Of men and woman and boys and girls who still feint and bob, a butterfly sickly batting in their stomachs, each time TNT broadcasts a Rocky marathon1, there are legion. Of that legion, many will tell you that Rocky is the greatest sports movie of all time, simply because Rocky simply wants "to go the distance." Balboa does not prioritize victory; he prioritizes holding his own. Few sports movies envision so humble an outcome for the protagonist, and those that do hold Rocky (1976) in their debt.
Despite critical indifference or hostility to the newly-released Rocky Balboa, I could not, as a devotee of the first four installments of the Rocky series, bypass this sixth and ostensibly final episode in the Italian Stallion's history. Others have reviewed the film, synopsized the plot, and placed judgment2 upon both Balboa and Stallone, but few have answered the question, What is Rocky Balboa?
Between Rocky V (1990) and Rocky Balboa (2006), Stallone co-produced and co-hosted the reality show The Contender (NBC 2005), a show which pitted aspiring pugilists against one another for a shot3 at a million-dollar prize. In a 2005 interview with Daily Variety, Mark Burnett, one of Stallone's co-producers, claims that The Contender is about restoring lost dignity4 to the tarnished sport of kings: "[boxing is] the highest-paying sport, yet no one believes in it anymore. What happens when we make it transparent and clean?" Stallone adds that the show "is not about boxing. It's about people who box and that's a big difference" (ABC7 Chicago).
And so was Rocky, and so is Rocky Balboa.
In Rocky Balboa, boxing sequences are few and far between, with Balboa avoiding the ring until the main event itself. In fact, Balboa does not begin to train until the final third of the movie5, and he never puts on gloves until he is in the dressing room at Mandalay Bay. So, with little boxing, what is this film all about?
While mourning Adrian's death by revisiting their old haunts, Balboa (now the owner of Adrian's, an Italian restaurant) discovers an old acquaintance, Little Marie, and his generosity toward her and her son occupy a considerable amount of screen time. Not a racist himself, Balboa still broadcasts prejudices when he tells Little Marie that her son looks just like her, only to discover that he is mistaken: Little Marie's son, Steps, is dark complected, as his father is Jamaican. Embarrassed by his assumptions, Balboa backtracks, yet in what is supposed to come off as a punch-drunk Rocky mistaken in his geography, Balboa says, "A European!"7. Interestingly, Balboa declines Little Marie's offer to meet Steps, but reconsiders as he approaches his van, returning to meet Steps and beginning a course of action that will entangle their lives; Steps receives a role model and a chance to earn his own way, while Balboa is allowed to give of himself in a way that is initially rejected by his own son.
Prior to the climactic fight between Balboa and Mason Dixon (this name is significant, please remember), this didactic film works to join two worlds of boxing—the closed community of purists (i.e. racists) who consider the heyday of boxing to be Rocky Marciano (whose avatar is and has always been Balboa) and a couple of non-threatening (in a cultural sense) minority fighters (Ali in retrospect, Sugar Ray Leonard and Lennox Lewis at their times), and the current cast of heavyweight fighters whose culture seems to be largely influenced by Tyson-era image making and hip-hop6.
When Balboa decides to re-enter the ring, thinking about smaller, local fights, he is immediately confronted with an opportunity to fight in an "exhibition" against Mason Dixon, the current heavyweight title holder. (Let us not forget the significance of the Mason Dixon line; in fact, Dixon's boxing sobriquet is "The Line.") Dixon, taking his fashion cues from urban culture (and in fact we see him recreationally shooting baskets outside while his "posse" lounges in his sumptuous living room) is plagued with image issues—fans are appalled at his string of lollipop opponents (yet fans still loved Rock-o when he was downing easy fighters between Rocky II and Rocky III, presumably) despite his great success. The consensus is that Dixon has not been tested, and the public wants a boxer who has been tested and has bested the obstacles before him or her. Dixon's managers perceive an exhibition with Balboa as a panacea for all Dixon's (and their own) ills, so they arrange this fight8.
What is presented as a has-been's attempt to rekindle who he is and a newly-emerged champion's attempt to earn self-respect also connects to another concurrent operation in the film. Rocky films are always about clashes between cultures, either racial, national, or socio-economic, and Rocky's position always emerges as dominant, until now. As the first bell rings, one may expect Rocky to eventually reign triumphantly, thus validating his work ethic and his morality while simultaneously devaluing the ideology Dixon represents (we've seen this with Clubber Lang). Yet Stallone seems to keep the purpose behind The Contender in mind, and the final fight between Balboa and Dixon becomes a torch-passing (from fiction to reality) and an attempt to restore boxing's lost luster.
Rocky Balboa works hard at making both sides (the traditional and the modern) emerge as victors. Some examples: Balboa approaches the ring to the accompaniment of Sinatra, while Dixon approaches to the accompaniment of hip-hop9; Balboa has both his son and Steps in his corner, the latter who is steadfastly in support of Balboa but unable to refrain from headbobbing to Dixon's music. The two fighters give one another their measure, and in what amounts to a moment of respect before the final round a debilitated Dixon tells Balboa, "You're a crazy old man," while after the final bell and before the referee's decision a bloodied Balboa tells Dixon, "You're a great champion." Balboa, losing in another split decision (see Rocky and a slow start against Apollo Creed), "wins" because again he has gone the distance against all odds, while Dixon has displayed the heart of a champion, has beaten narrowly the all-time great, and has learned to respect the tradition that affords him his lifestyle. Balboa is halfway down the tunnel before the ring announcer begins to give the decision; the empirical outcome is of no use to him.
As the final credits role, one sees a montage of Rocky-inspired runs up the stairs by a heterogeneous cast of characters, followed by a final run by Balboa himself as the snowy daylight bleeds to darkness. Here, Stallone seems to remind the viewer about the Rocky legacy (if only Paulie had a dollar for every pair of black Chuck Taylors that have ascended those stairs at an attempted gallop) and offer a farewell. The fictional legacy is left to Steps, while the real-world legacy is within all of us who feel stirred at the opening fanfare of the Rocky theme. Stallone has offered a final helping of Rocky, and while it might be compared to comfort food more easily than haute cuisine, the film succeeds by its own standards, which, again, is all Rocky ever hoped to do.
1These marathons mercifully conclude with the Italian Stallion downing Drago and (as Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy says) ending the Cold War with his plea for understanding and demystification—"If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change"—not with him clobbering some punk in a back alley.
2Rocky Balboa falls victim to a trend in film criticism that first became apparent to me during the release of Star Wars' episodes I, II, and III—critics more often criticize the director or the main actor than the film itself, speculating on motives and intent, placing the film in context with that figure's oeuvre instead of evaluating the film itself. Now, I firmly believe that we must historicize when criticizing a work of art, but when a critic's impulse to historicization obliterates or obfuscates the work itself—its technique and its idiosyncratic system—then criticism has failed and the critic becomes little more than a pundit.
3"You want me to take a shot?! I'll take a shot!" Rocky to Mickey, Rocky (1976).
4 Tyson's famous altercations, incarcerations, and mastications among the contributing factors, although at his prime Tyson was a god in the ring. With each first-round knockout, I gloated at the imagined consternation of those seated ringside, who'd shelled out a solid G-plus for one minute's action.
5Featuring homages to past training sequences, most notably chugging a glass of raw eggs (which likely caused a rash of salmonella cases in late-70's America) and running up the staircase to the Philadelphia Art Museum (once again adorned with the Rocky statuea).
aThe Rocky statue was given as a gift by Stallone to the city of Philadelphia (you might know it as the other city in Pittsburgh), and was place at the top of the stairs to the Philadelphia Art Museum, where it had been placed in Rocky III (1982). After public outrage—i.e. after wealthy patrons of the arts complained—the statue was moved to the Spectrum sports arena sidewalk, where it remained until a brief revival on the stairs for the filming of Rocky V (1990) and to the base of the stairs for the 30th anniversary of Rockyi.
iIt is ironic that the statue is located at the base of the stairs while, when asked informally about the contributions of modern Philadelphia to the world at large, Philadelphians often mention Rocky Balboa with what one assumes is a blurred sense of reality.
6See Allen Iverson w/r/t unfair image issues despite a near exemplary mode of conduct at the professional level as compared to the wide-grinning, HIV-acquiring Magic Johnsoni or the wide-grinning, problem-gambling Michael Jordan, etc.
iAbout Magic, consider this from the LA Times, Friday, November 8, 1991:
Q: How did Johnson contract the virus?Remember, Magic's wife does not have HIV.
A: Neither Johnson nor his physician offered any explanation. But Johnson seemed to imply that he acquired it through heterosexual activity.
7In the scene, Rocky does then demonstrate tolerance and acceptance, but his Europeanization of Jamaica still speaks to the problem.
8Somehow this happens, although Dixon storms out of the training ring when his managers suggest this bout, claiming that he is going to his old gym. I may be wrong, but I believe the conceit is that the managers own the rights to Dixon's fighting schedule, so they are able to book this bout without his full consent. Again, see Tyson w/r/t mismanagement.
9I'm a no-good bum, but I recognize neither the artist nor the song.