Movie Review: Rocky Balboa

It’s about the man, not the fight


The Italian Stallion returns for the 6th time in “ROCKY BALBOA”, appropriately titled to emphasize the film’s focus on character over plot. Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character emerges from retirement to face an audience worn down by formulaic repetitions of the storyline that worked so well in the first ROCKY film: challenged by a physically superior foe so dominant that to fight him is tantamount to committing suicide, Rocky trains harder than anyone ever thought possible, and in the end, thanks to his limitless heart, triumphs over his brutal antagonist (to the great relief from his always-worried Adrian).

In my book, there were only 2 good films in the franchise – ROCKY I, the original and by far the greatest, and ROCKY III, because it introduced us all to Mr. T and he was fantastic. (I remember walking home from seeing the movie at the theater in the Center and promising myself I’d do pull-ups from ceiling pipes like T did in the movie. Unfortunately, that vow fared poorly). The strengths of the first ROCKY are numerous, but at the core, the movie is all about characters, and heart, so when that lovable big dreamin’ dummy Rocky gets in the ring against Apollo Creed, we really, really, really want him to win. Stallone seems to have forgotten this lesson – until now.

I’m now adding ROCKY BALBOA to the list of great movies in the franchise, and I think it’s better than ROCKY III. (Heresy for a child of the ‘80s to say – but it’s true!) Kudos to Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and directed as well as starred. Here he returns to the kind of material that I think serves him best – not muscle-bound action crap, but work rooted in character. My favorite performances from Stallone are performances where character comes first – where I believe in his underdog status. Those would be ROCKY I, COP LAND, and here in ROCKY BALBOA.

In this movie, I fell for the big palooka Rocky all over again – his weird but lovable speech patterns, his nervousness around other people, his complete lack of guile, and his huge, genuine big-heartedness. This was the first ROCKY movie where I didn’t want to see the fight – not because I was worried Rocky would get killed, but because I was enjoying the movie so much without it. We’re seeing Rocky’s struggles as an aging, over-the-hill icon, as a father whose son is distant, as a man who sees relics of his past all around him and whose only soul mates are all dead. Watching Rocky wandering around his old Philadelphia haunts was wonderful, and it didn’t feel forced or saccharine; it felt right for the character and for the story. We’ve aged right along with this character, so his flashbacks of the better days resonated deeply, because they felt distant and beloved to the audience too. And the audience is well-rewarded by organic re-appearances of characters large and small from throughout the ROCKY series. I could have stayed in theater for hours watching that kind of Rocky movie. Although I would like to have seen more screen time devoted to some of the storylines that weren’t fully developed in the film (Rocky’s relationship with his son, and his relationship with Street, the boy he’s mentoring), I still came away happy. I really liked seeing a man who once had it all returned to his humble roots, trying to lift others up in that charmingly simple way that Rocky has. Rocky Balboa was a good guy and I missed him. I’m sorry we won’t be seeing anymore of him.

I recommend that anyone who enjoyed the film check out the Q&A sessions that Stallone did via e-mail on (scroll down for links to his other answer sessions.) He reveals himself to be a very intelligent guy who acknowledges the stupidity of doing bad movies like STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT that have dulled his star’s luster. Here’s two of his comments that I found particularly interesting:

I thought the most tragic thing one could be confronted with is the prospect of loneliness and the second, the lack of opportunity to prove one’s self-worth. So Rocky was just a manifestation of all the underdogs who dream of one day having the opportunity to reach for the stars. They may not get there, but at least the opportunity to show what’s in a person’s heart is the main goal.

Non-physical courage is the most profound courage of all.

Spoilers follow! Don’t read if you don’t want the movie spoiled!

    How great was it that Stallone brought back L’il Marie? Even though she’s only on camera for a couple minutes in the original, I remembered her clearly. She was a great character. Too bad she turns into an Adrian substitute here.
    I thought it was absolutely great that Rocky doesn’t even stick around for the formal announcement of who won the fight. Because it doesn’t matter to him. He didn’t come to win, he came to fight. He’s got the confidence and experience and self-esteem to know that he did what he came to do. A great dramatic choice.
    I thought the relationship between Rocky and his son was about 80% right, but there were some missteps. The scene where Rocky goes off on him on the street was really good, but we didn’t need it hammered home to us during the big fight. If Rocky’s doing the fight to prove to his son that you just keep moving forward, then a few well-placed looks between them during the battle would sell much better than awkward voice-over. Just when it looks worst for Rocky, he should look over at his son, and we see in Rocky’s eyes that he’s sending the boy a message. The trembling kid stares back – and we see the message has been received. That’s filmmaking. I also want to see more of Rocky mentoring Street, and a scene between Street and Rocky’s son showing how they felt about each other – one son who rejected his father’s legacy, and his apparent replacement.
    Less of the L’il Marie during the fight. With all of her nervousness and whining, she became the new Adrian.
    I hated that the first rounds of the fight were shot on video, as if we were seeing them on TV. I felt very removed for that part of the movie. Don’t switch from film to video in the middle of the movie. It’s jarring… as is the weird color shifts.

A Catch-22 Example

I have an infant son, he’s 15 months old. He is a terrible sleeper. Whereas our older son has fallen out of bed onto his head and slept through it, this one wakes up if you’re in the room and breathe hard. It’s like being around the Indians in an old movie, if you step on a twig, you’re dead.

Today the rest of the family was out, so I was in charge of him and his morning nap, which is usually about 90 minutes. After that, he wakes up screaming. But he kept sleeping today. It had been almost two hours.

Option A: Wake him up. He cries. No one is happy.
Option B: See if he’s sleeping. Inevitably some small noise is made when I check, he wakes up and starts crying.
Option C: Let him sleep. He cries when he wakes up, so I’ll know when he’s ready to come out. Kind of mean-sounding, but effective.

I went with Option C.

So Mrs. Muttrox comes home, goes to check on him and reports he’s been sitting up in the crib making quiet little contented noises, and looks like he’s been doing it for a while. Obviously, I haven’t checked on my own son for some time. I look like the putz Dad.

You can’t win.

Movie Review: Casino Royale

Overall, it was great!

For one thing, it’s the first Bond movie in decades that’s based on one of the actual Ian Fleming books. Loosely based, to be sure, but based. And they took the opportunity to “reboot” the franchise. Bond is now much more human in interesting ways. Sure, he’s emotionless — but that’s explicit. More importantly, he gets hurt and he exerts himself. It takes effort to do things. He sweats, he goes all-out, he gets bumped, and his hair does get mussed while doing it. It reminded me a lot of the two Bourne movies, which I also enjoyed for the exact same reason. Action sequences that are reasonably realistic are much more exciting than comic book fights. Any given stunt or fight should give you the impression, “That’s wild, and implausible, but not laughably impossible.” (It does have the usual motivation plot problems, which Easterbrook nails (scroll down to “Bunk”.)

So a big thumbs up. With that said, here are two things that bothered me.

1) Continuity. Having recurring characters and story arcs that span more than one movie makes a series infinitely stronger. Most movies can’t afford to do this. It’s so hard to get a hit that you don’t want to spend precious minutes laying the groundwork for a sequel that may not ever happen. So all the girls get killed, all the villains get defeated, everything gets wrapped up with a nice bow, because you get the biggest bang for your movie-making buck that way. But the Bond franchise is different. There is always going to be another Bond movie next summer, so you can invest in the future and make it that much stronger. Have a villain get away. Have the trail go cold. Have the girl he loves survive for a couple of years for once, would that kill you?

2) Poker. In the book (which I read many years ago), the game is Baccarat. Baccarat has no element of skill, and no one in America understands how it’s played. It’s a very stupid game. So the writers made a smart move and changed it to poker. More current, more chances for Bond to do clever things, and more familiar to the audience. But the poker was terrible — just awful from top to bottom.

There was no poker skill displayed – In every important hand, the players win by having a great hand. In the first half of the movie, Bond wins a sports car by having the nut aces when the other guy has kings. Whoo, that took some serious skill! In the final hand, Bond pulls a straight flush, which beats out two separate full houses and a three-of-a-kind. Strangely, he makes a big dramatic pause before decding to call the all-in bet. In any normal game, his reaction would be instantaneous, “You bet I’m in, you blood-spurting freak! Take a peek at these babies, I like to call them Nut One and Nut Two!” Or something along those lines. At any rate, the point is that it doesn’t take any poker skill to get dealt a great hand. It takes skill to take terrible cards and bluff everyone away and still win. That might actually require the best poker player in the service (which they claim Bond is).

The tells — no great poker player has a tell so obvious. If they have any.

The betting increments were insane. I see your $50,000 and raise you another $50,000. Big deal, standard raise is up to $200,000 or so. Anything less is a terrible bet. No one ever raised enough to scare anyone out of a pot.

There were too many people on big hands. On the winning hand, why would anyone stay in with trips? There’s all kinds of great cards on the boards, three other players in the hand, let them fight it out. That’s how you win a tourney.

Why did the CIA send such a bad player to play? What’s the point of that? Much as I like the Felix character, and making him black worked great, it didn’t make any sense for him to be there.

In fact, the whole game didn’t make any sense. The plot is that the bad guy is such a good poker player that in a $150 million winner-take-all tournament, he is such a threat to win that both the Americans and Brits infiltrate the game with their best players to try and stop him. First of all, no one is that good. At a 15 person table of top players, the best poker players in the world might have a 1 in 3 shot vs. a 1 in 15 shot. That’s why no-names keep winning the WSOP. And if the bad guy is really that good, why is he screwing around with financing terrorism, manipulating world stock markets, and working with people who like to chop his hand off? The heck with that, just become a professional high-stakes poker player. A lot easier, a lot more legal, a lot more fun — and with that bleeding eye schtick, your endorsements would be through the roof.

But even so, I liked it!