Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It ain't over 'til it's over.

Rocky Balboa (2006)

To be, or not to be, that is the question
: probably the best known lines in English literature. All of us studied Hamlet at one time or another in high school and listened to our respective teachers wax philosophically how this is the ultimate meditation on death; whether to live or die. But this soliloquy is bigger than suicide, as the emo Hamlet renounced it earlier in the play. In fact, Hamlet contemplates the nature of action, a theme also found in Rocky Balboa.

In this film, the sixth in the franchise, actor/writer/director Sylvester Stallone was determined to end the series on a higher note than the lacklustre Rocky V. When we catch up with Rocky he is long retired from boxing and lives a quiet life as a widower (his wife, Adrian, died from cancer a few years previous). He runs a small restaurant named in honour of his late wife where he tells old boxing stories to customers.

Like a modern-day Willie Lowman, Rocky searches for meaning in his life; he battles personal demons over Adrian’s death and his eroding relationship with his son. Unlike Lowman, however, he has “stuff in the basement” which can only be released through the means he has always expressed himself; boxing.

When ESPN broadcasts a computer simulation between Rocky (in his prime) and the current heavyweight champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (undefeated, but is ridiculed for never going up against a real contender), Rocky is inspired to take up boxing again. News of Rocky’s return to the ring and controversy over the computer simulation inspire Dixon’s promoters to hold an exhibition bout to bolster the champ’s declining popularity.

I know what you’re thinking; where is the connection with Hamlet? Stallone provides several moments in the film that discuss the theme of action, most notably in an impassioned speech Rocky gives to the Licensing Commission for a boxing license and to his son, who blames his personal failures in life to living in his famous father’s shadow. Rocky counters and tells him that to succeed in life, "it ain't about how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward," and that blaming others won't help his situation.

Stallone also cleverly utilizes the Dixon character, played by real life boxer Antonio Tarver. Rather than portraying Dixon as a villain, he is shown as a parallel to Rocky in that the only kind of respect that matters (to fighters and people in general) is self-respect. A sub-plot involving a reunion with a now adult “Little” Marie (from the first film) and her teenaged son blossoms into a father/son relationship with “Steps” and an implied, possible romance with Marie demonstrate how much a caregiver Rocky is. Of course, the film wouldn’t be complete without Rocky’s best friend and brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young) and his old trainer, Duke (Tony Burton). Interestingly, Stallone, Young, and Burton are the only three to appear in all six films.

Rocky Balboa isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it does provide a nice bookend with the original film; one need not watch the others in the series to understand the story, but there are references to people and objects from the previous films. Most importantly, it wouldn’t be a Rocky film without a training montage and third act fight, which is filmed in several ways. The lead-in to the fight is similar in style to an HBO pay-per-view broadcast, in which real-life HBO Boxing commentators Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Max Kellerman call the ringside action.

Stallone has redeemed himself with this (likely) last sequel. He also inspires us to reach for the golden ring and not to give up on our dreams, however unlikely they look to others.


  1. Courtney, I'm right with you on Rocky Balboa, which was a big surprise to me, especially after Rocky 5. The Hamlet reference was a nice touch. Hadn't considered that connection, but it works.

  2. Hi Dan, thanks for the kind words. Courtney has generously allowed me to join as a contributor. I am pleased you like the Hamlet reference and you are right; most people don't make those kinds of connections - at least, we aren't taught to.

  3. I'm a fan of the Rocky franchise and I'm glad Stallone chose to give the franchise the close that it deserves after the disappointing Rocky V.

    I was into the film and that whole fight. Yet, the best scene for me was that monologue Rocky gave to his son about the way life is. Stallone may not be the greatest actor ever but he put a lot of heart and soul into that. He's always going to be awesome in my book.

  4. @thevoid99 I agree that scene is what nails it down for me. And you are right that he put a lot into this film; even he was disappointed with Rocky V and felt the character (and fans) deserved better.

  5. I liked Rocky Balboa much more than I thought I would. I hadn't even bothered to watch Rocky V because the series had gotten worse and worse as it went along. I kept hearing good things about Rocky Babloa, though, so I finally watched it and was glad I did. I frankly consider it to be the sequel closest in tone to the original Rocky movie.

  6. Chip, you are right, Rocky Balboa is very much in similar tone to the original. Stallone himself said things got out of hand with the sequels in the 80's, too much sizzle and not enough steak. Even the sound effects were getting out of hand; explosions, gunshots, and other heavy violent sounds were mixed together to create the sounds heard during the fight scenes. The 80's were indeed a decade of excess.

  7. I disagree and will call this movie a masterpiece. Everything about Rocky Balboa is constructed so well and so appropriately that it's hard to find faults. Easily Stallone's best film of the twenty-first century.

    Rocky counters and tells him that to succeed in life, "it ain't about how hard you hit; it's about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward,"

    So true. Life has a way of hurting in a way that feels like a punch to the gut. But as long as one recovers, there's always hope for victory.

  8. @Ian - I agree with you that this is Stallone's best film of the twenty first century. I like the film and found it has many redeeming qualities, especially the "It ain't how hard you hit" speech. That's the main theme of the film. Thank you for your comment and keep reading!


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