We’ve been through quite a bit with Philly boy Rocky Balboa: tough losses, noble victories, romantic, though awkward love, and even the delivery of a son who, at birth, possessed more hair than Michael Landon did in a lifetime. We laughed, we cried, and yes, got a little hard. We watched with rapt attention — and a twinge of buried racism — as Rocky battled the world’s baddest Negro, not only in the ring, but in defense of his wife’s honor. Then, after dispatching the sassy, sweaty Mr. T in the third installment, Rocky avenged his foe-turned-friend (and homoerotic beach buddy) Apollo Creed, beat the snot out of a machine-like Russian, and single-handedly brought down the evil Iron Curtain in the process. And when Gorbachev rose to his feet in applause of the American champ, we believed it, because we knew the appeal of the character and his power to change lives, hearts, and yes, entire political systems. Through it all — the endless training montages set to Survivor and Bill Conti; the oft-repeated doubts of his long-suffering wife Adrian, as she turned “You can’t win!” into a national catchphrase; the death of the obscenely crusty Mick; even the appearance of a preposterous robot that, if memory serves, lusted for Uncle Paulie — we fell in love again and again because, deep down, we all believe in the spirit of the underdog; the power of the common man to fight hard, tough it out, and never, ever give up. It’s bullshit from top to bottom, but so damned alluring that it becomes impossible to resist.
Rocky’s inherent charm would be put to the test, however, given that with Rocky Balboa, the character decides to give it one more shot, despite being a creaky sixty years old. I cringe in the face of optimism in any context, but I’m even more appalled by the man who doesn’t know when to hang it up. Take Robert Altman’s swan song, A Prairie Home Companion, a wonderful film in many respects, not the least of which was its insistence that the greatest thing a man can do is to recognize his limitations and retreat with dignity and self-respect. Here, though, Rocky still speaks of having “something in the basement”, which sounds inspiring, but is nothing more than ego refusing to grant reality its ultimate hold. Perhaps Rocky would have been content to run his restaurant (called Adrian’s, in honor of his late wife, who died of — in Rocky’s hilarious description — “woman cancer”), but a computer match up between himself and the current heavyweight champion (holding yet another ridiculous Stallone moniker, Mason “The Line” Dixon) raises a few eyebrows after Balboa wins in a knockout. Needless to say, the very thought of a man approaching his Social Security years stepping into the ring to fight a young man at the peak of physical fitness is offensive, outrageous, and wholly unnecessary, but in this world — with this character — we never question the turn of events.
After the disastrous Rocky V (hated even by the most devoted fans), Stallone surely owed us a more fitting end to the series, so at the very least, we can rest knowing a silly street brawl wouldn’t be the final time Rocky raised his fists. We know that Rocky must lose this time around, despite craving the fantasy, because even in the depth of silliness, he was true to himself. He had no business winning many of his fights, but he lost when he needed to: in part I, because it was all about the struggle, and part III because he got too complacent and arrogant. And so Stallone respects his audience enough to prove that this time — the final round, so to speak — it’s not about a victory, but the need to show that he (both Stallone and his most famous screen identity) can still do it when called. Rocky’s big speech to his son (now trying to escape the long shadow cast by his still famous father), as corny as it is to even the most forgiving ears, speaks to this almost unconscious drive to remain in the arena. In this way, Stallone taps American masculinity better than most serious-minded academics. With this single manifestation of phallic will, Stallone strips down to his trunks — bronzed and ripped and seemingly ageless — and dares all comers to suggest that mankind can ever be put down for that final rest. And though this is one of the least political of the Rocky films, there is an undercurrent of that all-American defiance that is somehow uniquely ours, never more so than when we’re on the march against an external foe. Again, one can disagree wholeheartedly with the message, but it’s undeniably relevant if we are to understand where we are today. If you want a nation’s true character, look at the bullshit it uses as a security blanket.
Another wise touch is the refusal to make Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) an inhuman monster. He’s poorly defined and largely irrelevant to the overall story, but he’s no Ivan Drago. He’s a realistic champion, and therefore, eminently beatable. Sure, he’s a brat and a baby, but he’s not biting the heads off live chickens or anything. But he must be somewhat self-doubting, otherwise why would he agree to an exhibition bout with the former champ? Like Balboa in part III, Dixon is a paper tiger because he has taken on mere chumps, rather than proven himself a real man. And that’s always the central thrust of the series, as those closest to the earth — those most rugged and “real” — are most reflective of the American spirit. Living too high, and too well, is a sign of decline, which is why Rocky needed the financial disaster of part V to make him authentic once again. Dixon has an entourage, a mansion, and all the trinkets of success, yet is most appealing when he visits with an old mentor, who symbolizes “the way it used to be”. So while Rocky has been out of the ring for twenty years, he’s been back on the mean streets of his city, which is enough to keep his fighting instincts sharp. There’s a brief training montage this time out, but it’s more about resurrection than the mindless flesh feasts of old. It’s a bit of a disappointment for those who admire the unapologetic romance of the male form, but Stallone is chiseled enough for our admiration. In this sense, the workouts, runs, and push-ups (and even the welcome return to the meat locker and art museum steps) are about Rocky’s sense of himself, rather than an attempt to impress an equally bulky fighter/lover.
The movie also recognizes that we want a bit of the past, expressed through flashbacks and snippets. As Rocky remembers (he forces Paulie to drive him on a citywide “tour” once a year), we appreciate why we love this guy, even though he’s a dullard, a nitwit, and the one American character we can blame for turning the movies away from depth and insight and toward the far more sinister road of trumped-up victories and empty heroics. But Paulie’s had enough, and even he is forced to come to terms, as his long employment at the meat packing plant is terminated. But as he’s one of the few originals left (except for Apollo’s old trainer), he’s given the best lines, barking, “You’ve got Italian food being cooked up by a bunch of Mexicans…Ain’t nothing special about that.” He’s still bitter, still a con-man, and still a racist old coot, but here, he expresses his regrets as never before, and knows that he treated his late sister like a piece of crap. He’s a sad, lonely old man, and he’s sent packing as such. But he still loves Rocky, and is as much a survivor as the boxer. And though Adrian may be dead, there’s a plausible stand-in named Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a shy bartender who once told a younger Rocky to go screw himself. Rocky takes a liking to her (and her son, Steps), and though no romance develops (Rocky still worships Adrian), a tender friendship does. It’s a hook to bring in the babes, of course, but it feels restrained nonetheless.
Sure, every moment, character, and plot development of Stallone’s screenplay plays it safe and secure (there’s enough cheesy dialogue to fill a hundred sports films), but nothing more has ever been promised. There’s something noble, after all, about meeting expectations. And just like the character, the series itself has always been about the heart; an emotional journey that leaves everything else behind save the fire of what makes a champion. For if we thought about it for a few minutes, or considered how obviously we were being manipulated, we’d recoil in horror. Surely we’ve moved beyond this man, this character, and even the very idea that we’re to work out our problems on the field of honor. But you know damn well you want him to win that exhibition match, even though he can’t (and won’t), and even though he “wins” anyway because he’s the better man. And hell, the only reason he’s still there at the end is because Dixon breaks his hand and gives the old man a fighting chance. We have no clue why we’re there at the end of course, but we are. It’s not about logic, but love.