I did get to wrap up my Rocky movie marathon with Rocky Balboa. To my surprise, I was disappointed by it. In fact, I’m having trouble deciding whether it or Rocky V was the better film; especially to close out the series.
The main issue I think I have with “Balboa” is that I really don’t like the message that the story’s trying to convey. Basically, it’s telling the audience that it’s okay to live in the past because you can get another chance to reclaim it. I just feel that’s an unhealthy and unrealistic attitude.
I’ve read that early drafts of the story set Rocky as the owner and coach of a gym in his home town, presumably Mighty Mick’s. This would have been a wonderful development for the character; building on the direction we saw in Rocky V. Rocky would take the lessons he’d learned from Mickey and pass those values on to the next generation of up-and-coming boxers.
Instead, we find that Rocky now owns a restaurant where he entertains his guests by telling the same stories every night from his glory days. Add in his habit of wearing the same clothes and frequently revisiting old locations from his youth; Rocky appears pathetic. He’d peaked 20 years ago and instead of continuing his growth as a strong character into his old age, he’s become stagnant. It’s ironic that in his own words, “Time is gonna catch up to all of us. Especially if you’re standing still.”
Rocky V felt like a cheap made-for-TV movie where Rocky never steps into the ring and ends in a street fight. But that movie had more heart than “Balboa”. Rocky V‘s tone was about Rocky learning what’s most important in life. He loses his riches so he can be reminded of his roots. His obsession with reliving his old glory vicariously though Tommy Gunn causes him to lose sight of family values and his connection to his son. By “Balboa”, he’s back to lamenting his retirement and the entropy of the world he lives in.
Rather than overcoming his grief and truly moving on, he’s determined that getting back in the ring is his best solution, going against everyone’s better judgement. It’s through contrivance that Mason Dixon is in a position to grant Rocky’s wish in an exhibition match where he’s less likely to be seriously injured.
I almost had hope that it would take a turn for Rocky to show how much heart he has for the sport when Dixon warns him not to take the fight too far. Even if it turned tragic, I might have been satisfied seeing Rocky choosing to give his all at the risk of his life. Rocky’s a fighter, a fighter’s gotta fight, and he’s gotta do it with everything he’s got. If it killed Rocky, at least he died being the best at who he is. In the film, he managed to go the distance–so far as he lasted all ten rounds of the exhibition–but what about afterward? How long will he be satisfied before his pining again?
The message of “Balboa” rings through in a meta level, as well. The film, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone, feels like an expression of his own lament of his action movie career. That became more clear when he made Rambo the following year, and then The Expendables. The Expendables‘ premise, of course, being an action movie that enlists a catalog of aging action stars.
In many ways, the message is reflected in its audience. Current pop culture is saturated with the pop culture of the last generation. We grew up on these amazing films TV shows, etc, and we are driven to reclaim our youth by continuing on those things. But, as we’ve seen in movies like Superman Returns, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, things have changed, things get old, and some things just don’t work anymore.
I keep mentioning that I find it ridiculous that Chuck Norris was included in The Expendables 2 cast. The man is over 70 years old; we’re not going to see him do any karate kicks or high-speed motorcycle chases. It’s great to see actors (even action stars) continue to appear in films as they get older, but it’s more enjoyable when they’re in sensibly appropriate roles.
There’s no shame in retirement either… As far as I’m concerned, they gave us joy, they got paid well for it (I assume), and now they deserve to bow out and rest with dignity. The same can just as easily be said about franchises.
All that said, I did enjoy Rocky Balboa as a story from the later chapters of Rocky’s life, though I feel like Rocky V offered a stronger maturity of his character and closure to his adventurous boxing career. It had the potential for a richer future for Rocky even if he’d hung up the gloves for good.