Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Rocky Balboa (2006)

The eye of the tiger

15 years after the disaster of Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone has personally helmed and wrotes Rocky Balboa in an attempt to provide fans with a more proper and fitting closure to the series. Aged 60 by this film, Rocky is an old man who should sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labour, namely a restaurant where customers flock to listen to the gladiator regale them with tales of his past matches, gawk at the posters, boxing championship belts and other memorabilia decorating the walls, and eat the good food. It's like an Italian diner crossed with Hard Rock Cafe, without the tacky T-shirts. Balboa Jr is an up-and-coming corporate suit, and surrounded by family and friends from the past (mainly his brother-in-law Paulie and Spider Rico - the last man who defeated Rocky before he went professional), Rocky should be content. But he isn't, because the death of his wife has left a void in his life, which he must regain by (obviously) choosing to fight one last battle in the boxing ring, against the world heavyweight champion, Mason Dixon.

Of course, there are certain obstacles that need to be negotiated when you want to make a credible movie about a 60 year old's return to the boxing ring. It is all too easy to slide into parody and kitsch - and ultimately the success or failure of Rocky Balboa rests on whether it is a genuine ending to the series, or just a self-parodying film.

The solutions are few, and Sylvester Stallone manages to use every one of them. There's the Clint Eastwood tactic of writing, directing and starring in a movie about the last hurrah of an old warrior, and Stallone pulls no punches by painting Balboa as a man in existential depression. Plotwise, Rocky Balboa is more philosophical than the previous movies in the series and visually, one would be hard-pressed not to notice cinematic techniques such as scenes with severely desaturated palettes and bright red streaks of blood standing out in otherwise black and white frames. I could imagine that if Stallone and his cinematographer had gone overboard with this, the movie would actually be seen as a parody of the Rocky series. But thankfully, the artistic cinematography is so judiciously used that it is effective and dramatic, even if it is a little manipulative.

There's also the nostalgia factor going for Rocky Balboa. If you stay around for the end credits, you'll be treated to a montage of videos where ordinary people - Americans and tourists alike - run up and down the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pose in the Rocky salute, just like how the fictional character did it in the very first Rocky movie. Similarly, much of Rocky Balboa spends itself evoking the nostalgia factor: Rocky has mental flashbacks from the first movie, characters we last saw in the first movie make a comeback, Rocky goes on a training regiment that is almost identical to his first movie (using meat carcasses as punching bags!), and he even gets a dog to run with him, just like the original. And like every good Rocky film, the boxer stumbles around before he is convinces himself to make the decision to go all out to fight the match of his life.

Perhaps the best protection Rocky Balboa has is its refusal to take itself too seriously. Rather than denying that the sight of a 60-year-old man training and fighting in a straight boxing match would be a joke, Stallone wisely allows the script to highlight the incongruities and inherent silliness of such a sight. Yes, his new coach points out that the boxer has arthritis, calcium deposits, and the training montage shows that he needs work with the weights, but this is done so lovingly that you'll feel nothing mean or spiteful about it. You might shake your head at the sight of the sexegenarian drinking down 6 raw eggs, but most probably by the time Rocky enters the boxing ring, the nostalgia, the artful cinematography, and the humour will make you cheer him on just like you cheered him on years ago, despite how silly it must be.

And this is how the Rocky series ends, with a crowd cheering on an embattled, bruised, but still standing Rocky Balboa.

First published at incinemas on 1 March 2007

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