“You throw a big shadow,” someone tells Sylvester Stallone in his sixth appearance as heavyweight Rocky Balboa, the character he created for the Oscar-winning Rocky). And those five previous films throw a big shadow, indeed, making this slight coda seem quite small.
That’s not always a bad thing, given the elephantiasis and overkill of the last couple of Rocky movies. This one can almost be called understated by comparison. But Rocky, it’s time to stay down for the count.
It doesn’t matter if you missed the first movie because writer-director Stallone helpfully gives us a recap, reminding us of a time when the story and characters were fresh and when most of the parts of Rocky’s face still moved. These days, whether its scar tissue or Botox, even the jowls barely budge. One thing hasn’t changed, though — the hair is still black.
Just as Rocky goes on an annual “tour” of the important places he shared with Adrian (Talia Shire, appearing in flashback footage) on the anniversary of her death, Stallone takes the audience on a tour of the previous movies and the previous themes. The appeal comes from our affection for the original rather than from engagement with this version.
Once Rocky has achieved his dream in the first movie, each succeeding film had to knock him down in some way to give him some new dream to achieve and some new reason to get back in the ring to beat some new opponent undeserving of the championship. Rocky III was about the “eye of the tiger,” the fire inside that made Rocky’s need to regain the title so ferocious. This time, it’s (I’m not kidding) “the stuff in the basement.” I don’t think anyone’s going to make a hit song out of that one. This is Rocky’s reason for wanting to get back in the ring, after he sees a computer simulation showing that in his prime he would have beaten current champ, whose name is, I’m not kidding, Mason Dixon (real-life light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver as this movie’s Apollo Creed), a bout billed as “Skill vs. Will.” And once again we have the tortoise and the hare as Dixon takes it for granted that it will be a “glorified sparring session” so skips his training while Rocky is back wailing on sides of beef and puffing up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cue “Gonna Fly Now.”
Most of the movie consists of pep talks because a lot of people try to talk Rocky out of getting into the ring with an undefeated champion a third his age and he has a lot of comebacks: “You think you gotta stop trying things forever because you had a few too many birthdays?” But there’s still time for Rocky to help out a single mother and her son and resolve some conflicts with his own son (“Heroes'”
In the quiet moments, there are flickers of the original’s charms, and it is nice to see an old warhorse gird for battle. But despite the talk of wanting to “go toe to toe and say ‘I am,'” this effort to ring changes on the film that came in fourth on the American Film Institute’s list of the all-time most inspiring films is unlikely to end up on anyone’s list of the top 100 anything. The tag line for this film is, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Rocky, it’s over.
Parents should know that this movie has some brutal boxing violence, especially for a PG movie. Characters drink and use some mild language. There are tense emotional confrontations and references to a sad death. There are some mildly bigoted comments, but a strength of the movie is the portrayal of inter-racial tolerance and affection.
Families who see this movie should talk about why Rocky and his son had a hard time communicating and what made a difference. How did Rocky help Marie? Why was getting back into the ring important to him? Families may want to learn about real-life heavyweight champ George Foreman, who regained the title at age 45, and about real-life light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver, who plays Rocky’s opponent in this film. They may also enjoy the new book Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps, with stories of “Rocky runners” who come from all over the world to run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — as Sylvester Stallone did in Rocky.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the original Rocky and other classic boxing movies like Body and Soul and Golden Boy.