Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Rocky Balboa

ROCKY BALBOA (Sylvester Stallone, 2006)

More than any other athletes, boxers are the ones who seem not to know when to hang it up for good. In ROCKY BALBOA Sylvester Stallone’s fiftysomething fighter comes back for one more tussle in the ring (and a sixth film), but he’s one former champ who holds no illusions of reclaiming the heavyweight title of his youth.

By all appearances Rocky should be a happy man. Years after his heyday he remains a beloved figure in his hometown. He runs a successful Italian restaurant named for his deceased wife and entertains his diners with tales of his boxing glory. For all the love he receives from the people of Philadelphia, Rocky still aches over the loss of Adrian and the distance that exists between him and his son Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who wants to escape the long shadow his famous father casts.

Rocky has no reason to believe he’ll ever fight again, but a strange thing happens when ESPN runs a virtual simulation pitting him in his prime versus current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). The sports TV segment stirs something inside him that makes him want to go toe to toe with another boxer again. Nothing major, just some local fights if the state boxing commission will approve.

Everyone thinks Rocky is foolish for such a pursuit, but Dixon’s handlers, desperate to polish the tarnished image of their unpopular titleholder, jump at the chance to arrange a high profile exhibition between the pugilists. Rocky will get one last hurrah in the ring, and Dixon will improve his reputation with the sport’s fans. Of course, even if it is an exhibition, Rocky is determined to give it everything he’s got this one final time.

There’s no reason to believe Rocky could come close to holding his own against a much younger fighter, yet when the boxing scenes arrive, the urge to cheer him on is impossible to resist in this unabashedly corny film. The past decade at the movies, not to mention the diminishing returns of ROCKY sequels, hasn’t been particularly kind to Stallone, so it’s remarkable how quickly he endears himself to us as the title character.

The triumph of Stallone’s performance is in the dignity he brings to Rocky. After years of taking punches to the head, Rocky may not be the brightest bulb in the room, but he has a good heart. He comps meals for a needy former boxer not out of pity but because he believes it's the right thing to do. That makes you want to root for Rocky in whatever he does.

Although the big fight is a major part of the film's second half, ROCKY BALBOA'S interest is in exploring middle age and coming to grips with the reality that life is entering the latter rounds. Rocky knows that he's becoming a relic. He prefers listening to oldies on the radio and reminiscing about how the neighborhood used to be. While sweet, his delicate flirtation with Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who he once knew as a girl, is as much about finding the love he lost when his wife died. Stallone's screenplay is savvy enough to observe that Marie is aware of this fact as well. Rocky and Marie's tentative steps toward one another provide grace notes to a film in a series better remembered for jabs and knockouts.

ROCKY BALBOA possesses a keen awareness of the potentially foolhardy nature of the character's quest. In an achievement befitting the boxer, Stallone delivers a sucker punch in finding a way to make this underdog comeback story succeed.

Grade: B-

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