You can read this review with the knowledge that I am not going to give anything away about the final fight.
We go to movies like Rocky Balboa for many different reasons. For me, I literally grew up on these films, talking about them in school with my friends, and seeing them multiple times in the theaters. I had no idea why I was doing this, I just loved the way that this franchise made me feel. If you have been going to the movies at all in the past few years, you will know that if you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s your childhood is coming back to haunt you. We had the Star Wars franchise come to a close, and the rebirth of the Superman franchise. While these films had their merits, I think that a lot of filmgoers went to them expecting to be able to relive that special moment that made them fall in love with the films in the first place. Well, I can say emphatically that the only movie that captures that nostalgia, yet also speaks just as equally on the present is Rocky Balboa.
The story is simple but that merely leaves more room for the power of it's multilayered message. Adrian has passed away and Rocky is doing his best to live his life. Paulie wants to move on (he's hitting the bottle a lot more), and Rocky's son Robert feels alienated by his bigger than life father. Left alone to run "Adrians," a small eatery, Rocky ends up meeting Marie who he tried to impart advice to in the very first film (you may remember her as the girl who called him "Creepo"). Feeling a connection to his past through her, Rocky begins to spend time with her biracial son Steps. During this plotline, we see that current Heavyweight Champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon, is at a career crossroads. He's too good for his own good and due to the lack of competition in his division, he's fallen out of favor with the public. ESPN puts on a computer fight between Rocky and Mason and when Rocky is victorious, this gets Mason's management team thinking about a possible match.
Rocky decides that he'd like to box again but only on a very small level. Without Adrian, he feels a huge void in his life and that summons him to start training again. He is approached by Mason's people and soon realizes that he needs to accept this challenge. After getting the team back together (Tony Burton who played Duke in all the other films is in board as the trainer) and reconciling with his son, Rocky begins training again. One suddenly realizes that he doesn't care so much about winning or losing, he just wants the chance to exercise his demons via the ring. We then move to the actual fight, which was shot by HBO's camera team and is presented like a legitimate Pay-Per-View event. The fight is highly climatic with many twists and turns and in the end, the central theme of never giving up on yourself is renewed in dramatic fashion.
Sylvester Stallone gives a very layered, almost nuanced performance as Rocky Balboa. Playing at times like an independent film, this movie has stripped down all the artifice and taken this character back to it's roots. There are many ups and downs on this emotional roller coaster, but I never felt that Rocky Balboa struck a false note and wasn't anything but 100% genuine. Having both written and directed this movie, it really is a tour de force effort from an artist that I don't think gets the respect that he deserves. Aiding Stallone along the way is a top notch performance from Milo Ventimiglia as Robert Balboa. He plays the role of a son in his father's shadow to perfection. One really gets the sense that he cares about his Dad, he just no longer understands and can relate to him. Geraldine Hughes in the role of Marie doesn't so much take over for Adrian, as she adds more of an emotional levity to this film. If you have been following these characters, it is very hard not to be moved when you realize the gestation period from the 1976 movie to this one. Former Light Heavyweight Champion Antonio Tarver does solid work as the most fleshed out Rocky opponent since Apollo Creed.
Boxing fans are going to love how accurately this sport is portrayed here. As a huge boxing fan that had always been something that bothered me about fight films. The action was too stylized for it's own good. In trying to making the audience feel the punches, boxing films oftentimes take viewers out of the action. As this movie was shot like a real fight (you can even tell that they have transferred the footage from video to film), I really got the sense that what I was seeing was real. When you factor that into the drama both behind and in the Dixon vs. Balboa fight, Stallone and his team have, in my opinion, created the best boxing film since Rocky I. They did a fantastic job infusing today's boxing programming into this new incarnation.
Rocky Balboa got so much right that I think it is a fitting swan song to the entire Rocky story. From the nostalgia of bringing back past characters, to the way it took this story into the present, this movie is the best ending film of a franchise that I have ever seen.