For better or worse, Rocky is one of the most enduring film franchises of all time, stretching from its 1976 Oscar-winning premiere to last year’s criminally underappreciated Creed, featuring five other films during that span. However, Rocky is also a series that blatantly suffers from issues of diminishing returns. Whereas the first film is less about boxing than it is a character study of a struggling lower-class boxer getting his first shot at the big time, each successive sequel became more and more about the fights, and consequentially became more of a vehicle for writer-director Sylvester Stallone’s ever-inflating ego. After the unintentional farce of Rocky IV and a failed attempt to bring the series to its roots in Rocky V, the series laid dormant for 16 years. Then, 10 years ago today, a new installment was released, much to everyone’s skepticism. However, Rocky Balboa turned out to be a return to form for Stallone, a much more subtle and fitting conclusion to the Balboa character’s legacy.
It’s obvious even from the opening credits that Rocky Balboa is a different beast than its increasingly asinine predecessors; it’s a more somber tale, focused on the aging former heavyweight champion and his drifting, aimless place in his hometown of Philadelphia. His wife Adrian is now dead, and his only close friend is her brother Paulie, a drunk who wants to forget the past as much as Rocky wants to continue living in it. Rocky Jr. lives in the shadow of his father’s famed name, unable to achieve on his own merits without constantly being compared to his father, and thus becomes distant and estranged. The world is changing around Rocky, and the only thing that he has left to hold on to is the restaurant that bears his wife’s name.
This is the first Rocky film that feels like a legitimate sequel to the original film, both in tone and in character consistency. Stallone once lost sight of what made the characters of the original film so memorable, but in the intervening years of hiatus when he himself stopped being such an important movie star he has channeled his own experiences with aging and the changing world into a story that feels just as personal as the one that propelled him to fame. Normally, nostalgia-driven revivals feel commercial and targeted at bringing in a new audience, but Rocky Balboa is all about looking back and attempting to right the wrongs of the series’ later entries.
Of course, no Rocky film would be complete without a boxing match, and it’s when focused on Rocky’s comeback bout that the film loses some of its luster and falls back into bad habits. What spurns Rocky to take on the current heavyweight champion of the world is a sports network’s computer simulation in which he wins. This is just as hokey and stupid as it sounds; it’s a representation of just how out of touch Stallone is with how modern technology works and perhaps the greatest symbol of how age has only directed his hubris into a belief that the best wisdom comes from your elders.
Any story about Rocky seeking to reclaim his youth’s former glory is going to have some elements of egotism. It’s practically in the character’s DNA at this point. However, so much of the film’s speech moralizing revolves around the need to pick oneself up by their bootstraps and make the success for themselves that they envision, which is fine in and of itself until Rocky uses it as a counterpoint to blaming external forces for one’s inability to succeed. It’s an overly simplistic worldview that may be in line with Rocky’s character and his immensely successful experiences, but it is most certainly not the universal maxim that the film paints it to be. Fighting for what you believe in is a great ideal, but sometimes the world hits too hard and not everyone has the strength to fight it.
So, warts and all, how does Rocky Balboa figure into the legacy of the Rocky franchise? Well, despite the hubris-driven faults that have plagued the films since their second entry, it manages to be the second best Rocky film after the original, primarily due to its focus on Rocky as a character rather than an idol or American hero. It’s also important to remember that without the success of this film, we never would have gotten Creed, a true revival for a new generation that is at least on par with the original Rocky and is helmed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), one of this generation’s most promising new directors that is sure to steer the franchise in great new directions. Rocky Balboa doesn’t come even close to perfection, but neither does the original, for all the reverence it receives. Rocky at its best has always been about heart, determination, and character, and Stallone’s exit as the central focus of the franchise that made him a household name is graceful as it is genuine. This is a film worth remembering.