In anticipation of the November 25th release of CREED, we’ll be taking a look back at the ROCKY franchise and discussing why these characters and this world are still relevant and necessary forty years later.
Adrian Balboa has died.
Watching all six of the Rocky movies brings one thing to the very forefront: Rocky Balboa would do anything for Adrian. His love for her is so true, beautiful and innocent that taking it away feels like a cruel joke. In a more cynical movie, it probably would be. But there isn’t a cynical bone in Rocky’s body and Sylvester Stallone is acutely aware of what this movie means for his character.
Rocky Balboa (2006) punches the audience in the heart repeatedly over its first act. The slow reveal of Adrian’s gravestone* is like a knife twisting in your heart as Rocky goes through his routine of visiting his wife. He lovingly places flowers on the stone and perches his sitting chair in the tree next to the stone so that it’s there waiting for him when he returns. It being the anniversary of Adrian’s passing, Paulie escorts Rocky to all of their old stomping grounds: the pet store, Rocky’s original stoop and a now-torn-down skating rink. It’s at the skating rink where Paulie has his most human moment in the series, exclaiming that he wouldn’t do this trip anymore because while Rocky treated her “good”, Paulie treated her “bad” and he can’t live with it another year. Each of these characters have come to a point where they’re looking back at the life they’ve lived and are wondering how to pick up the pieces.
When current Heavyweight Champion of the World, Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) sees a simulated boxing match between himself and Rocky in which Dixon loses, he’s disgraced beyond his already soft, undefeated record. No one believes Dixon is the true champ, having beaten bunches of “bums” to get his title and would never win against a bruiser like Balboa. His team, fully aware of his persona, convinces Dixon to challenge Balboa in what is to be a “glorified exhibition match”.
Rocky doesn’t have anything to prove like he did with his initial fight with Apollo Creed. This fight with Dixon isn’t about seeing if he can go the distance and stand against the greats. This fight is about Rocky ridding himself of the beast that still dwells within after all these years. Rocky still hears Mick’s chants in his ears everyday, still sees Adrian’s ghost rushing the ring to get to him. He watches his son (Milo Ventimiglia) float through a life he doesn’t want, wishing he wasn’t standing in the shadow of his father.
This is where Rocky Balboa transforms from a sentimental sledgehammer into something truly poignant and beautiful. Rocky will always love his son and support him but he won’t stand by and watch him blame the world for his troubles. Rocky Balboa didn’t sit back and let the world pile on top of him. He got out there and punched cold meat and took shots to the face that no man should have survived. Rocky would never blame a shadow. Rocky would say, “Hey yo, shadow, why ya always so glum? It’s ’cause you’re always followin’ me.”
It’s always been Rocky’s m.o. to take the hits and wear out his opponent. Sure, his left hook was good, but his real strength was sheer endurance. So Rocky tells Robert Jr, “…it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward”. In plain words, Rocky lays out what the entire character means. Life is going to keep taking and taking and sometimes it gives back but you won’t reap any benefits by not trying to move forward. Your eyes will be black and your nose will be broken and at times the air in your lungs will be daggers but there’s also beauty. There’s also Adrian.
And there’s also a beast to slay.
Rocky fights Dixon with Paulie and his son in his corner. He is fighting to lose the beast, not to beat Dixon. Dixon quickly realizes that the man across from him isn’t here for an exhibition match and gives his all against the legend. Both fight against their own demons. It goes the bloody distance and when it’s over, Rocky leaves the ring before the decision comes down, having accomplished what he’s set out to do. Dixon is ruled the victor and Rocky Balboa exits the arena having slain the past that keeps him up at night. After thirty years, Rocky is free.
Rocky Balboa wrecks me every time I watch it. It’s hard to believe that this is the movie Stallone followed up Rocky IV with as a director and it shows just how much he lets his emotions affect his delivery. Stallone had something to prove with Rocky Balboa and when his story aligns with his intentions, he’s capable of making something very special. Does it lean a bit too much on nostalgia? Maybe but it knows just when to hit the right notes and I can’t fault it for that.
With Rocky Balboa, we’ve come to the end of what I believe will be the true “Rocky” movies. This week’s Creed sets us on a new journey with a new character. The fact that we get to visit our friend, Rocky Balboa, one more time is just icing on the cake.
*When my girlfriend and another buddy with whom I’ve shared this journey with realized that we were in a cemetery, both exclaimed, “Please be Paulie!”, and both were horrendously crushed at his reveal standing behind Rocky. I didn’t watch these movies in order the first time I saw them and it’s such a testament to the love story Stallone scripted that the audience grows with the characters during each stage of their lives. It’s also a testament for the burning pile of trash that Paulie is.