Judge Dennis Prince is eager to be regarded a washed-up has-been, confident that a lucrative comeback will be just the ticket to a cushy retirement.
Our reviews of Rocky Balboa (published March 20th, 2007), Rocky: The Complete Saga (published December 17th, 2007), and Rocky: The Undisputed Collection (Blu-Ray) (published November 18th, 2009) are also available.
"Every fighter has one last fight in him."
Although some may have anticipated Rocky Balboa to be a film worthy only of mockery and disdain, director and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone hushed his critics with a remarkably heartfelt story that hits nearly every beat precisely, just as the first glorious film did three decades ago. Following like a one-two punch from Sony, this new Blu-ray comes as a major release in the high-definition format, right on the heels of the previous week's exclusive Blu-ray offering, Casino Royale. In the Blu world, it's evident that Sony has decided to come out swinging in 2007.
Facts of the Case
Philadelphia's own hometown hero, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, Cliffhanger), is pining for one last bout in the boxing ring after a two-decade hiatus. When a computer-animated analysis determines the Italian Stallion might just prevail over the current champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon (played by actual light-heavyweight Antonio Tarver), Balboa is egged by Dixon's handlers to participate in an exhibition event. Enduring the loss of his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire, Prophecy), and estrangement from his son, Robert, Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia, Heroes), Rocky finds his need to remain relevant to his family, to Philly, and to himself enough internal motivation to accept one last stand in the ring.
Try as he might, Sylvester Stallone has never been able to shake free of his persistent doppelganger, Rocky Balboa. The wild success of the original Rocky, bestowed with the Oscar for Best Picture in 1976, ensured that Stallone would forever be traveling with his "Italian Stallion" in tow, accompanied by a perpetual personal soundtrack, Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" (awarded the Oscar for Best Song the same year). Of course, given the fact that the original picture was quickly pimped for a sequel and further stretched for an additional three, it's little wonder that Sly couldn't shake his alter ego (and it's not clearly evident that he ever wanted to). However, as he toiled to take on other roles, action oriented as they were, Stallone was perpetually mimicked and often mocked with a drawling, "Yo, Adrian!" He seemed to take it in stride, generally, but it soon became clear that he was eager to get out from under the shadow of the character. But it was his defining role, one that many actors would eagerly pine for, yet miscalculations in the subsequent sequels would call the character, along with Stallone, into question. Within the content of the extra features on this disc (to be discussed later), Stallone acknowledges some of the questionable choices that were made and admits the cultural excesses of the 1980s permeated his approach of the sequels produced during the decade. He realized that 1990s Rocky V failed to properly wrap up the series. Thus, he was determined to pen and helm one final outing to do proper justice to the character and the fans who have supported him through wins and losses.
Throughout the picture, Stallone seems not so much an actor as a biographer, providing personal details over what had become of the character and the actor who has portrayed him. As you watch the film, you'll experience the tangled emotions and self-assessing script that reveals itself as more a personal diary than a dramatic endeavor. Stallone appears to be honestly contrite over the character's dilemma. But this isn't a vanity piece nor is it an exercise in cinematic self pity. Rather, Stallone steps up to address fans' and critics' concerns, providing candid commentary through the character to paint a starkly realistic view of the triumphs and trappings of celebrity. Rocky Balboa, therefore, is the dose of self-help, self-healing, and self-satisfaction Stallone seemingly needed to experience to properly complete the saga. It's deliberate, yet definitely dignified.
The film is very nostalgic, revisiting nearly every plot point, device, and location (including the famous Philadelphia Art Museum steps) from the first film. Rocky clearly misses the glory days, those that seemed to be without end, and now feels betrayed by the unforgiving and unrelenting effects of time. While he still enjoys the pats on the back he receives from the patrons of his restaurant and never seems to tire of telling boxing tales, he also realizes it is now all ethereal, just memories that will ultimately fade, as has his championship status. Burt Young is along again as the cantankerous brother-in-law, Paulie, a final living link to the departed Adrian. But as much as Rocky's heart aches to put things back the way they were, it ultimately embraces the temporal nature of his life and livelihood, recognizing that it is still within his ability to complete some unfinished business, addressing that nagging "stuff in the basement" that tells him his time is not yet through. By this, expect that some elements of the film will feel a bit contrived and will even border on hamminess due to their highly wistful nature. Stallone is careful, though, never to let the picture spiral out of control and always manages to pull it back on track. In this particular setting, it feels good, part nostalgia and part reverence toward a monumental film that undeniably took a film-going nation by storm. Just as the original had roused viewers in a genuine manner, so too does this book-ending final chapter bring the excitement full circle and elicit a smile that cannot be suppressed. Stallone, for all the abuse he has taken as an actor over the years, shows deftness in his handling of his signature role. The wisdom he has gained over the years has allowed him to embody the character one more time, not in fighting fashion but, rather, with calculated finesse. It's clear that Stallone has regained his sight of what made the character a cultural phenomenon so long ago and, here, he plays that role one more time with genuine regard, both for himself and for the audience.
Stallone's performance is genuinely compelling, since he never shies away from the fact that he, like Rocky, has aged and shows the scars of a 30-year stand as the character. Stallone inserts obvious elements of his own personal philosophy into the script, revealing his hurt at having once been so highly regarded for his work only to be mercilessly torn down again by the same system that once celebrated him. He doesn't appear bitter at this point but, rather, has come to an epiphany, now understanding the insatiability of the entertainment industry (including the professional sports realm) and the toll it can and will take on the personalities from which it greedily profits. As Rocky, Stallone is able to shrug off the insults and insensitivities that are hurled his way, using the opportunities to speak to the film's younger characters—and to us, the audience—to explain the price of fame, and its fleeting and outright feral nature. From start to finish, the film works as a sort of therapy session for an aging population, they who wonder if they've done all they've set out to do, and for a youthful demographic, they who foolishly disregard the experienced among them in quest for superficial reward.
Another Blu-ray exclusive release from Sony, Rocky Balboa is presented in high-definition with punch and style. The 1080p / AVC encoded transfer looks absolutely excellent, providing all the grittiness of Rocky's humble Philadelphia surroundings perfectly contrasted by the stunning clarity of the commercially polished pay-per-view sports product. The first part of the film has a deliberate grainy look, never bothersome but very textural, nonetheless. Colors appear intentionally desaturated, evoking the waning nature of Rocky's fading past. Detail and contrast is excellent, especially given the fact that Stallone's production design included a stark juxtaposition of light versus dark. The final fight sequences, set inside Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay, were filmed with high-definition cameras. Stallone explained that he wanted the final act to look like an authentic HBO pay-per-view event. Here, the details and colors pop vividly and the transfer captures every element perfectly. In all, this is a top-tier transfer and the fight sequences can rightly be considered high-definition reference material.
The audio is well represented, the PCM 5.1 Uncompressed track providing an appropriate ambience to the film. The first part of the film is properly restrained, the audio being largely front anchored yet with reasonable surround effects on the city streets and within the crowded restaurant setting. When we arrive to the final fight sequence, the rear channels explode into action and situate us in the center of the raucous setting. Naturally, Bill Conti's signature theme permeates the viewing experience as you would expect.
The extras on this disc are very generous, giving fans old and new a highly comprehensive look into the making of this particular film and, more importantly, an intimate perspective on the Rocky character, the Rocky franchise, and Sylvester Stallone himself. Therefore, the best feature here is the feature-length commentary from Stallone, who is very well prepared to address his film, his approach, and his own career. As director, he offers a tremendous amount of technical information, the sort that makes a commentary very satisfying to technical listeners. As screenwriter, he speaks profusely about the story of the film, how he chose to tie it back full circle to the original picture, and how he navigated this particular narrative as a suitable final chapter to the series. His commentary is very active and rarely does he go silent. A number of featurettes follow, all of them offering additional behind-the-scenes information. "Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa" is a 27-minute look at the film with Stallone and other cast and crew members discussing the production. While it does have some feel of EPK origin, it never slips into unbridled and disingenuous backslapping. "Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky's Final Fight" runs 15 minutes and gives viewers a backstage pass into the choreography and ultimate filming of the final fight sequence. "Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight" is a five-minute look at the motion-capture process utilized to develop the computer-generated match between Rocky and Mason "The Line"' Dixon. The bonus here is the inclusion of the entire virtual fight, since only clips of it were included in the film proper. While deleted scenes are often throwaway bits, here you'll get 23 full minutes of excellent material that could have easily been offered as seamless branching content to deliver an extended cut of the film. This material also includes an alternate ending to the picture. A very short but satisfying blooper reel is also available. The only drawback to this excellent offering of bonus materials is the absence of theatrical trailers or TV spots. Other Blu-ray previews can be found here, but there are none for Rocky Balboa.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As melancholy as the film is, it never succumbs to moroseness. Some might charge this is a tearful goodbye, a film—and a lead actor—wanting to "buy" some respect for all the adversities withstood. In reality, though, the film knows its purpose and Stallone controls its delivery in a way that the message can be heard and the largely distracted audiences of today can come away with a proper reverence for the accomplishments of others while also recognizing their own potential, that which might be still left untapped. As a filmmaker, Stallone is very competent and there is hope that he will continue to work long after Rocky Balboa has come and gone.
If there is one liberty this film takes that should be noted, it's that it conveniently dispenses with the plot point of Rocky's brain damage presented in Rocky V. This isn't a fatal sidestep on the part of film or its script, but some may choose to take exception to it.
Through this film, it's clear that Sylvester Stallone is at peace with himself and with the Rocky character. This is a fitting and faithful installment in the Rocky series and one that will entertain, excite, and enlighten audiences. This film is highly recommended and this very complete Blu-ray disc is a definite "buy."
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary by Sylvester Stallone
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