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.