In 1980, when I was 14, we finally got cable TV in Knoxville. The first month we got HBO on a free trial. “Rocky II” was showing. This was before VCRs (were prevalent) so me and my younger brother put a tape recorder on top of the TV and audiotaped “Rocky II,” flipping or replacing the cassette at 30-minute intervals. For the next two years we would lie in our beds at night and listen to the last 30 minutes, beginning with “What are we waiting for? Tickets!!??” We were so traumatized by the “Rocky V” debacle that I was sent on a recon mission alone last night to see “Rocky Balboa.” It was a great feeling to be able to call my brother and let him know it was safe to go to the theater for the latest installment in the series. Let the healing begin.
–John Jordan, Clinton, Tenn.
Not all your feedback was positive. Here’s what The Sports Guy’s readers had to say to disparage “Rocky Balboa.”
Was it a desperate grab by Stallone? Of course. But when Mason Dixon enters after Rocky’s Sinatra entrance, if you don’t have the sudden urge to watch the rest of the movie standing up, then maybe you should be seeing “The Holiday” instead.
–Ian, Washington, D.C.
I concede that it is a 102-minute therapy session for Stallone, but so what? After all the goodwill he has engendered and enjoyment he has given us from this character, don’t you think Stallone deserves this last hurrah? We owe it to him to play therapist and listen to his rant.
–Paul Fernandez, Richmond, Calif.
My dad and I went to see the movie on opening night, and all day Wednesday he was giddy. Anything that can make my dad act like the 15-year-old kid that saw “Rocky” in the theater is a good thing in my book. For the way the movie turned out, for ending it in a way that many true fans will be happy about (discounting you) and for just getting his ultimate passion project done in general, I applaud Sly. I don’t see how you can’t.
–Rich Mayor, Chicago
The movie was a homage to Rocky fans like us. C’mon, tell me you didn’t tap the person next to you the first time you heard Spider Rico or saw him feed Cuff and Links. The music reminded me of my childhood, and when is the last time you watched a Rocky fight without knowing exactly how it was going to end? The ring announcer announcing the split decision was a goose-bumps moment if I ever heard one. And I hear you that the movie wasn’t perfect, that it dragged at points, etc. But look at it this way – it is 10 times better than “Rocky V” and had an ending I want to see again. You said closure in your column. I couldn’t agree more.
–Gregg, Brooklyn, N.Y.
You have no concept of what it’s like to be a 50-year-old athlete after your career is over. Or an old man who has retired and has no wife and no grandkids, and his kids don’t call anymore. You don’t understand that feeling. That is why Sly made this film. I can look at my uncle, my father as he approaches 50 (next June) and my grandfather, who has cancer, and wonder … do they feel like Rocky sometimes? Do they feel like life is knocking them down? Do they have the strength of will to keep on getting up if it is? Do they feel like life has passed them by, that life doesn’t want them around anymore even though they’re still alive? Dude, that’s what “Rocky Balboa” is about, and you totally missed the point. Not surprising for the guy who prefers “Rocky IV” to the far superior “Rocky.” How about this: fly back home to Boston, take your father to see this movie and see what he says. What he feels about this movie might open your eyes a little, I think.
–Matthew Cafaro, Athens, Ga.
I went and saw it last night with 10 other dudes. We were pumping our fists the whole movie. What I loved the most is Rocky didn’t give a damn. Unlike wet-blanket Adrian in the other movies, there was nothin’ to be found. I mean when his kid laid into him, not wanting him to fight, I expected the movie to slow down for the next 15 minutes while Rocky pondered his kid’s advice. But no, he called his son a spoiled brat, told him he lacked heart and that he was going to throw all common sense to the wind and step in to the ring one last time. We needed this. You needed this. Now I can die in peace, my friend. Rocky walks away with dignity.
–Carl Frost, Muncie, Ind.
Your comments about your preview screening of “Rocky Balboa” provide reason No. 150 why you should not live on the West Coast and reason No. 1510 about why you should never, ever attend a screening of an inspirational movie with L.A. film critics. They are the most cynical people in the most cynical town on earth. Try an experiment: invite a bunch of them to watch “Hoosiers” or “Field of Dreams” with you. You’ll walk out thinking that the Indiana state high school final was fixed and that Ray Kinsella’s baseball field was all an opium dream.
–Rich Swank, Orlando, Fla.
For someone who keeps insisting that “Rocky V” never happened, you’d think you would have cut a little more slack for Sly on this movie. Personally, any fan of the “Rocky” franchise would have been ecstatic if this had been the final chapter 10 years ago. Stallone himself mentions in numerous interviews that he felt like “Rocky V” was a big letdown and wanted to end it differently. Well he did. I thought this installment was just as gritty and deep as the first two.
I think you hit the nail on the head when you said people expected a train wreck and were pleasantly surprised when it didn’t blow chunks. I greeted news of the film with glee, expecting a “Lady in the Water” or “The Bonfire of the Vanities”-type disaster … and no doubt about it, the film can be easily picked apart. But Stallone makes the character so darn likable, it’s hard not to enjoy the film at least a little. I think it’s seriously flawed and, as a former film studies major, would hesitate to call it a “good” film, but it is enjoyable. And that is at least in part because I went into it expecting one of the worst films of the year.
–Fritz, New Orleans
Maybe it’s different for me because I lack some of the original nostalgia that you were feeling, but I loved it. Sure, it was cheesy at parts and completely predictable, but I left feeling totally energized and happy, and I can’t think of too many movies that have done that lately.
I think you should win your own Backhanded Compliment of the Week Award for your “Rocky Balboa” review. I mean your first paragraph … “ludicrous” yet “better than ever,” “train wreck” yet “a pack of sled dogs couldn’t have pulled me out of my seat.” I say this with all respect, Bill, but can’t we just enjoy the movie? I mean, “Rocky” fans always wanted a mea culpa for “Rocky V,” right? Well, we got it. I could go on and on, but I loved the ending, the shot at Adrian’s grave where he says “Yo Adrian, we did it” and then walks off. He turns around, waves and then literally, poof, he’s gone. I can’t put into words how poignant that was. I thought it was the best possible exit for Rocky – much better closure.
–Andy Dean, Kansas City, Mo.
I was not looking for anything special. I just wanted to be entertained and seeing Rocky down in the dumps, hurt, left to pose for cheesy pictures and tell old war stories. But the unintentional comedy factor was amazing! Maybe as close to a 10 on that scale as you can get. I was laughing out loud the whole time. I, too, got the chills, and I attribute it directly to the music. The minute those old songs were pumped through the walls, I was overjoyed. It didn’t even matter what was going on. I didn’t even care that Rocky looked like he was gonna pop a hernia doing those squats. I really think you could put that music to anything and get the chills. I think Isiah Thomas could even use this in the locker room as motivation. Even the Knicks could act like they care after being fed this soundtrack. Although in Isiah’s case, I hope when he leaves his sport, he never comes back. Long live Rocky.
–Brad, New York
“Rocky Balboa” is not only the best Rocky movie overall since “Rocky” (from an artistic level), but it’s the best movie I’ve seen in several years, bar none. There was a contingent of audience members that had clearly gone to this movie for comedy, and yucked it up accordingly. However, by the end, there was no laughing, and I thought I heard a few sniffles. Awesome.
–Rob Howard, Findlay, Ohio
As someone who professes to be a child of the ’80s, you should have enjoyed Stallone’s trip back to the streets of Philadelphia a little more. He captured what made the early Rocky movies great in this latest installment and took the audience along with him for the journey back in time. They don’t make sports movies like they used to, but this comes close. You missed out by not watching it for the first time in a regular theater, with regular people. Our theater clapped, cheered and stood up at the end of the movie. I felt like I was getting ready to watch a real fight, and that is what the “Rocky” legacy is all about.
–Darrell Dapprich, Montgomery, Ala.
On a personal level, this film meant more to me than I could have possibly imagined. I consider myself well-educated and, heeeeyy yo, I recognize that Rocky is a fictional character, but as a Philadelphia expat who frequently views sports as the one thread that still connects me to my home, seeing Rocky bang out his greatest hits again, almost like a Rolling Stones tour, was fun and inspiring. With Philly sports in shambles, I needed this film to give me a flicker of hope reflected in the mirror of the make-believe past. At bottom, Philadelphians, unlike other Rocky fans, feel like they own a piece of the Rock. New York has Jeter. Elway belongs to Denver. Boston owns Bird. We have Rocky, who isn’t even real. Still, he just feels like one of us in a way that Schmidt, Barkley or Iverson never could. And to feel the (diminished) glory of the former fake champ one more time, well, let’s just say, it felt pretty darn good. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to cheering for Andre Miller, Wes Helms and Jeff Garcia. That’s some good old-fashioned BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA.
The reason I hold this movie in such high regard is that like “Rocky,” the movie did not hinge on the last fight. In “Rocky II” through “Rocky IV,” the formula was pretty much the same – Rocky meets some form of adversity which forces him to train harder than ever. But in all these movies, Rocky HAS TO WIN in the last fight to be successful. In “Rocky” and “Rocky Balboa,” the story revolves around Rocky, the good-natured optimist, who proves that he is capable of achieving great things even though life has knocked him down. The fact that Rocky even steps foot in the ring proves that he is a success and gives hope to all of us. “Rocky Balboa” is the sequel that best captures the spirit of the original. The outcome of the fight is inconsequential – the fact that Rocky takes life’s best shot and keeps coming forward is all that matters.
–Bobby, New York
I’m the proud dad of four intelligent, talented and beautiful daughters. My second daughter died in August 2004 at the age of 16. As a grieving father, the themes in “Rocky Balboa” spoke to me on a level that goes deep. While many have been critical of the way the film is presented, the hokey story line, the training and fighting scenes, I appreciate the emphasis on the process of grieving and finding peace and closure at the end of the day. I was in tears in the first 15 minutes. When Paulie plays therapist for Rocky in the meat locker – I have spoken Rocky’s words about anger and not being able to breathe. This is the heart and message of the film. Being able to walk out of the ring without knowing the result of the fight is the act of a man who is at peace with himself, his identity and his life. He doesn’t need the spotlight any longer. He has his closure on what had been and what might have been.
–Mark Mikel, Wakarusa, Ind.
I think the reason I enjoyed “Rocky Balboa” so much and you didn’t was because, much like the accidental viewing of one’s parents having intercourse, one will never be able to rid the memory of “Rocky V” from one’s head. I have never seen “Rocky V” and vow to never view it. When they release the box set, I will ask MGM to send me a custom package, sans “Rocky V.” As far as I’m concerned, Rocky came home from the U.S.S.R., fizzled and/or retired from professional boxing, lost his wife, got a restaurant, lost his self-respect and later got it back the only way he knows how – fighting a cocky heavyweight champion. Goin’ out the way he came in. God bless Rocky and God bless America.
–Nate Weber, Waukegan, Ill.
I was at the first showing at noon on the first day, and during the training sequence, people started cheering. Then when Dixon breaks his hand in the climactic fight and Rocky starts pounding him, I started involuntarily clapping and laughing with joy along with the rest of the audience. It was just short of guys high-fiving strangers next to them in the theater – not kidding. It’s almost like all of us Rocky dorks were cheering in the face of everyone who told us another Rocky installment was the worst idea ever, and here we are at the end of a pretty good movie with arguably the best fight sequence in the series.
–Luke, New York
There’s one more thing that made this one really special for me. The Rocky movies predate me. I never had the opportunity to see Rocky in theaters before, though I still became a devout fan. When I first heard about this movie I didn’t want to go, but decided to anyway, taking solace in the fact that it could not be worse than that movie we won’t speak of. When I got to the theater and saw all of those diehard fans there, it made me an even bigger fan. Just taking part in an actual Rocky chant did it for me. Because of this movie, there is a whole new generation of Rocky fans.
–Noah, Washington, D.C.
It was like watching a eulogy, not only of Rocky but of Stallone. It was sad, but I think it did the trick. It sent chills up my spine. I thought it was wonderful, and it brought back all of the emotions from the first movies (although in a sadder form).
–Kevin Radigan, Olmsted Falls, Ohio
If Kleenex is the proper noun that has become a perfectly acceptable substitute for tissue, then Rocky is the equivalent for lionhearted underdog. I’m thankful Sly stuck his neck out there one more time so all of us whose lives changed forever in 1976 could feel good about Rocky again.
–Jay Janczak, Philadelphia
Watching it in Philly was truly like being at an actual prize fight. During the final 20 minutes of the movie, people were actually shouting at the top of their lungs as if it were real. And as Rocky was exiting the arena at the end of the fight, the people of Philadelphia gave him a standing O and were chanting, “Rocky, Rocky!” It was a bone-chilling experience, especially for a city that just lost its real life Rocky (Allen Iverson) the night before.
–Schimri Yoyo, Brockton, Mass.
I look at this movie as the after-dinner mint that was necessary to get rid of the bad taste of the previous movie. I would much rather have “Rocky Balboa” as the final memory of the character.
–Kevin Jackson, Auburn, Ala.
I sat down to “Rocky Balboa” expecting a disaster on the level of “Rambo III” and “Rocky V,” but instead was treated to the biggest movie surprise of the year. Stallone’s got my respect for taking all the criticism and flak just to end things the right way. I couldn’t be happier for Stallone to end things on such a high note.
–Ron, Kapaa, Hawaii
I think what may have thrown you is that Stallone actually went and made another legitimately good movie. Which is pretty much his first-ever as a director. Of course you didn’t know how to react to this one – your favorite is the one with the talking robot. The first hour is goofy – no question. But it’s also earnest and sincere, and not as brainless as it lets on. Just like Rocky the character.
–Troy, Gainesville, Fla.
For such a “Rocky” aficionado, I am surprised that you are just now understanding that Rocky and Sly are very similar. The original is basically a spin on Sly’s own life … he has even said as much many times. He was writing a story based on his own life … a struggling actor who nobody believes in who is just looking for that one chance to prove he is somebody. He just used a boxer as a vehicle since a struggling actor is not as compelling. Even if the entire movie is just a trip down memory lane, you’re lying if you say you don’t enjoy it. So stop being a damn cynic and just allow yourself to enjoy the movie.
–Ben Weimer, Dallas
As the movie went along, the deeper meaning started to show. Picking yourself up and starting over. Quite a parallel to the Sixers and Flyers. I guess that on a scale of 1 to 10, “Rocky” being 10 and “Rocky V” being 1, this movie ranks about at a 6. If you are going in wanting the Rocky movies of yesterday, you may be disappointed. However if you want to see a movie with a good message in today’s age of violence and crime, this is a film you should see.
–Nick, Washington Township, N.J.
Watched the new Rocky in a sold-out theater last night. The crowd loved it. Everyone was cheering and clapping throughout the film. It was a great atmosphere. My only problem with the film is that Duke aged into looking like Art Shell. I knew Rocky didn’t stand a chance at that point, and it ruined parts of the fight for me. Every time Rock threw a wild punch, I had visions of Aaron Brooks throwing frozen ropes to the beer man in the stands.
–Josh Cramer, Taft, Calif.
I saw “Rocky Balboa” three times in the first 48 hours of its opening. It has gotten better and better for me. There was not a word spoken or a dry eye at the end. I felt like I was leaving “The Passion of the Christ,” the mood was so somber. My generation had never seen Rocky in the theater. This movie is more about perseverance than just boxing.
–Chuck, Las Vegas
I saw it and loved it. But when people ask me what I thought, I tell them that if their favorite “Rocky” is III or IV they won’t like this as much. If they like I or II, which is more about the character and not as much about the training montages and fights, then you will really like this one. Do you fall in the III-and-IV camp or the I-and-II camp? That is probably the simplest way I try to describe it. The world is a better place with this movie being made.
–Jon, Norwood, Mass.
For all of its faults and twisted logic, I found myself choking up big-time (lip trembling, eyes filling with tears) as Rocky turned and faced the cheering crowd for the last time. It hit me like a ton of bricks that this fictional character had been with me since the third grade in 1976, when my dad, now deceased, took me to see the original.
–Riley Clermont, Orlando, Fla.
I recently wrote you requesting your long overdue review of “The Departed.” I would like to retract that request. After reading your review of “Rocky Balboa” and then watching it myself, I have come to the conclusion that your opinion stinks when it comes to movies. You heartless bastard. That was the second-best film of the franchise and a fitting conclusion.
–Chris, Altoona, Pa.
I just got back from watching “Rocky Balboa.” I think you had difficulty reviewing the movie because, much like Yankee fans with Carl Pavano, you were dealing with exceptionally low expectations. If Pavano comes out and goes 13-10 with a 4.65 ERA …… you say “Hey that’s not so bad,” and that’s pretty much what Sly did with “Rocky Balboa.”
–Joe DePaola, White Plains, N.Y.
This “Rocky” movie had to happen for the same reason that the Rocket needs to return to Fenway: The last time we saw them, they were out of shape, put out a bad product and made us feel like we wasted our money seeing them perform. This installation of Rocky was the cinematic equivalent of one of Rockets’ six-inning W’s over the last couple years. Not great – but still worth the price of admission.
–Mark Sewell, Trumbull, Conn.
For a $5.25 matinee showing, that was the most entertaining 20 or 30 minutes of heavyweight boxing I’ve seen since Mike Tyson was biting people’s ears off. I’m still unsure if that’s praise for Stallone or an indictment of boxing.
–Jared Janes, Baton Rouge, La.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.