During my senior year of college, AMC ran Rocky marathons constantly. Though I'd seen the movies before, I really learned them that year. My roommate and I watched more Rocky in that year than many do in their lifetimes. So when we heard Rocky Balboa was coming out, we agreed to see it together, even though he lives in Maryland and I'm in New Jersey.
I was wary when I heard that Stallone was going to make another Rocky movie. A series that was so good ended so poorly. Rocky V lacked everything that made the other movies great. Rocky left all the boxing to his dickhead protégé Tommy Gunn -- played by Tommy Morrison, who may or may not have HIV. In the movie, Rocky ignored his son and trusted the obviously evil Gunn. In the other movies, Rocky wasn't too smart, but had a heart of gold. Rocky Balboa avoided the pitfalls from the series' fifth installment and made a movie that rivals even the first.
Rocky, now a widower, realizes that the death of Adrian left him with some "stuff in the basement," demons he needs to work out in the ring. The current champ, Mason Dixon, played by Antonio Tarver, is accused of fighting no one with real skill. ESPN runs a simulated fight between Rocky and Dixon to see who'd win (something stupid enough they'd actually do), and Dixon's agent decides to set up the bout.
I don't know if Talia Shire, who played Adrian in all the other Rocky's, refused to do the movie or if Sly just thought that the story would work better if Adrian wasn't in it. Either way, it works beautifully. Adrian was just as strong of a character dead as she was alive in some of the movies. I'm not putting down her character or Talia Shire's performance, but instead, I'm commending Sly on being able to still show the relationship between Rocky and Adrian without her actually being there. There's a powerful scene in the beginning where Rocky takes Paulie around reliving moments he and Adrian had. They even splice in old footage of those scenes that not only avoid being really corny, but enhance the scene.
Rocky's son in the movie is played by Heroes' star Milo Ventimiglia. Originally, the role was offered to Sly's real son, Sage Stallone, who played Rocky's son in Rocky V, but supposedly he was busy with something else. I doubt that he's actually busy with anything, but I applaud the move. Sage would have reminded me too much of Rocky V and the last thing I need to think about while watching a Rocky movie is that. Milo did a great job playing a son who's smarter than Rocky, but is fed up with living in his father's shadow. There were some good exchanges between Rocky and his son, which made Rocky look wiser than in the past movies, showing one of getting older.
The female lead is Marie, played by Geraldine Hughes, who plays the grown-up version of the bad girl Rocky tries to give advice to in the original movie. Rocky takes it upon himself to help her and her son out. The best part about this relationship is that they never try to do anything sexual with it. Rocky's emotional relationship is still with Adrian, and that gives a chance for the characters to interact without a pointless sexual tension.
Burt Young as Paulie is the same as in every movie. It's not a Rocky movie without Paulie.
My biggest gripe in this movie is that they didn't spend enough time training. The training sequence was only about five minutes long and didn't actually show him improving on much. In all the past movies, he had to overcome a physical weakness. Even though age was his weakness in this movie, he never appeared to struggle with it too much.
The match itself starts out well with two full rounds, but the montage becomes a bit tough to watch. Clips from the past installments and moments from earlier in this one were spliced in, making it confusing to watch. That aside, there were still moments that gave me goose bumps.
Rocky Balboa is the movie that Rocky V should have been. It showed the emotion of the first Rocky as he dealt with Adrian's death and his poor relationship with his son. This film won't be an Oscar-winner like the first one, nor should it be, but it's probably emotionally stronger than Rocky III or Rocky IV. Sly returend Rocky to his roots in this movie as a man who's all heart and passion trying to overcome something most people wouldn't even try. That's why the movie works.