We have to admit that we've never seen Rocky V. We drew the line after the one where he beat the USSR to a bloody pulp, but that's not to say we don't love Stallone. He has a rough ride for some of his movies, but we give him perhaps a little more rope than we should, for the first Rocky movie (which he wrote) and which still stands up well today. First Blood has little to do with the cartoon violence that followed in the sequels and we always have time to rewatch Nighthawks (which we mentioned back here).
And now he's back with arguably his most famous franchise. He's older, sports a face made of putty, wears glasses... but still talks a lot of gibberish and has HEART. He's a neighbourhood celebrity still, but the rest of the world has moved on. They pulled his statue down for god's sake. Now he runs a restaurant and tells really bad stories to the fans eating his pasta. His kid played by Milo Ventimiglia (from the sickly sweet Gilmore Girls and soon to be seen here and hugely overrated Heroes) is a suit, embarrassed by his pop's fame.
Meanwhile Mason Dixon, current undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, has his own problems. He walks into the ring, knocks the other guy out and walks away again. The fans hate him. Then the computer simulation you'll have seen from the trailer pops up and before you can say "charity exhibition bout" the two are brought together. And in many ways that's what Rocky Balboa is. Less of a film and more of an exhibition bout, an old battered idea brought out for one last time.
With the original cast being dead (either in real life or within the franchise itself) once supporting characters get upgraded slightly. Paulie is now Rocky's rock and Duke steps back in as trainer. But it's Rocky's wife, Adrian, who haunts the movie as a faded photograph, a gravestone, a restaurant(!) and (worst of all) in flashbacks from the first movie. When asked about her, Stallone gets to say the immortal line "Yeah, it was woman cancer".
The film takes great pains to show that the neighbourhood (the gym, the pet store, the ice rink) is falling to pieces. Rocky is living in the past for sure, but so is the movie. It's never happier than when resting it's aching bones on the legacy of the first one and to make matters worse it has no problem with reminding the audience what's missing. If you're a huge fan of the films then there's maybe just enough here for you to coast through on until the big fight, but it doesn't make a satisfactory standalone flick. Maybe that was never the point.
The few real American boxing pundits stand out like a broken thumb, but not as much as the 'cameo' of Mike Tyson. What were they thinking? They dredge up Little Marie from the first film as the new love interest and in a nice twist she doesn't sit around whining and worrying about Rocky's brains being pummeled enough to run out of his cabbage ears, but instead encourages him to go get back into the ring. "Fighters fight" is one of her little catch-phrases. Another is "You have to prove that the last thing to age on someone is their heart" Ouch. If he can take that you know he can still stand up to a punch in the face. Then again he has many Balboa pearls of wisdom of his own to pass on, our favourite being "At one time everyone should name an animal". He's talking about his new pet (Punchy), Stallone here reinforcing the film's main theme that everyone loves an underdog by actually putting a dog into his script.
That said it's a hard-faced film fan who doesn't get a slight buzz as soon as that theme tune kicks in with the accompanying training montage. Did you think they'd forget to film one? He even downs the raw eggs and takes things out on dead cows again. Oh and the steps are still there too. Sadly even after the final fight you feel shortchanged by the whole thing. Especially since a film like Crying Fist can take similar ideas and make something very special out of them while Rocky Balboa is the same old same old just reheated ever so slightly.
With Rambo IV on the horizon let's hope next time out Stallone concentrates on new ways to blow things up rather than harking back to when he put a bunch of sharp sticks through David Caruso's shins.
Rocky Balboa opens tomorrow.