Rambo was certainly a nice return to form for Stallone, so I was expecting good things from Rocky Balboa, his similarly-scoped wrap-up to his other iconic character (sorry, I don't think Marion Cobretti will be getting a similar updating). I'm not a huge fan of the Rocky series - I've seen the first two a couple of times, the third and fourth probably once each and never bothered with the fifth. So I don't know how different this one was from the others in terms of the ratio of melodrama to action. But I was rather surprised to see a heavy slant over to the drama side of the fence - we don't really get much boxing action until the last 20-30 minutes of the film.
Before then, we get Stallone catching up with Balboa after several years of retirement, and several years of being alone after the death of his wife Adrian. Stallone gives us a Rocky seemingly comfortable in his place in the world on the surface - running a restaurant, telling old war stories, handing out autographs, and dispensing somewhat punch-drunk advice and one-liners. But it becomes apparent that he's actually trapped a bit in the past, unable to get beyond his memories of Adrian and his former boxing career. We also get peeks at some of the people around him - the ever-irascible Paulie, newly laid-off from the meat-packing plant; his son Robert, unable to get himself out of the shadow of his famous father; Marie, a former kid from his neighborhood now grown up, who Rocky takes under his wing as a kind of Adrian surrogate; and Mason Dixon, the current champion who is unloved by the fans and looking for something to shake up the boxing world.
And while all of this is pretty well done (especially from a writer and actor not known since the first Rocky film for having any kind of drama chops), it does have a couple of shortcomings. First, there's a lot of little sub-plots here. It's as if Stallone has had so many ideas and things to explore that he had to put them all in the film. As a result, none of them get any real depth - they're all handled competently, but not much more than that. Again, you don't go to a Rocky film expecting to get more than that, but it feels like it could've really knocked it out of the park with a little more focus. The other thing is related - this part does go on for a bit too long for my taste.
But eventually we do get to the ring, as Dixon's handlers take advantage of a perceived snub of Dixon by ESPN when they decide that Rocky in his prime would defeat Dixon in his. So they set up an "exhibition" between Balboa and Dixon, and Rocky agrees to it as a way to shake up his life a little bit. We don't get a big training montage here, but Stallone does hit all of the expected beats - punching slabs of beef, downing raw eggs, jogging up the museum steps.
And then it's into the ring. I'm not a big fight fan, but one thing you can say for the Rocky films - they make boxing more exciting to watch than the real thing. Stallone was even careful to add in a good realistic excuse for how Rocky was able to keep up with Dixon (beyond the "eye of the tiger", of course). The one flaw here is that the first part of the fight is shown exclusively from the point-of-view of the pay-per-view cameras with Jim Lampley commenting. I didn't really come to see a pay-per-view fight, I want to see a movie. Fortunately, Stallone soon switches over to a more stylistic mode, with slow-mo, black-and-white scenes, etc. that make the fight scenes more interesting to watch.
In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by Rocky Balboa, even more so than Rambo. I'm not sure where Stallone will be going next, but this little mini-revival he's been on has really been impressive. Four stars.