The history of film is littered with cautionary tales about revisiting past glories. The Matrix Revolutions, Clerks 2, and Star Wars I, II and III are just some of the sober warnings about what can happen to a glittering movie legacy that someone just couldn’t leave alone.
Rocky Balboa, the sixth time out for the Italian stallion, must have seemed to studios destined to join that list – many would argue that a few of the previous Rockys are already there. Written, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, with a premise so ludicrous that it had many a cynical hack – including this one – spluttering into their coffee, it seems little wonder that it took so long to get financed.
Rocky is now in his mid-fifties, and his fighting days are well behind him. He still lives in the same neighbourhood, where he runs a small restaurant named in honour of his late wife (who, for some reason, was called Adrian). His son is becoming estranged, his body is slowly crumbling, and all of his favourite haunts are well past their prime.
But when a “virtual fight” on sports channel ESPN shows Rocky beating current heavyweight world champion Mason “The Line” Dixon, whose facile career has become tedious in the eyes of the fans, Mason’s agent spots an opportunity for an exhibition match between the current great and the former one – and Rocky gets one last shot at the big time.
And that’s where the spluttering should stop – because it’s actually quite entertaining. Stallone has produced a lot of dross in his time, but this is the role he was born to play, and he lights up the screen here. He inspires real warmth as the old fighter despreately trying to connect with his son, faintly bewildered by the changes the world is going through. The script is syrupy at times, but there are moments of genuine humanity – even a few good laughs.
Just as it’s beginning to seem that Rocky might be a much more interesting prospect if he was kept out of the ring, the inevitable happens. The reluctant acceptance of an unlikely fight, the joyfully cheesy training montage and final, epiphanous, fight scene, where personal demons are expelled by whaling on another boxer, were all as choreographed as night following day – and all carried out as a loving homage to a franchise that has spanned thirty years.
Of course it’s not a perfect movie; it’s schmaltzy at times, all a little too easy. But like his character, in the end Stallone can leave this series with his head held high, perhaps having won a bit of grudging respect from audiences and critics who have slated him so many times. And, in a long history of sorry sequels, he’s proved that sometimes it can be worth going back for one last film.