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Rocky Balboa

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/20/06 22:36:32

"The champ is back."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Perhaps, just perhaps, “Rocky Balboa” is the most personal film in all of Sylvester Stallone’s career. The movie asks the same of its legendary title character that we ask of its writer/director/star: does he still have it?

Like Stallone, Rocky has a fire in his belly - “something in the basement,” he calls it - to have one last shot at glory. Stallone has been living in the same has-been corners as his most popular character for years now; following a failed attempt at a comeback with 1997’s grossly underappreciated “Cop Land,” Sly has spent the last decade churning out flops, cameo appearances, and the random direct-to-video thriller. Now he has returned to Rocky for another shot at returning to the big time. (A fourth “Rambo” film is set for next summer, the second punch in the one-two combo that is the Stallone Franchise Revival.)

As for Rocky? After hanging up his gloves, he’s opened an Italian restaurant named Adrian’s, a nice touch, as we learn his wife died a few years ago. He’s stuck in a cycle of mourning and reliving the old days, telling the same tired fight yarns to weary customers, checking out the remains of his old haunts with best pal Paulie (Burt Young). Then comes ESPN and a “Then vs. Now” special, which has a computer pit Balboa in his prime against the current champ, the perfectly-named-for-boxing Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life three-time light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver). The simulation declares Vintage Balboa the winner by knockout, and suddenly Rocky is snapped awake: he wants to fight again.

Nothing big, mind you, “just local.” Small time matches, sparring sessions, that sort of thing. (“What’s so crazy about standing toe to toe, saying I Am?” Rocky explains in one of the film’s most beautiful, inspiring moments.) Ah, but Dixon’s people smell big money, and soon they’re after Rocky to fight Dixon for real, or, at least, in a highly publicized pay-per-view exhibition match. “Skill vs. Will,” they call it.

In a smart move, Stallone’s screenplay refuses to paint Dixon as a bad guy. The managers, agents, and hangers-on might be creeps, but Dixon himself is actually a decent guy whose only problem is having let fame and fortune go to his head. Fans of the series will see shades of “Rocky III,” in which Rocky himself grew complacent, having faced no serious challengers upon becoming champ. Dixon is in the same spot now, with a dwindling fan base and accusations of growing soft; he’s even thinking of going back to his old gym. As this is Rocky’s story, not Dixon’s, we don’t get to see this character fleshed out to its fullest, but what we get is quite satisfying, a peek into the enemy’s lair which reveals the enemy isn’t an enemy at all.

Stallone is interested in all his characters and where life has led them over time. Rocky’s son (Milo Ventimiglia) has been left struggling to climb out of his father’s shadow. Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell) hangs out at the restaurant, now enjoying his former rival’s friendship. And remember little Marie, of “screw you, creep-o!” fame? She’s all grown up now, with a kid of her own.

Wonderfully played by Geraldine Hughes, Marie has the same shy sweetness that Adrian had in the first “Rocky” film. Yet this storyline delicately skates around the possibility of romance, a smart move; Stallone continues to give his franchise a love story at its heart, and Marie is not there to replace Adrian. Instead, she becomes a dear friend when Rocky truly needs one. You get the feeling that their relationship could grow into something more down the line, but this is the story of Rocky right now, when he’s still holding his wife very close to his heart. Those feeling they will miss a vital “Yo Adrian” moment at the finale will welcome the film’s gentle epilogue, which confidently offers a counterpoint to the series’ more bombastic finales.

“Gentle” is the operative word in “Rocky Balboa.” For this film (which, speaking of epilogues, plays as one to the first five movies, with well-removed commentary on the series from a more mature perspective), Stallone returns to a quieter style of moviemaking, allowing this new movie to recreate the hushed tone of the original. Like that classic, “Rocky Balboa” isn’t about fighting; it’s about the fighter, what he thinks and how he grows when not in the ring. This sequel comes through on a slower pace, letting us soak in the characters. It’s a refreshingly quiet, humble movie. It’s gentle.

Of course, that all changes once we approach the final act and its fight sequence. In previous “Rocky” movies, the final fight was the key to the entire film, but here, it’s almost an anticlimax. All of the great speeches and introspective moments have already passed by now; the main point of this story is not about winning, but merely gathering the conviction to step into the ring at all. Strange to say it, but in this boxing movie, we don’t really need the boxing.

Perhaps this is because as a boxing match on film, the finale doesn’t electrify as previous “Rocky” entries had. It takes too long for the camera to get up close (Stallone is instead dependent on duplicating what viewers at home would see on TV, complete with HBO graphics), and by the time it does get in nice and tight, we’re lost in a flurry of unnecessary vanity shots, such as the use of black-and-white with color spurts (red blood here, blue shorts there). These shots may look nice, but they don’t exactly belong in a “Rocky” movie.

Still, there are moments in the fight that truly dazzle - at the screening I attended, many in the audience were cheering throughout, and rightfully so - and the sequence regains itself by the final round, when all is on the line, yet all Rocky wants to prove is that he still has one good round left in him.

And once again, we see Stallone himself thinking the same thing. “Rocky Balboa” is the tale of a legend who can’t yet give up the fight, and just as the Las Vegas crowd cheerfully welcomes Rocky back into the ring, we, too, welcome Stallone. It turns out I’ve actually missed the guy, and maybe you have, too. Great to see you again, Rock. And same to you, Sly.

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