There's a moment midway through Rocky Balboa that moved me to tears. Rocky is talking to his brother-in-law, Paulie, at the meat factory where Paulie works. Where Rocky, thirty years before, pounded slabs of beef to train for his one-in-a-million fight with Apollo Creed. Where Paulie, thirty years before, working in that same shithole, slapped the same heaps of meat and raged about how his life stank to high heaven. And here they are, in the same place, thirty years later. And Rocky, still grieving over the death of his wife, Adrian, from cancer a few years back, is telling Paulie that he didn't know that it would be like this -- 'it' being mourning, and life, and 'this' being, well, everything that remains. Rocky is about to come apart. Fall apart. Wrecked once again by grief. And Paulie senses this, as he's probably been here before, seen Rocky go through this before, and so he holds up his hands in a calming gesture and says: "It's okay, Rock, it's okay." And we understand that Paulie understands that another meltdown by Rocky is possibly on the way, and he's trying to head it off at the pass, so to speak, to stop Rocky from once again breaking down all over again. And it's this small moment between two friends, no more than a few seconds or so of screen time, that stands for what's best about the Rocky films -- the sense of love, and compassion, and friendships full and lasting, that elevates Stallone's thirty-year saga into something more than boxing, something approaching life, and what it means to endure it.
Oh, and the fights are cool, too.
This sixth and final (?) film is a wet-dream for Rocky fans, meaning fans of the first film, the best film. Rocky Balboa is about aging and loss and melancholy and regret. In the beginning of the film, Rocky cruises the haunts of his youth, the places where he first met Adrian, the places where the pieces of what would become his life first locked into place. There is a sad, pathetic, bittersweet melancholy to Rocky`s meandering, because it is not only Rocky that mourns -- it's us, too. The audience. The faithful fans of the Italian Stallion.
I can remember being seven years old, disappointed that my parents' and their friends were heading out to see Rocky III in the theatre while I had to stay at home, silently staring at the black-and-white ad in The St.Catharines Standard. I remember watching Rocky IV at the Pen Centre Cinemas, that epic ode to Cold War adversity, and the crowd around me and beside me chanting `Ro-cky, Ro-cky' in the final scenes. When I was fourteen, fifteen years old, I would watch the training clips from all the old Rocky flicks the night before my races, to psyche myself up, to help me become more than myself.
And so watching Rocky mourn that which has fallen away is to remember a time and a place in our own lives that has been slowly eroded by circumstance, and place, and time. Always time. Give me back that first film, we think, that rawness, that energy. But we can only watch Rocky try to wrestle his own past to the ground, and try to hold onto it for as long as he can, and wonder how he'll finally let go. And how we will, too.
Of course, that's when the fantasy comes into play. Like the first film, the first half of the flick sets up a rather downbeat, grim scenario, and then injects a fairy-tale shot of adrenaline into the narrative mix. The original Rocky asked: "What if you had a one-in-a-million shot at glory, to finally become the person you might possibly have been meant to be?" This film asks: "What if you had a one-in-a-million shot to finally put all of your demons to rest in one epic battle?"
Stallone understands that these films are, in the best sense of the word, fantasy; they are about allowing us to believe that we can set things right, or try to. And Stallone -- as writer, director and star -- has the skills to succintly highlight, accentuate and encapsulate the mythic resonance that Rocky has added to the American cultural landscape.
Burt Young, who plays Paulie, recently said that Stallone writes like Arthur Miller. And I can see that. I can sense that. Here we have a group of lower-class people in Philadelphia trying to make it through the day. Dealing with the grime of life and the horrors of life. And if Stallone has swiped anything from Arthur Miller, it's the sense of dignity bestowed upon ordinary, working-class people, either by others, or by themselves. The feeling that the writer -- whether it's Stallone or Miller -- understands who these people are, and what they want, and what they won't be able to attain, no matter how hard they try.
"I don't want to remember all this," Paulie tells Rocky as the champ reminices about Adrian in all their old haunts. " Because you were nice to her and I wasn't." Boom. Beautiful. There we have Paulie, his character, his heartache, his regret. All in that one line.
And later: Paulie echoes Rocky earlier line about everybody becoming the places that they inhabit, and how he, Paulie, has become this meat factory, only later to be fired from the one place that he belongs. Such is life. People die from disease. Jobs are lost. The giants fall.
Ah, but this is a Rocky movie, damnit, and we can be redeemed. We can be elevated. We can enter into 'RockyLand', as the ringside commentator so aptly announces, and seek to be become the best version of ourselves.
But more than the music, the fights, all that cool shit, there's a feeling to this Rocky that I've never felt before from any of the earlier films. It is a kind of warmth, of acceptance of life's essential unfairness, an ambience of nostalgia burdened by longing for something more, but not quite knowing what that might be.
And also kindness. There's a kindness to this film, and this character, that Stallone wisely shifts to the forefront. Rocky is who we want to be when we grow up. Spider-Rico, Rocky's first opponent in the first scene of the first film, is now an old man who simply wants to help Rocky wash dishes in the kitchen of his restaurant. And Rocky lets him, because he know it means something to Spider, because he knows it's a way of giving him a last slab of dignity in a world of winter. Because that's who Rocky is. And Rocky, giving Little Marie from the neighbourhood a job at his restaurant, even though she doesn't think she could handle the duties of being a greeter at the front of the bistro. And Rocky`s son, being embarrassed by his dad, and Rocky sensing that, and the awkward exchanges between the two of them in the street, one wearing a suit, the other the hat. (Always that hat.)
All the right notes, this movie hits -- the ones we expect it to, being a Rocky film, and the ones we hope it will, being the capstone to the series.
It struck me, as the credits rolled, as a montage of ordinary people running up those Rocky steps danced across the screen and Bill Conti's iconic music does what it does best, that there was, quite simply, a hell of a lot of people being kind to each other in this film. Good to each other. Helping each other out. Dealing with each other's grief. Lending a hand.
I thought about how rare that is to see in movies, but not in life: these simple acts of grace.