Looking punchy and weathered, Rocky (and Stallone by extension) is long retired, managing a neighborhood restaurant and mourning his years-dead wife and muse Adrian. We meet up with Rocky as he’s going through his yearly ritual of visiting locations throughout Philly of nostalgic and romantic import. Adrian’s brother, the ever-put-upon Paulie, has grown weary of the reverie, as his memories are plagued with the disease of regret. Rocky, always the bleary-eyed dreamer, longs for the fairy tale days of being champion and having the woman of his dreams on his arm. It claws at him from inside and aches to be released, if only for a bit.
How Stallone pulls off Rocky’s return to the ring is best left for the viewers to discover. It’s at once implausible and utterly believable, mostly due to Stallone himself. His direction is crisp, intimate and nearly flawless. The central performance is the best he’s ever delivered, buoyed by what I can only assume is his personal connection to the character. After all, Stallone has as much to prove as his fictional counterpart. Two legacies hang in the balance.
Rocky Balboa is quite nearly the mirror image of the original film. Its early moments are quiet, poignant and poetic. Stallone has a breakdown with Paulie in the meat house that is probably the single greatest moment of acting in his entire career. In this instance, he is channeling all the animal and primal method instincts of the late Marlon Brando, and it’s exciting to behold the aging actor rediscovering the innate power of his acting prowess. The creation of this late-career palooka is a stunning achievement, and Stallone is to be admired and praised for it.
That Rocky Balboa succeeds at all is a surprise. That it is, in fact, a major film, certainly one of the year’s best, may in fact be a miracle.