We don't know about you, but we have a sneaking suspicion part of our time spent back in Mattoon for the holidays is going to be spent seeing Rocky Balboa. It sure beats, you know, talking to your family.
With the movie opening Wednesday, we solicited the opinion of Pete Croatto, a professional film critic and an early viewer of the film. That's right: It's time for movie reviews on Deadspin. We're not gonna make a habit of this, but jeez, it's Rocky, you know? We're all going or near home for the holidays, will want an excuse to get away from the people unfortunate enough to look like us and will do anything to get out of the house. So, is Rocky Balboa worth it or not?
So, to Mr. Croatto. He is a senior critic at filmcritic.com and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He also writes columns on movies for Primetime A&E and The Ellenville (NY) Journal. And his review is after the jump.
How bad are the golden years of a professional fighter? (Especially the champions.) George Foreman is shilling brake pads and versatile, healthy grills, and he's a shining example. If Lennox Lewis doesn't lose his cultured British accent, he'll take the throne within 10 years. There's not much competition.
Though revered, Muhammad Ali, is now a shell of himself because of Parkinson's Disease. As of last December, Leon Spinks, who beat Ali, was making $5.15/hr. on the weekends cleaning the floors of a YMCA in Columbus, NE. Evander Holyfield, 44, with health problems galore, is now fighting insurance salesmen. At least, he's not like Mike Tyson, who's sparring with Tom Jones and God knows who else (Elton John, perhaps?) in some sort of Las Vegas embarrassment that overfed, badly dressed tourists will surely enjoy.
Very few high profile fighters see happy endings, including Rocky Balboa. OK, he's fictional, but the movies of Philadelphia's finest follow a pattern very similar to that of those boxers. In short, beginning brilliance gives way to a bad ending. The first Rocky (1976) was a crowd pleaser that was less a blockbuster than an engaging story of a loser getting a shot at immortality. It's an Academy Award winner and a pop culture milestone. Fourteen years later, came Rocky V, a movie so bad that I've blocked it out along with most of my junior high memories from around that time.
The public had also grown tired of the movies. Behold the plummet at the box office. Rocky IV (1985) made $127.9 million, while its sequel made a paltry $40.9 million. It was a rough ending for a once glorious movie franchise, but at least it would end. Sylvester Stallone was 44 in 1990, and for movies that always pushed the implausible factor that was one obstacle the imagination couldn't conquer.
Of course, the fact that Rocky Balboa, the last of the Rocky six-pack, is opening this Wednesday shouldn't come as a shock. Fighters overstay their welcome all the time. It's just another reason that taken as a whole, the Rocky series is more realistic than we realize ... except that the final movie is actually good. Believe it or not, Rocky Balboa is compelling and exciting, a stirring ode to a past champion's last grasp for greatness. Watch it and you'll understand why Holyfield keeps coming back, though I'm still puzzled about "Dancing with the Stars."
The movie brings us once again to the gritty streets of Philadelphia, where Rocky is a living legend who doesn't do much living. His beloved wife Adrian has died, drowning him in painful memories, while his businessman son (Milo Ventimiglia) resents living in the old man's shadow. Rocky's restaurant, named Adrian's, is another stop on the fighter's boulevard of broken dreams, where he poses for photos and rehashes the glory days with his patrons. Meanwhile, the current champ, Mason "the Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver, the man who knocked out Roy Jones, Jr.) is as despised as Balboa is loved, heartlessly dispatching mediocre opponents and displaying a public demeanor that is best described as "Bonds-like."
Leave it to ESPN to bring the two men together. A network special stages a cyber fight between an in his prime Rocky and Dixon, with the old champion beating the new one. Even the panel of boxing experts, including Bert Sugar and his ever-present Untouchables hat, agrees with the decision. (Another reason to possibly hate Skip Bayless: He disagrees.) The fake fight gets Rocky thinking about fighting for real. Dixon's managers, eager to generate some good publicity and revenue for their prickly star, arrange for a fight, a "glorified exhibition," between the two men. Much to almost everyone's chagrin, Rocky agrees to the fight. "If you know what you're worth, go out and get what you're worth," Rocky says. "But you gotta be willing to take the hit."
For Rocky getting back in the ring is a matter or pride, but it's also a way to say goodbye to the past once and for all, and that's what gives the movie resonance. He wants to do this one thing for himself regardless of the embarrassment or the odds, setting the foundation for what Bill Simmons refers to as "chill scenes." One is the extended training scene, when Rocky, in order to build "horse power," punches slabs of meat, throws barrels, and nails chins ups with the ease of nodding. It's a tremendous scene because we feel Rocky's urgency, even if we've run up the steps before.
There's less gimmick here. The fight is just one step in Rocky rebuilding his life. He meets a world-weary bartender (Geraldine Hughes), and some might construe his attempts to win his way into his and her son's life as awkward, but it's appropriate given their circumstances and his grieving for Adrian; additional kudos to the casting directors for not going the tomato route in casting Hughes, who looks and acts like a real person. Rocky's rough relationship with his son convincingly shows how sons can't possibly be their dads, especially if they've walloped Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang.
A lot of conflict is resolved before the fight, making Rocky's return to the ring a little anticlimactic. But it's still exciting because it's well-filmed, features a guy we're behind and it's a perfect representation of what we'd like boxing to be: two guys slugging it out for pride, no cinching, and Don King nowhere in sight. It'd be nice if Stallone, handling directing and writing duties here, held back on the pretentious Raging Bull B&W photography, but there's very little to complain about here. A storied boxer finally bows out with dignity, and Stallone can focus on Rambo IV.
I don't even know where to begin with that one. Grade: B.