Now, when I first heard about another film in the highly successful Rocky franchise, I won’t lie; I was skeptical. Very skeptical. Rocky (1976) is a fine piece of film-making and the subsequent sequels Rocky II (1979), Rocky III (1982), Rocky IV (1985) will always have a place on my DVD shelf. I’ve loved them since I was a kid and that is unlikely to change. However, the less said about Rocky V (1990) and Rocky Balboa (2006), the better.
Thankfully, director and co-writer Ryan Coogler, has got the franchise back on track and a sequel has been tentatively scheduled for late 2017.
What transpires is familiar to people who have seen the previous films. The training, the tears, the love interest, the highs and the lows, yet somehow Coogler breathes new life into the old punch-bag.
Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the privileged son of ex-World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) who was killed in the ring by Russian fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) thirty years ago. An orphan, in and out of juvenile homes, he is taken in by his Father’s widow, Mary Anne Creed. Seventeen years later, he is disillusioned with his job at a securities firm and moves to Philadelphia to track down Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to help train him, and pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxer.
Jordan plays adult Adonis well. He may have shaken off the troubled kid from years ago, but he still has his demons; a lack of direction and true identity being the main problems he faces. His love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a calming presence. The pair have a solid on-screen partnership that can be believed and is very likeable.
Jordan is a revelation, I won’t deny it. However, it’s the old man himself who really steals the limelight; this is Stallone’s best performance in years.
A now ageing Balboa now runs a restaurant – “Adrian’s” – named after his deceased wife, and stays away from boxing. Stallone cuts a Jake LaMotta figure in his twilight years. Solitary, but content. Philosophical, not cynical. And funny. His does inject humour into the film as and when needed, delicately and not too much.
But there is an air melancholy and poignancy to the old Italian Stallion, which in all honesty, I didn’t think Stallone could show. By God, can he show it. He sure can.
This is a boxing film, but it isn’t a film about boxing. It’s a drama showcasing relationships and character studies. It’s a far cry from Michael’s Mann’s dismal Ali (2001) and much closer to Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), and believe me, it packs a hefty left hook.