In the last decade, there have been revivals of previous beloved franchises to mixed results. Indiana Jones couldn’t pull it off. Die Hard did alright with its first reboot, but shit the bed big time with another perfunctory follow-up. All these larger than life characters had issues with their return to the big screen. But with an honest to God masterstroke, Sylvester Stallone rejuvenated the Rocky franchise in 2006 by offering more than just a simple nostalgia trip.
Rocky Balboa, which was also directed by the former heavyweight champ of the silver screen, is slightly melancholy, crushingly honest, and easily the second best in the franchise. For the first time since 1982, Sylvester Stallone gets to portray Rocky as the good-natured, if naïve, Italian Stallion. Life has hit him hard with the passing of Adrian, but Rocky is still Rocky. He runs a restaurant named after his late wife and continues making friends around the neighborhood. But Rocky still feels a little something in the basement. Maybe one last fight?
An opportunity arises when a simulated fight between Rocky and the current heavyweight champion of the world, Mason “The Line” Dixon, declares Rocky the victor. Against what many would perceive as a terrible idea, the aging fighter agrees to an exhibition match in Las Vegas. Dixon is falling out of favor with crowds, and Rocky wants to prove to himself and everyone else that he’s more than just a washed-up relic. In real life we’d probably call Rocky dumb for thinking he could handle one last fight in the ring without killing himself but 1) this isn’t real life, so shut up, and 2) Rocky’s inherent pursuit of happiness, brought up in one of several excellent speeches, isn’t dumb at all; it’s about showing the world he’s still worth a damn.
It always bums me out when nobody really talks about Rocky Balboa as one of the great sequels and one of the flat-out best franchise finales. Not only does it contain a hell of a speech, it’s also one of the only sequels that retained the central series’ thesis and made it accessible to a modern audience. There are small touches that make the film classic Rocky. In Adrian’s restaurant, there are pictures and memorabilia from the previous pictures, though there are none from Rocky 5, and I’ll let you guess why, which leads Rocky to talk to his customers about his glory days. He’s the people’s champion who never forgot his roots. Probably the most heartbreaking aspect of this connection to the original films comes in the opening. As Rocky goes to visit Adrian’s grave, he pulls out a chair from a tree. Rocky visits Adrian, he fills her in on his life, and then packs up his chair, keeping it by her grave until the next time he comes to visit. There is no shortage of emotional gut punches throughout, but something about Rocky loving his wife so much he has a routine to visit her daily is just heartbreaking to me.
If we’re being realistic, no Rocky sequel will surpass the original. It practically invented the formula of up-and-comers, going against the odds, proving to the world that you’re worth a damn, and gave us one of cinemas most lovable protagonists. And Rocky Balboa is the culmination of the titular character’s journey. In the sixth film in the franchise, you don’t need to be better, and you don’t need to be the best. Win or lose, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes life pits us against unwinnable scenarios. What do we do then? We watch and listen to Sylvester Stallone deliver an instantly iconic moment in the franchise, and one that we can all apply to our personal life experiences:
At the end it doesn’t matter if Rocky Balboa is as recognized as a few inferior sequels or other beloved franchise rejuvenations. This movie honors a cinematic icon with honesty, love, and respect. For a sixth time, Rocky went the distance, and that’s enough.