Most readers of this site have probably heard of ComiCon, the biggest comic book and movie-related convention of the year. At the show, they have an area that I like to call the "Walk of Shame." It's a little section in the middle of the San Diego convention center for autograph seekers, where they place celebrities whose stars are not quite glowing quite as brightly as they once did. Last time I shuffled through the Walk of Shame, I counted three faded child actors, a couple dozen TV has-beens, and a guy who played a Jawa in 'Star Wars.' All were selling autographs for roughly $20 a pop, and they so resembled a group of caged monkeys at the zoo that I almost felt like I should have brought a bag of peanuts to throw at them.
'Rocky Balboa' is the cinematic equivalent of that ComiCon Walk of Shame -- a movie that's impossible to separate from the motives of its star, writer and director. Sylvester Stallone was once one of the mightiest box office draws on the planet, but what goes up in Hollywood must come down, and it's been a particularly rough past decade or so for Stallone, whose most recent screen credit was a jokey supporting role as a toymaker in 2003's 'Spy Kids 3-D.'
Stallone has made no bones about the desperation that informed his decision to play his most famous character one last time in 'Rocky Balboa.' Like symbiotic cinematic siamese twins, Stallone/Balboa both really needed the job.
The parallels between reality and on-screen fiction are so close that a plot synopsis of 'Rocky Balboa' may as well be the Sylvester Stallone life story. It's been over fifteen years since Rocky set foot in a boxing ring, and he's been reduced to the C-list celebrity sports circuit, running a restaurant in Philadelphia (called, of course, Adrian's) where the old-timers still come 'round to hear old boxing stories. Though his beloved wife long since passed, Rocky's got a kid, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) who has seen his own struggle for identity in the afterglow of his father's success, and a potential new girlfriend Marie (Geraldine Hughes). Even old Paulie (Burt Young) is lumbering around seemingly half-drunk, like some sort of Ghost of Championship's Past.
For much of 'Rocky Balboa,' the sport of boxing is just a distant memory -- a dark shadow that dogs Rocky like some sort of evil doppelganger. Fame made him an icon, but it has left him hollow. Even worse, it has fractured his family with little hope for repair. But when ESPN decides to pair up boxing legends from different eras for a series of exhibition matches in Las Vegas, Rocky gets an unexpected opportunity to put a fitting capper on his career by taking on current champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver). Though he's middle-aged, out of practice, and has little support from his family, can Rocky go the distance one last time and retire a hero?
Many predicted that 'Rocky Balboa' would be a film to laugh at, and it does teeter precariously on the brink of camp, with a good number of scenes that are cringe-inducing. Rocky visits his wife's grave site and delivers mumbled, mono-syllabic remembrances while Paulie looks on, ready to fall in a coffin himself. Rocky tells grand, nostalgic stories to his aging, battered box buddies, who all nod their heads in unison like it's a religious sermon. Finally, there are enough uber-close-ups of Rocky's malformed cranium and droopy mouth that you wonder if Stallone is aware that there is a thing called CGI, and that he should use it.
Yet there is a world-weary sincerity to Stallone that brings a palpable sense of gravitas to 'Rocky Balboa,' and it's tough not to pull for the guy. There is a moment a little more than mid-way through the film when Bill Conti's familiar, Oscar-winning "Rocky Theme" swells up on the soundtrack over the inevitable Rocky-comes-from-behind training montage, when I could feel the little hairs on back of my neck start to stand up. This is, after all, the Rocky Balboa, and it is a testament to the power and appeal of the iconic character Stallone created that he's still able to deliver a little goosebumps time, even bruised and battered after thirty years of apathy and neglect.
Ultimately though, 'Rocky Balboa' still fails to satisfy as a complete, cohesive picture. It's really more of a coda than anthing else. It is also an incessantly talky movie, with so little action that I almost forgot I was watching a Rocky movie until three-fourths of the way through. Though such a tight focus on the dramatic is a gutsy move on Stallone's part, unfortunately the slice-of-life scenes outlast their welcome. I also wished that Antonio Tarver's Dixon character had been fleshed out better -- he hardly appears in the film until the plot requires a "villain," and just isn't given enough character to create a classic foil for Rocky on the level of an Apollo Creed, Mr. T or even Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago.
Still, despite the film's problems, Stallone somehow manages to milk every last ounce of likeability out of his iconic character to craft a Rocky sequel that actually exceeds expectations. I just hope that, unlike the faded stars that line the halls at the Walk of Shame, Stallone realizes that with 'Rocky Balboa' the time has come to hang up the boxing gloves. Rocky, you've had a great run. Now just revel in your legacy, and say good-bye once and for all.
During the publicity for 'Rocky Balboa,' Sylvester Stallone made much mention of the fact that he had wanted to return the series to its roots by bringing back the gritty, documentary-like style of the original film. And while I missed the film in its theatrical run, that's what I was expecting as I sat down to watch it on Blu-ray -- a tough, scrappy, almost indie-looking movie. Instead, I found this transfer to be like the Urban Outfitters of high-def -- yes it's "gritty" and "distressed," but in that faux-fashionable way, which actually makes it quite glossy.
I'm sure this was all intentional, and that it matches the look of the film as it was presented in theaters, but this 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is quite processed. Right from the opening duotone credit sequence, it seems that Stallone must be really enamored with the color blue. 'Rocky Balboa' is flush with it -- I don't think I've seen a transfer that is quite as steely since 'Terminator 2.' Just about every shot is filtered with various shades of blue and cyan, which does give the movie a "wintry" look, but it's rather obvious and heavy-handed. Other colors often have to fight for attention, although select sequences (such as those shot in the burgundy/brown interiors of Rocky's restaurant) are more diverse. Hues sometimes look overpumped, which when combined with some low-light film stocks, results in heavy grain and contrast.
As such, detail and depth sometimes struggle. Perhaps I've harped on it a bit too much in some of my other Blu-ray reviews (see 'Casino Royale' or 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy') but once again it's very difficult to applaud a transfer's level of detail and film-like appeal when whites are so blown out that the image looks so far removed from reality. (Just take a look at the untreated footage seen in the bloopers and other extras included on this disc for an obvious comparison.) Also, there is some inconsistency between the fight scenes and the rest of the film -- Stallone shot the former on HD cameras exclusively, which gives them an improved clarity and depth.
In the end though, while it may lack the sheer three-dimensionality and palpable "wow factor" found on other reference-quality discs, this is still a rather good-looking presentation that's sure to satisfy all but the most picky diehard Rocky fans.
Sony has delivered another uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (encoded at 48kHz/16-bit/4.6mpbs) for 'Rocky Balboa,' and it's a stellar track -- especially when the film's sound design really kicks into high gear.
As I mentioned earlier, 'Rocky Balboa' is a surprisingly talky picture -- as such, dialogue is the star of this soundtrack, with even Sylvester Stallone's most mumbled dialogue coming through as intelligibly as is possible. The New York atmospherics are also rather good, with noticeable ambiance in most scenes, from the bustle of Rocky's restaurant to the numerous exterior scenes (boy, that Rocky sure loves to walk down the street and give speeches, doesn't he?)
But it is the boxing scenes where this track really comes alive. They almost feel like a different movie, with strong dynamics, including some crunching low bass. Surrounds are active and immersive, from the roar of the crowd to nicely-directed discretes that accompany the body blows. Bill Conti's newly-orchestrated themes also sound fantastic, swelling in the rears and really filling the soundstage. When it wants to, 'Rocky Balboa' kicks some serious aural ass.
'Rocky Balboa' hits Blu-ray with extras identical to the standard-def release, and it's a very nice package. Granted, there's nothing groundbreaking here, but there is something so uplifting about Sylvester Stallone's return to the ring that it takes this material to a level that is often more interesting and moving than the feature film itself. (By the way, all of the video-based material is presented in 1080 video, and is some of the best-shot making-of footage I've yet seen on a Blu-ray release.)
The highlight is Sylvester Stallone's screen-specific audio commentary. Okay, the guy has taken more slings and arrows than anyone in Hollywood probably deserves, and his famously slurred speech can sometimes hamper intelligibility. But I found his desire and eagerness to give Rocky a fitting, final sequel to be quite moving. He's articulate and thorough, and covers everything -- from the inspiration to bring the character back, to where he saw Rocky thirty years later, to why he killed off Talia Shire. He's also surprisingly frank about his own career at the time of agreeing to do 'Rocky Balboa.' I have to admit that I came away a bit of a fan.
The video material kicks off with "Skill vs. Will: The Making of 'Rocky Balboa.'" Running 17 minutes, this is your typical behind-the-scenes featurette with on-set interviews and production footage, but it's so well shot and the participants are so heartfelt that it comes off better than expected. Though no match for Stallone's commentary, the perspectives of other cast and crew members are a welcome addition.
The other two featurettes are both about the film's climactic battle. "Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky's Final Fight" runs 16 minutes, and dissects the often arduous production process required to bring Rocky to the ring this one last time. "Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight" showcases how the use of motion-capture photography allowed for the most visceral shots to be completed without Sly getting his skull bashed in. This featurette runs 6 minutes.
Next is a collection of seven Deleted Scenes plus an Alternate Ending. The material here is actually quite good, and all character stuff. At least now we know where the Paulie character went in the final cut -- most of his screen time seems to have been excised. There is also a funny bit that recreates the famous "drinking raw eggs" scene from the original 'Rocky,' only with different results. The "alternate ending" really is just an extended version of the existing one, and far too slow as a result. (Note that all of this excised material is presented in full 1080i video, though the quality can vary, with some scenes appearing way too washed out.)
Finally, Boxing Bloopers is a pretty funny 2-minute reel of outtakes. I wished this one was longer.
'Rocky Balboa' may not a be great film, but it is sincere and heartfelt, and in the end it's impossible not to root for Stallone and his most famous cinematic alter-ego. This Blu-ray release is a strong effort as well. The transfer may be a bit too processed for my taste, but it's still a fine looking presentation, and the solid audio and supplements round out an impressive enough release. All things considered, 'Rocky Balboa' is a final trip into the ring worth taking.