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Rocky Balboa   C+

MGM Pictures / Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, James Francis Kelly III.

Review by Rob Vaux

It doesn't suck. Please take a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor and we'll continue.

As rope-a-dopes go, Rocky Balboa is in a class by itself. Expectations couldn't possibly be lower. I mean, it's Rocky VI for God's sake. Bad comedians used to joke about it. Stallone in his walker! Knocking people out with a bottle of Geritol! We all laughed when we heard it; we laughed even before the franchise sputtered into cartoonish excess, before Rocky V put an ignominious bullet in its head 15 years ago, before aging star Sylvester Stallone took on the physical features of a squashed pumpkin. How could this cadaverous exhumation of a movie possibly be any good?

Strictly speaking, it isn't... at least not quite. We're dealing with a lowered bar here, and too often Rocky Balboa insists on sinking beneath it. The worst elements are the most predictable: the stuff we've seen in the previous five installments and which have now become a self-perpetuating joke. Once again, perennial underdog Rocky Balboa comes out of retirement for one final it's-really-the-last-one-we-mean-it-this-time bout against reigning heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), a man almost three decades his junior. It bends over backwards to orchestrate a plausible confrontation -- throwing in some gussied-up speculation involving a hypothetical computer match-up and the fact that Dixon doesn't have any contemporaries capable of facing him -- but ye gods, it's a stretch. The turgid mélange of training sequences, pep talks, and a climactic fight that doesn't go quite the way prognosticators planned is far too creaky to sustain the time devoted to it. Stallone plays it more or less straight (even acknowledging his character's advancing age more than once), but the material became a punch line so long ago that no amount of inspirational Bill Conti music can save it. Hell, even self-parody has been denied it, claimed last decade by the likes of The Great White Hype and that Simpsons episode where Homer fights Drederick Tatum. The second half of Rocky Balboa flounders around in such detritus, hoping that a few exhausted smidgens of nostalgic fairy dust will somehow hold it all together. They can't, and the pathos on display is almost as depressing as the notion that this time, they really really tried to make it all work.

And yet...

Before all that, after all that, and in a few precious minutes in the middle of all that, there's something very different at work. Away from the ring, Rocky Balboa takes on a dimension we haven't seen in a long time: a character study about this really nice guy who makes the most of his opportunities. He got lost amid the steroid-laden bombast of the Reagan era, and most of us feared he'd be gone for good. But for the first 45 minutes and here and there throughout the rest of the film, Stallone brings him back more or less intact. It's easy to forget how appealing Rocky can be, his goomba inarticulateness hiding a sweet soul who thought that mousy pet-store clerk was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Stallone's never been a master thespian, but he knows Balboa inside and out, and his performance here brings a nice sense of closure to the character. He runs a restaurant in his old Philly neighborhood, humble but happy with his lot. His beloved Adrian is gone -- breast cancer, we are told -- but he still brings flowers to her grave every day, and has started a fragile new courtship with Marie (Geraldine Hughes), that long-ago street waif who once called him a creepo and now works nights in a dingy South Side bar. Rocky Balboa never overplays these details, but rather lets them develop at a pleasant pace. Incidental events come along that nicely evoke the classic original: Rocky changing a light bulb, feeding his turtles, or letting an old opponent reclaim some dignity by working in the restaurant washroom. Stallone gives himself some genuinely stirring speeches, a few solid bits with his brother-in-law Paulie (the redoubtable Burt Young), and a sense of real humanity that surprises as much as it pleases. Had he kept things in that realm (as he and John Avildsen tried unsuccessfully to do in Rocky V), he might have had a winner on his hands.

As it is, we have to take the sour with the sweet. Tarver scoops up a little largesse, as Dixon's insecurities and need to prove himself make him a far more interesting adversary than the Clubber Lang/Ivan Drago variety. But he's still caught up in a subplot that stretches the limits of absurdity. Why would Dixon agree to fight a wheezing old warhorse like Rocky? What could he possibly gain from it? If he wins, he's beaten up a senior citizen. If he loses, he's been floored by one. There's no upside to the match, despite Rocky Balboa's efforts to convince us otherwise. Even if there were, the development and payoff lean too much on previous installations of the franchise to provide entertainment value. Nostalgia can't hope to sustain a structure with so many cracks, no matter how much good material surrounds it.

The surprise, however, is that there's good material at all -- unexpected and unlooked for, but welcome nonetheless. Like its protagonist, no one thinks this film will have anything to offer. That it shows life of any sort is a wonderful bonus for those of us braced for a grade-A gobbler. It doesn't have enough to go the distance -- there are too many crutches that Stallone simply can't bear to part with -- but it definitely gets an A for effort. Expectation is everything. The lower yours are, the better Rocky Balboa gets.

Review published 12.19.2006.

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