- named after her and wreathed in photographs of his glory days -- where he routinely strikes punch-me poses with kids to amuse their lens-wielding patron parents.
Rocky's son (Milo Ventimiglia) is a corporate nobody frustrated at his father's still-big shadow, and his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) still paints violent canvasses in the cold recesses the meat packing plant. The ex-ex-ex-Champ feels irrelevant and unnecessary, and as he walks through the Philadelphia chill with that hat clamped on to his head and coupl'a flashbacks in his eye, he feels the need to extend his reach. The need to be special, yet again.
Meanwhile, Mason Dixon (former lightweight champion Antonio Tarver) has a diametrically different problem. His world title is so undisputed it makes him a joke. Undefeated over a string of mediocre challengers, his reign is one of public scorn and loathing. And to top it all off, there's a blasted computer-simulated fight on ESPN, which shows Rocky Balboa knocking him out. And his agents are actually excited by the prospects of him fighting the has-been. Damn.
There is an uncanny lyricism to Stallone's storytelling. Rocky unable to see past what he once was, manfully hunts himself a kid to mentor, a woman to support. He needs to be larger than life, and this craving gnaws at him. The film even comes disastrously close to being maudlin, except the hero is a klutz you can't resist. And noble as hell, to boot.
Rocky has never been an articulate man, and while (or is it because?) he comes up with groan-provoking jokes and considers Jamaica in Europe, there is an authentic, full-blooded warmth to the character that can't be faked. Rocky can't suddenly turn into a slick-talking, all-savvy dude and this film understands that, grounding the character with the nuances and flaws that made him memorable. He isn't a good looking man anymore, but as he says about an adopted dog, Punchy, he may be kind of a cute ugly.
Several startlingly poignant moments crowd the well-measured script, chief among which rates a showdown with Paulie, where he talks about how there is still stuff inside him. "Y,know, in the basement." He doesn't feel the need to prove anything anymore, but Adrian is gone -- vitally, this is the woman who used to rally against his entering the ring. A gradual rage has built up inside Balboa, born out of frustration at his current ignominy, and he cries because of the irony. He must fight; what else is there?
The film is very solidly cast. Burt Young is an absolute treat as the politically incorrect, cigar-chomping Paulie, and Pedro Lovell's comeback as the once-knocked out priest Spider Rico is a wonderful nod to the classic. Deft references are made to all the older films (except V, but Sly would understandably not want to dwell on that too long) and yeah, Balboa still has his turtles.
And then, there's the Stallion. Sly is not just the fittest 60-year-old to grace a movie screen, but the film gives him room for an emotionally charged great performance, a touching exhibition match of histrionics and history. It's a tremendous acting job, and while the line between Stallone and Rocky is super-blurred, it makes the performance both intimate and magical.
I love Balboa, and must admit there were moments I doubted my affection for the final film. Perhaps I'm too biased, perhaps I just wanna love it, perhaps it's the ultimate guy movie -- for men too old for Resident Evil, that is. But then good old Tony Burton, looking at the calcium-jointed protagonist, yells some sense into him (and all of us) telling him to make 'hurting-bombs,' punches that'll rattle Dixon's ancestors. It was at that exact, awesome moment, when I could hear women shriek in exultation and clap their hands together in eager glee, that I realised Rocky truly is for everyone.
And that emotional high goes the distance, with Bill Conti's magnificent theme blaring through the training montage we have admittedly gone to theatres to see, and a superbly choreographed bout that seems the most authentic we have had on the big screen. Others have been better framed, and higher on melodrama, but Rocky needed his dose of HBO-style heavyweight realism.
Eat your heart out, Mr Eastwood, this is a dream boxing film. It keeps you on the ropes, tells you a compelling story, but finally takes you to a fight that makes you want to scream and shout, yell in glee and wish his opponent gets his skull caved in.
A film can make you cry, and sporting heroes can make you applaud, and while Rocky has always gotten us to root for him, it is only the 1976 classic and this finale where he goes a massive step better: He makes us want to whistle.
Thanks Rocky, we appreciate it.