Through the first five movies in the Rocky franchise, the title character’s love interest and eventual wife, Adrianna “Adrian” Balboa née Pennino was played by Talia Shire. Shire is still alive and well, thus clearly available for this last of the series to bear the famous fictional boxer’s name. There is a cynical notion that Hollywood does not want its leading lights, especially the men, to have older looking women on their arms. Today’s film, Rocky Balboa (2006), seems to bear this out. The positive spin is that they needed something to make Robert “Rocky” Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) character more dramatic. Thus, we see him grieving Adrian throughout the film, including frequent trips to her gravestone. I am not sure this is necessary. What is more dramatic than a sixty-year-old man getting into the ring with a champion over thirty years his junior? Then again, not everyone is a boxing fan.
Because it had been over fifteen years since Rocky V (1990), Rocky Balboa does not give you the same reminder of what has happened previously with Rocky. We do find out early on that Adrian is no longer alive, having died of “women cancer,” as he later puts it. But at least he still has his turtles, a reference to the original Rocky (1976). In Rocky Balboa, the pain of not having Adrian around anymore is evident. It is made worse because Rocky’s son, Robert “Rocky” Balboa Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), is distant, too. Neither Junior, nor Rocky’s brother-in-law, Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), are eager to be around on the anniversary of Adrian’s death. All Rocky really has left are his stories, which he tells to patrons of the restaurant he opened, named after his late wife. In other words, he does not have much to do anymore with boxing. What he begins to have more to do with is a woman he has known for a for a number of years named Marie (Geraldine Hughes), and her son “Steps” (James Francis Kelly III). In other words, he is looking for the family that has seemingly passed him. Though nothing overtly romantic happens between Marie and Rocky, it is noticed by others how much attention he is giving them. Indeed, he gives Marie and Steps jobs at his restaurant. As the former heavyweight champion of the world is dealing with old age, the current title holder, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), is facing ridicule for not facing any real opponents. The press is dubbing him a paper champion because he is beating everyone so easily. Mason is not happy with what people are saying about him. It is made worse when ESPN runs a computer simulation of himself against Rocky in the latter’s prime, and the computer Rocky triumphs. Mason does not believe the results, nor does he think solving it by getting into the ring with Rocky would be beneficial to the younger man’s career. For his part, Rocky is simply minding his own business, literally, when he sees the results of the simulation on the television, which reignites his desire to get back into the ring. In Mason’s camp, given that he handles every opponent too easily, his managers convince him to grant a bout with the legendary Rocky. It will not be a shot at the belt, but rather an exhibition, with a portion of the proceeds being donated to charity. Nonetheless, Mason refuses to take the old man seriously. Neither does Junior, who believes that his dad renewing his boxing career, especially against an opponent like Mason, will only bring embarrassment. There is a heartfelt moment when father reminds son that one has to make their way in the world on their own merits, and that to blame someone else for your mistakes is cowardice. This clears the air, and with Junior back on his side, it is time for the requisite training montage. Because of his age, Rocky must do things a little different. Though it had been agreed upon that they would do nothing to purposely hurt each other, Rocky prepares like he is about to regain the title. It may not involve long distance runs ending on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but the weight training is pretty intense. It all comes down to the match to be held in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand. From here, the film shifts into a sort of strange hybrid format where it looks more like you are watching an actual bout than something cinematic. As for the fight, while Rocky still has the muscle that typified him early in his career, it is the speed and reflexes that he is lacking. Mason also has reach on him, allowing him to dance around and keep his distance. Rocky is constantly trying to close the gap, and when Mason hurts himself throwing a low blow, the old pugilist is able to land some hard blows that manage to knock down the younger man. Ultimately, though, youth and all that brings wins out, and Mason wins in a split decision after ten rounds. I would say that Mason has learned some respect for Rocky, but he behaves petulantly when he hears the scores. No matter, the focus is on Rocky, who is walking away with his son. With waves to the adoring crowd, he leaves after this last match of his career and returns to Philadelphia. The last shot is of him leaving flowers for Adrian at her grave.
Unfortunately, Rocky Balboa is not as Catholic as its predecessors. Okay, that is probably more unfortunate just for me, though if you are a practicing Catholic like myself you might be disappointed, too. As such, as is the case so often, I have to dig for Catholic angles. That is not too hard to do. For example, before Rocky’s match with Mason, there is a reading from Zechariah in the Bible talking about victory in the Lord already being won. How does one attain such laurels? Actually, there is nothing one has to do save for one thing: get back up. This is another, broader theme in the film, and throughout the series. It is sins that knocks us down, or more theologically, separates us from God. There are two ways of handling it. We can wallow in our pity, believe that we are beyond help, and continue to live separated from salvation. The other solution is to get back up, sincerely seek forgiveness, and try again. Jesus is always in our corner, if you will pardon the cheesy boxing metaphor. With such a manager, that victory is always be assured. This is easy to recognize when Rocky is fighting, but it also applies to regular life. The non-pugilist example of this comes when Junior and Rocky have their argument about dad taking on Mason. Junior thinks Rocky is embarrassing not only himself, but his son. In other words, Rocky Jr. is letting life beat him down and blaming others for it. He is choosing to stay down. Rocky tells him different, and this is what gets the son back on the right path. God works similarly.
Rocky Balboa is another solid film, if not as inspiring as it probably intends. I did not understand why they could not have back Adrian, so I guess what I cynically said in the introduction applies. Marie’s character basically functions in the same way as did Adrian. Otherwise, it is a perfectly acceptable piece of cinema.