Retired heavyweight champ Rocky Balboa now runs a restaurant, regaling customers with tales from the glory days. But life is far from perfect, his wife has passed away, he has a troubled relationship with his estranged son and he still feels he has something to prove. When a computer simulated fight with current titleholder Mason 'The Line' Dixon ends with Balboa victorious he sees a chance to prove his self-worth one last time.
In an age when redundant remakes and moneymaking sequels are the mainstay of an increasingly uninspired Hollywood the prospect of a belated 6th entry in the Rocky series isn't the most exciting of cinematic proposals. Not only was the last film awful but the unavoidable fact that Sylvester Stallone, currently in career limbo, is now 60 doesn't bode well. But Rocky Balboa (tellingly Stallone has opted to drop the 6 tag) is a complete success from its low-key beginning to its adrenaline-fuelled finale.
Opening with a scenario familiar to boxing devotees, a one sided bout in a heavyweight division in crisis, this final film in the franchise echoes the more dramatic, character led tone of the 1977 Oscar winning original. Stallone, returning to the director's chair for this self-penned affair, consciously references earlier entries in the series with audiences reintroduced to The Italian Stallion in reflective mode, revisiting old haunts on the 3rd anniversary of his wife's death. This is a man coming to terms with his advancing years and the realisation that his best is probably now behind him. A man attempting to articulate his frustrations to brother-in-law Paulie, a scene stealing Burt Young, who undercuts Rocky's monologues with blunt blue-collar cynicism. Augmented by flashbacks these early scenes establish the nostalgic quality that permeates a film that forgoes the cartoonish trappings of previous sequels in favour of a relatively more subtle approach.
Subtlety isn't the first thing that springs to mind when mentioning Sylvester Stallone, star of some of the most bombastic action movies of the 80s, but he successfully underplays the drama of Rocky's journey giving the character room to breathe, making the prospect of a sexagenarian ex-boxer's return to the ring not quite so incredulous. Stallone's emotive, affectionate performance is infectious and, in another nod to previous films, his relationship with single mum Marie is well pitched. Where others would have made this a heavy handed romance the platonic tone is all the more endearing. That's not to say there aren't clichés to be found, what sporting drama doesn't make use of them? Here however it's a case of familiarity breeds content with the inevitable father and son reunion preceded by a heartfelt paternal monologue that captures the indomitable spirit of Rocky – "it ain't about how hard you hit, its about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."
This is all well and good of course but what would a Rocky film be without the main event? With the narrative gaining momentum come the hour mark the focus shifts to the impending bout. When the long awaited all conquering training montage kicks in, accompanied by Bill Conti's rousing theme, who wouldn't want to cheer and punch the air in sheer unadulterated joy as the iconic images are revisited? The climactic fight itself, an exhibition bout with pride the only prize, is arguably the most satisfying in Rocky history and only the comatose could fail to be swept up by the action. Familiar television graphics, pre-fight intros and camerawork lend proceedings an air of authenticity as Rocky enters the ring, surprisingly toned for his age, his torso crisscrossed with thick cables of veins. Switching to a more cinematic style, black and white footage, flashbacks and slo-mo elevate the bout to mythic proportions. The inference being this is more than a simple boxing match with, one suspects, not only Rocky but Stallone out to prove himself in the gladiatorial arena of the modern age.
Rocky Balboa is an unapologetically nostalgic cinematic delight and watching it is akin to a welcome reunion with a much-missed old friend. Against all the odds Stallone has created a warm hearted, entertaining swansong for cinema's ultimate underdog. A movie that reminds fans why they cheered on The Italian Stallion's endeavours in the first place. His enduring appeal best exemplified during the closing credits which depicts fans running up those famous steps in Philly, the same steps that Rocky Balboa has ascended one final triumphant time.