When my parents gave me my first real record player at the age of 7, I owned five records: an LP recorded by my father, Meet the Beatles, a 45 of the Houston Oilers’ fight song and the soundtracks to both Rocky II and Rocky III. I was reared on the Italian Stallion as much as on anyone or anything. I knew every word to “Eye of the Tiger.” When I biked to school I hummed “Gonna Fly Now.” I re-enacted imaginary brawls with Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago better than any kid on the block.
As the Rocky franchise evolved along with the gaudy ’80s, I was right there every step of the way: I never thought twice about the homoerotic short-shorts embrace between Rocky and Apollo on the beach in Rocky III; I thought Brigitte Nielsen in Rocky IV (two decades pre-Flavor Flav) was sexy as hell; I never questioned the fact that Rocky failed to ever defend himself against a single punch; and I cried when Apollo died in the ring fighting that steroid-inflated Soviet suckbot. Save for the Oscar-winning original, which came out when I was 1, I saw every single Rocky film in the theater the weekend it came out. That’s just how it was.
That track record includes, unfortunately, Rocky V, possibly the worst movie ever made. In 1990, I took a date to see it, and I still remember sitting in the second row, forgetting second base and openly wondering how my childhood idol could ever have ended up on that screen, in that movie. The film ends with our hero in a street fight against a trashy great white hope played by Tommy Morrison (a real-life heavyweight boxer at the time). The fact that Rocky V ended in an alley and not in a ring was just one of a bazillion problems; fans didn’t even get their gratuitous scenes of a barrel-chested Rocky gutting through one last courageous victory under the bright lights. It was all wrong.
I abandoned Rocky after that, at what seemed surely to be the franchise’s last installment—no more TNT marathons, no more Survivor, no more Frank Stallone ballads. It left a bad taste in my mouth and I held a grudge. Sylvester Stallone, the sole proprietor of Rocky as creator, writer, director and star, had done a grave disservice to a character who’d once represented all that’s right with sports: grit, heart, family and community. But whatever bad taste was left in fans’ mouths, Stallone must’ve licked his crooked lips and tasted something infinitely more foul. Because despite the fact that he’s 60 years old, that boxing is now a second-tier sport, and that an entire generation has grown up knowing this franchise only as a punch line, Stallone has gone to the trouble of offering up Rocky Balboa, aka Rocky VI. And the only conceivable reason to bring our hero back from the (brain)dead is to banish the memory of Rocky V and let the champ bow out with class.
Surprise: it works. As an apology, Rocky Balboa is a winner for longtime fans. Its heart is in the right place, its message is in tune with the franchise’s history, and it ends in a boxing ring, where every Rocky movie belongs. It’s even understated, muted, set against the run-down row houses of Philly, just like the original, as if to show that Rocky has finally gone home. There, we find the aging has-been running a restaurant, Adrian’s, named after his recently deceased wife. Business is fine, but Rocky seems more interested in surrounding himself with family than getting a write-up in Fodor’s: a former knockout victim from one of his early fights cleans dishes; an adopted mutt becomes the community dog; “Li’l Marie from the hoagie shop,” now a single mom with a half-Jamaican son (“Eh, so he’s European,” says Rocky), becomes the hostess; and even Paulie (Burt Young) is still hanging around, fatter, drunker and messier than ever. Rocky works the room each night telling old stories and posing for pictures.
It’s only when Rocky mentions something to Paulie about there being somthing in the “basement” of his belly—meathead euphemism for he’s got some fire left in him—that we start to see a little spark. Then a late-night ESPN show runs a computer simulation pitting Rocky against the current heavyweight champion, some rudderless thug whose desire doesn’t match his talent. When the computer Rocky wins, that gets people thinking…and the fight—an elaborate Las Vegas exhibition—is on.
It truly doesn’t matter that a ridiculous computer simulation is the plot’s turning point. It doesn’t matter that Rocky’s son is a wet blanket driving a subplot that only gets in the way. It also doesn’t matter that Stallone boasts the most unfortunate mix of bad plastic surgery, old age and painful facial expressions ever to suffer so many close-ups, making his face look like a clumpy volcano from a sixth-grade science experiment gone wrong. (Wait, that last one does kind of matter. His right eyebrow was so unnaturally askew the entire movie I lost my appetite.) What matters most here is thatRocky Balboa gets back to the formula. It’s not a great movie. It’s barely good. But what it does, thankfully, is finally make things right for those of us who pledged allegiance to Rocky in our formative years. It also erases the memory of Rocky V. And it should, above all else, allow Stallone—er, Balboa—to finally retire gracefully.