Like a dog returning to its own vomit, Sylvester Stallone has always crawled back to his most popular characters when his career hits a wall: The Edgar Allen Poe picture never got rolling, so he gives the boxing gloves another shot. And yes, I shit you not, “Rambo IV” is in production right now. (Surely the subtitle will be “Tired Blood”.)
But here’s the thing. “Rocky Balboa” isn’t bad. It isn’t great — Stallone the writer-director is still kind of a hack, really — but damn if this one isn’t the best “Rocky” movie since “Rocky II”. In a walk.
I know, I know. People love the third and fourth movies. But they love them ironically, the way they smile when someone serves a plate of Cheez Whiz and celery at a retro party. They’re crap, kids. I mean, there’s a robot in one of them.
“Rocky Balboa”, on the other hand, is a real movie. It’s about obsolescence, and finding your way in a world that’s moved beyond you. The stuff that Bryan Singer used as subtext in “Superman Returns” is right in our faces here: Sure, people still love Rocky as a neighborhood hero, but in that condescending, “hey champ” way; he can’t even have a serious conversation with his kid without someone interrupting to ask for an autograph. And he always obliges, which drives the kid crazy.
“Rocky Balboa” spends about an hour not trying to be a “Rocky” movie — or, rather, being the “Rocky” movie we always kind of wanted to see. Too old to fight, too tired to complain about it, and still reeling from the loss of his beloved Adrian three years earlier, Rocky spends his days puttering around Philly, quietly missing the old neighborhood, and his nights telling old fight stories at his restaurant. He’s Jake LaMotta at the end of “Raging Bull”, but you can relax around him.
In the second hour, when Rocky gets drawn into an exhibition match with the current champ after a TV computer simulation suggests that Rocky (in his prime, mind you) could win such a bout, Stallone starts piling on the stuff he thinks we want to see: Training montages, pre-fight chatter, lots of flashbulbs and speeches. That’s a distraction from the real hook, which is the suggestion that Rocky has picked up this impossible challenge because he wants to die in the ring, doing the thing he’s always loved.
Rocky with a death wish is something that Stallone the filmmaker can’t even consider — and if you asked him straight up, I think he’d honestly deny that such a theme was on his mind. But Stallone the actor clearly knows it’s in there; it runs like a river through his performance. And if I was to be honest, I’d have to say that Stallone’s performance in “Rocky Balboa” is the best of his career. He knows this guy inside and out — his shuffling walk, his reflexive humility, his huge heart.
Stallone the filmmaker keeps pushing it, with scenes like the one where Rocky adopts the ugliest dog in the world — the thing looks like a cross between a wolfhound and a sewer rat — but Stallone the actor pulls it off with naturalistic ease. You may snort, but this is one of the best performances of the year.
It’s still in a Stallone movie, though, which means the grace and charm of the actor is buried beneath a mixture of cliches and Freudian screenwriting. Just as “Rocky II” can be read as Stallone’s attempt to rewrite the end of “Rocky” so that he not only wins the fight, but gets the Oscars he believes he was denied the first time around, “Rocky Balboa” is an attempt to fix the problems of “Rocky V” — and they were legion — with a final chapter that hits all the emotional notes that movie missed … and maybe, you know, bring home a couple more golden guys.
That probably won’t happen. Instead, he’ll have to be content with having made a movie that turned out a lot better than it could have been, and might even make a little noise at the box office. This could be the word-of-mouth hit of the season.