Believe it or not, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is a rousing return to the once-dead Rocky franchise and a return to form for the director/writer/star after years of critical and box-office failures.
A decade and a half after the events of Rocky V, Balboa is now an aging, lonely restaurateur, still grieving over the death of wife Adrian (the circumstances of which, curiously, are never fully explained to us). Meanwhile, current heavyweight champ Mason ‘The Line´ Dixon (played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver) has annihilated all opponents and ostracized boxing fans.
An ESPN ‘virtual fight´ between the two, matching opponents from different eras, picks Balboa as the winner. Seeing this, Rocky believes he still has something “left in the basement”, along with personal demons to exercise, and decides to make a kind of comeback, re-applying for a boxing license. When Dixon´s promoters learn of this, they conspire to concoct an ‘exhibition´ match between the two.
What follows is a perfect footnote to the Rocky films, and, unlikely as it may seem, one of the more realistic sports movies ever made; only an overuse of quick-cut flashbacks during the final fight detracts. Though imperfectly assembled by Stallone (the first half of the film seems to drag on, while the second half feels rushed), the film has an undeniable charm that tugs at our nostalgia, and includes a barrage of references to previous films in the series.
Film is overly sentimental, but you can´t help but feel something during the traditional training montage (set to a jazzy version of ‘Eye of the Tiger´) and the climatic fight. And despite the usual ‘Rocky´ formula, the film´s greatest strength is its omission of the Hollywood clichés that overwhelmed the more recent sequels; Dixon is a realistic, well-rounded antagonist, and the final fight is all the more affecting because of this.
Not only a fitting end to the series, but also one of its best films.