by Rob Gonsalves
You could trace Sylvester Stallone’s life pretty accurately through the 'Rocky' movies. Stallone and Rocky Balboa, the punchy but good-hearted boxer who put Stallone on the map, started out bums and became kings.Then in the ‘80s, the kings became bums — Rocky III and IV were crass junk, exploiting racism and xenophobia, respectively. The films were beginning to reflect Stallone’s out-of-touch decadence. Rocky V was an attempt to return to roots, but nobody took it seriously. With Rocky Balboa, though, the bums become kings again. Easily the equal of its forefather thirty years ago, the movie is more stirring and even more thought-provoking than the grim, overrated Million Dollar Baby.
"Welcome back and farewell, Rock."
Those who grew up with Rocky, as I did, will find themselves most susceptible to Rocky Balboa’s charms. It’s primitive, manipulative, simplistic, all the things the original Rocky was. But I also have to admit that when the creaky old Rocky ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his newly adopted dog Punchy, reached the top, and punched the air in triumph, I wiped away a tear or two. Because those are not just steps. And Rocky Balboa isn’t just another Rocky sequel — it’s the last, coming from an actor/writer/director who, like his character, just wants to go the distance one more time.
Rocky is a widower now — he lost Adrian to “the woman cancer” four years ago. He owns a restaurant (named after Adrian) and hangs out there somewhat haplessly, regaling the diners with his old boxing stories. His brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), as irascible as ever, paints abstract act during downtime at the meat factory and can’t face the past, which Rocky seems stuck in. His son Rocky Jr., who now goes by Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), toils as a corporate drone and feels negated by his father’s shadow. It’s a pretty bleak picture until an opportunity arises: the current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), who has run out of worthy opponents, is talked into an exhibition match with Rocky after a computer-simulated match between the two puts Rocky on top.
Gone, mostly, is the empty flash of the previous Stallone-directed Rocky films. Rocky Balboa is a classical piece of filmmaking, with stately fade-outs and an attentive eye for dialogue nuance. Rocky chats up a bartender (Geraldine Hughes) who turns out to be Marie, the punky girl he advised to steer clear of the wrong crowd in the first Rocky. Marie is all grown up now, with a teenage son who calls himself Steps. Hughes, a disconcerting dead ringer for Emily Watson, brings some of Talia Shire’s reticence and toughness to the almost-romance that develops between Marie and Rocky. Stallone shoots on the gray, snowy streets of Philly, in its bars and restaurants, harking back to a time when locations in movies had character — the ‘70s. Rocky Balboa is comfortable with the past (it even brings back Spider, the guy Rocky defeated pre-Apollo Creed in the first Rocky).
Then the climactic fight arrives, and after a strong start — in which we genuinely fear for Rocky’s sagging flesh and “brittle” bones — Stallone and editor Sean Albertson get a little too crazy with the flash-cuts and impressionistic strobing imagery. One can imagine grouchy Paulie squinting at the results and growling “What the hell is this? Lemme see the fight!” And eventually Stallone does snap out of it and lets the fight choreography lead the editing.Then again, 'Rocky Balboa' isn’t really about the match, any more than 'Rocky' was (the sequels lost sight of that, at their peril). It’s about a bum turned king turned bum who finds it in himself to reclaim, however briefly, his throne. It’s Stallone’s 'King Lear,' and he’s finally ready for it.
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originally posted: 01/01/07 10:00:13