It would be entirely possible (some might even venture preferable) to watch Rocky (1976) and then skip directly to Rocky Balboa (2006) and enjoy an immensely pleasurable cinematic experience. 30 years after his breakthrough classic, Sylvester Stallone wrote and directed Rocky's swan song with a surprising amount of sensitivity, craftsmanship, and heart. Yes, it's patently sentimental, but Stallone presents a believable portrait of Rocky in his fifties as a lonely man whose glory days are well behind him. He spends his days visiting his wife's grave and his nights overseeing the Italian restaurant that bears her name, recounting stories of his fighting days for the paying customers. He has a strained relationship with his son, Robert, Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who struggles to create his own identity in a city where his father's revered as a hero. Craving a family, Rocky latches onto a younger woman from the old neighborhood (Geraldine Hughes, a dead ringer for Emily Watson) with a streetwise son (James Francis Kelly III), attempting to help them out as best he can. When an ESPN computer profile concludes that the 1970s-era Rocky would win a fight against current heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Dixon's people invite Rocky to fight an exhibition match in Las Vegas. It's another Rocky-as-underdog scenario and, written baldly, it sounds like screenplay hell but damned if Stallone doesn't make it work, with Rocky agreeing to the match because it's simply who he is.
There are problems, to be sure. Stallone's characters have a tendency to speechify at each other about honor and the meaning of life; some passages are unapologetically maudlin; and Bill Conti's score mostly consists of playing the same 16 bars of the Rocky theme at different tempos, depending on the tone of the scene. But Rocky Balboa's third act, which brings the battle-scarred, middle-aged but energetically buff Rocky into the ring with a clearly superior opponent who assumes this will be a cakewalk well, it does justice to the original and puts everything in between to shame. When he wants to, Stallone has some real directorial chops, and his work on the fight sequence with editor Sean Albertson is stunning, stealing outright from classic boxing flicks like Body and Soul (1947) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) as well as Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), which was itself an homage to those pictures. It's genuinely thrilling, and impossible not to get a little misty watching this great old warhorse standing tall for one last, brutal bout. Despite all the jokes and apprehensions that preceded its release, Stallone's farewell to the character that made him a star is a moving tribute, and a fitting way to end the franchise.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's DVD release of Rocky Balboa offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that captures the often grainy, atmospheric camerawork by Stallone and cinematographer J. Clark Mathis nicely, and the DD 5.1 audio (English or French, with English, French and Spanish subtitles) is very good as well this isn't a film where sound plays a large role until that final, big boxing match, when it becomes noticeable that this is, indeed, a very good mix. Extras include a warm commentary track by Stallone, who rambles a lot and jumps around between memories from the entire run of the franchise; deleted scenes, many of which address a (mostly) excised subplot of the aged Paulie (Burt Young) falling apart and an alternate ending; an unexceptional outtakes reel; "Skill vs. Will" (18 min.) a "making-of" featurette; "Reality in the Ring: (15 min.) on the filming of the fight scenes; and "Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight" (5 min.) on creating the CGI fight segment. Keep-case.