Bankrupt and brain-damaged in Rocky V, a bout fought so long ago that the other Bush was still sucker-punching Saddam, Sylvester Stallone’s titular pugilist returns to issue another beating in Rocky Balboa.
How much punishment can an audience take? Even 007 gets his license renewed by younger models every decade, but not Rocky, who by now has arthritis in his neck, calcium deposits in his legs, and, as before, pebbles in his head. But, yo, those arms are like tree trunks. And pushing sixty or not, this fighter is all heart. As for Stallone, he tends to lead with his chin — and I don’t mean that metaphorically. Leaning forward when he speaks, the veteran actor projects as if he’s looking to get hit, particularly in the scene with the Philly athletic commission, which threatens to deny ol’ Rocky’s application for a new boxing license. “Maybe you’re just doing your job,” sputters Rocky, his aching neck stretched from here to Palookaville, “but why you gotta stop me from doing mine?” Not that Stallone’s comeback compares to the Greatest’s for pure provocation, but it gets you thinking: Does life imitate the ring, or vice versa? Speaking of jobs to do, how different was the dialogue when the stallion known as Sly stood toe-to-toe with MGM’s roaring lion and begged its commissioners for another round?
Rocky Balboa, effortlessly reflexive and patently, even proudly, absurd, is a tough movie to dislike — and believe me, I’ve tried. Stallone’s “deez, dem, doze” routine truly echoes a bygone era even as his most famous character continues to epitomize the times. In ’76, the tough guy went the distance and lost, like our troops in Vietnam. In ’85, he fought the Cold War in the form of Dolph Lundgren’s red Drago and, like Reagan, he won — wrapped in the American flag, yet. Now Rocky VI equals Bush II: However bloody things get, the born fighter refuses to throw in the towel. “Nuttin’ hits harder than life,” the Stallion surmises. “It’s about how much you can take and keep movin’ forward” — chin-first, presumably.
Things have changed for this great white hope since he first fought for freedom against the tellingly named Apollo Creed in our bicentennial year. In ’06, Balboa’s belated return to the ring can be blamed, like this DVD-ready sequel, on the digital revolution: The ESPN Boxing channel’s computer simulation program predicts that the Italian Stallion, at least as he was in his prime, could take the current heavyweight champ, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) by KO. Naturally, neither Rocky, now a restaurateur, nor Mason Dixon (named for the thin line between drama and comedy?) can resist when a promoter’s Vegas exhibition offer follows.
Other things are different too. Rocky’s sidekick Adrian has succumbed to what he calls, with characteristic sensitivity, “the woman cancer.” The site of the odd couple’s legendary ice-skating date is now a vacant lot strewn with garbage, the old neighborhood looking more than ever like a white ghetto. “Whole world’s fallin’ apart,” claims Adrian’s astute brother Paulie (Burt Young), still clock punching at the meatpacking plant but painting like van Gogh in between slab inspections. Still, some things never change. Our hero’s training outfit is a gray hoodie with matching sweatpants; his vitamin water is a raw egg, his punching bag a side of beef. His new muse is a shy bartender (Geraldine Hughes) — Rocky likes the shy ones — and as in matches past, we know our fighter is getting serious about payback when, halfway through the film, he starts talking to himself, sparring with the more existential aspects of brawling. “Am I just tryin’ to replace old pain with new pain?”
Ask a narcissist a stupid question and you get a stupid answer, but that’s not to say it won’t be funny. Maybe all-out parody would’ve better suited Rocky Balboa — Stallone getting Rocky to start reading Henry James and dreaming of a tenure-track gig in the lit department at Penn or something. But earnest as it is, the movie hardly resists laughs. Identifying solely with a forlorn old mutt named Punchy, Rocky has become a philosopher in his old age. “A few too many birthdays,” he says, “shouldn’t be a reason not to fight.” Nor to write and direct and star — shirtless, even! Stallone would like us to think that Rocky hasn’t aged at all, although, gazing at the old buildings in the ‘hood, the fighter does allow that if he were 150 years old, he’d be falling apart too. We’ll know for sure in about ninety years, when the Stallion trains for his nursing-home rematch against China Man.