Contrary to the sequels, ROCKY is an excellent film. I think most people forget how well written and well acted it is, confusing it with the later films. It's a low-budget independent film written by Stallone, who gives an amazing performance. He also went out on a limb to star in it; turning down offers to sell the script for a higher price, he attached himself to star. (*See comments below for link to article questioning the validity of this story.)
I have secretly had high hopes for the each sequel. ROCKY II was a virtual remake with higher production values and a happier ending. III continues the downhill trend with Mr. T added to the mix. ROCKY IV featured Dolph Lundgren, former MIT Ph.D. candidate, a sequel of silly proportions.
By the time V rolled around, I stopped watching. Supposedly Stallone wanted to kill off the Rocky character in a street fight, but the studio forced him to reshoot the ending.
With Stallone writing and directing ROCKY BALBOA (dropping the Roman numerals from the title), I had somehow hoped that the film would return to the tone of the original.
I'm happy to say that in many respects the film does succeed at returning to the low-budget, character-driven style of the first film. Unfortunately, a film is only as good as its ending, and this one is quite weak.
Stallone looks terrible. He has always had a disability; he was deformed at birth and has partial paralysis of his face. This accounts for both his speech impediment and his inability to move the left side of his face. Add to that the plastic surgery he's had, and he's starting to look a little too much like a clown with a face painted on. In one respect, this almost works; it does look at times like he is an old boxer who has had reconstructive surgery. But throughout most of the film, his style of shooting everything in closeups only sabotages his own face.
Bill Conti returns to score the film and writes some beautiful music, but the quality is much too saccharine for the film, and draws attention to the manipulative nature of the film.
Age is definitely a plot of the film. He spends the first act revisiting all of the locations from the first film (literally). There are elements of brilliance at times, and Stallone definitely gives the best performance he's done since ROCKY, but there are way too many allusions to the first film. The film gets bogged down trying to justify putting a 60 year-old back in the ring. The fact that they spend so much time on it only draws attention to the absurdity of the idea of Stallone fighting a heavyweight champ who is 25 year younger.
However, even at 60, Stallone's physique looks better than mine ever did.
The final fight starts out promisingly, with the first two rounds being very dramatic. Furthermore, the editorial style of the fight is much more like an experimental film than a narrative, and for that I admire him. Unfortunately, the ending is pat and predictable, and ultimately makes the entire film feel pointless. One has to wonder if a studio stepped in again to clean up an ending they were afraid of.