Rocky Balboa is a movie that needed to be made. Contrary to early naysayers, this franchise needed closure that failed to show through back in 1990 when audiences last visited with the cinematic icon. Sylvester Stallone directs, acts, and writes this final sequel and the result is a moving, nostalgic, and engrossing effort worthy of the Rocky name.
Balboa is a flashback to the first installment of the franchise. Instead of following closely with the eventual opponent and building him up to create tension in the closing moments, it takes the opposite approach. This is squarely focused on Stallone, which takes nothing away from Antonio Tarver’s believable performance in his first film role after reining as real-life light-heavyweight champion.
Characters are re-introduced and follow Rocky’s surprisingly long turn back into a pro boxer. Lesser characters make a re-appearance for nostalgic sake, such as Spider Rico, again played by Pedro Lovell. The movie builds its story around the death of Rocky’s wife, and nearly everything focuses on that point. Fans looking for a rousing ego clash along the lines of those featured in Rocky III or IV are in for a wait. The emotional impact of the first 30 minutes is a complete departure from what the series had become.
This leads a nearly flawless conclusion aside from a few blatant and distracting product placements. A trick ending sends the film in a direction that leans towards being predictable, then twists again to end the franchise on a somber note. The final words of the film could not have been chosen better.
With only brief flashbacks and a somewhat darker tone, Balboa avoids extensive use of nostalgia to carry itself. Led by a multiple reworkings of the classic theme “Gonna Fly Now” at all times, it’s the right way to mix old with new. Even though the film contains less than 15 minutes of total boxing, these scenes are believable and at times mirror any real life, pay-per-view boxing event.
As expected, the script contains countless inspirational lines designed to bring the audience out of their seats and cheer. While at times forced, careful direction and believable performances splice these moments in where they should be. The inevitable training vignette is a long time in coming and the payoff is stronger because of it.
The range of emotions created in Rocky Balboa is unmatched by any of the preceding movies in this series. Every open plot hole or question is clarified or answered, and it’s done so with a sharp eye for details. This is an acceptable and yes, needed finish for a Hollywood legend.
The Blu-ray presents the film with all of its striking color intact. Rich, deep contrast and immense levels of detail are far better than even the DVD, which was a near perfect transfer for that format. The close-ups during the final rounds of the fight reveal every bead of sweat, and the grisly details of the cuts. There is no noticeable artifacting, even during busy long shots of the crowd watching the fights. This is an amazing piece of transfer work.
The audio doesn’t have a chance to truly kick in until the finale. The soundtrack does resonate wonderfully when it’s called on early, but the crowd noise during the fight envelopes the viewer. Heavy punches land with crunching bass. It takes a while to get there, but the disc holds an impressive audio sting when it needs to. The light ambiance used for some of the earlier shots around the city is mild at best.
Seven deleted scenes begin the extras, including an alternate ending that runs a little over three minutes. It’s in the spirit of the series, yet simply doesn’t feel like the right way to go out. A minute and a half of bloopers are unexpected for a drama, though well worth watching. Skill vs. Will is a 17-minute ‘making of’ that provides a decent look at how the film came to be, and why it needed to be made.
Reality in the Ring is a 15-minute look at how the final Balboa fight was filmed. Virtual Champion takes a short tour of how the computer simulation was crafted. A commentary by Stallone adds another great bookend to this series. All of these are carry-overs from the DVD.