Sylvester Stallone returns to the director's chair for Rocky Balboa, the fifth sequel to the film that made him a superstar 30 years before. The movie begins with Rocky (Stallone) still mourning the death of his loyal and beloved wife, Adrian, who died three years previously after losing a battle against cancer. Rocky owns an Italian restaurant and spends his days living in his working-class Philadelphia neighborhood, visiting with his customers, and telling stories about his past. His grown son has a job as a business professional, but the relationship between the two is strained. Rocky's growing dissatisfaction leads him to attempt to purge the feelings of frustration and loss by applying for a boxing license. When the current heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), needs to rehabilitate his image as a pretty boy who has never shown any real heart in the ring, his manager offers Rocky an exhibition match.
The rare sequel that improves upon its predecessor, Rocky II expands on the uplifting approach exemplified by Bill Conti's immortal "Gonna Fly Now" to create a score that's both more cohesive and more emotional. Writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone affords Conti a wider emotional berth this time around, allowing for poignant, melancholy themes like "Vigil" alongside fist-pumping anthems like the climactic "Overture" – as before, Conti employs little more than solo piano, a small string ensemble, and a potent brass section, and it's to the composer's enormous credit that he can forge such larger-than-life music from relatively few instrumental elements. "Gonna Fly Now" even reappears, this time with a children's choir in tow, and sounds better than ever. Not even Frank Stallone's "Two Kinds of Love" can torpedo this one.
Composer Bill Conti's iconic score for Sylvester Stallone's tale of over-the-hill Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa ranks as one of the most memorable and instantly recognizable pieces of film music ever applied to celluloid. The first Rocky is still the best, with classic cues like "Going the Distance," "Fanfare for Rocky," the "Final Bell" and "Gonna Fly Now" – the latter was actually a hit single – eschewing the myriad of questionable AOR songs that would end up cluttering future installments.