Ring Cycle

Salt Lake City Weekly | December 15, 2006
Over the closing credits of this sixth installment in the Rocky series, we see images of ordinary people running up the now-iconic steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and striking fists-skyward poses. It’s a fitting wrap-up, because in a sense Rocky Balboa is mostly a conversation with the 30-year history of cinema’s most enduring underdog. The name “Rocky” continues to be shorthand for long-shot triumph—so what better way to make Rocky once again the ultimate underdog than by having him return to the ring after he’s already become eligible for movie theaters’ senior discounts?

Once you get past whatever snickering the notion of a 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone trading jabs might inspire, you might notice that Rocky Balboa isn’t a half-bad idea for a movie. As the film opens, Rocky (Stallone) is now widowed and running a Philadelphia restaurant named after his beloved Adrian, where he regales guests with nostalgic anecdotes about his glory days. But wearing a red blazer and playing host only captures his interest so far, and soon he feels the fire in his belly to fight again. He finds an improbable opponent in undefeated heavyweight champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life fighter Antonio Tarver), whose utter dominance has failed to win him many fans. To Dixon, the planned exhibition is a chance to inject himself into a discussion of the greatest champions; for Rocky, it’s a chance to go out on his own terms.

For the audience, it’s a chance to be reminded what an endearing character Rocky was. As the series became a showcase for increasingly over-the-top villains, it lost track of the qualities that made Rocky such an appealing hero in the first place. Here Stallone re-discovers Rocky’s fundamental decency and almost corny courtliness, turning in a nicely pitched performance as he befriends and becomes benefactor for neighborhood barmaid Marie (Geraldine Hughes). He’s funny, charming and self-deprecating—you know, the guy we saw before Stallone became an action-film cartoon.

He also uses that relationship as a pivot point for Rocky Balboa’s backward looking mood. An early scene finds Rocky and Paulie (Burt Young) on a tour of his old haunts, faded images of the first film appearing in the background; passersby stop the ex-champ to greet him and ask for autographs. His not-quite-a-courtship with Marie—whom he once knew as a local kid—becomes an opportunity for him to return to an earlier time. Stallone’s certainly encouraging viewer nostalgia with Bill Conti’s familiar score as Rocky goes into training, or showing turtles Cuff and Link still paddling around in their aquarium. But he’s also playing a guy who’s trying not to think of himself strictly in the past tense.

Unfortunately, he’s also trying to pack a little too much into his movie. There’s some tension as Rocky’s son (Milo Ventimiglia) tries to wrestle with being in the shadow of his famous dad, and an awkward subplot that finds Paulie being forced into retirement (giving young ample opportunity to fume and bluster). Many of the character interactions feel truncated, including Rocky almost mentoring Marie’s teenage son. By the time we get to the final fight sequence—over-directed by Stallone into a mish-mash montage—it feels as though he has tried to do so much that he’s forgotten why a lot of people come to Rocky movies in the first place.

Yet while Rocky Balboa underachieves as a showcase for actual boxing—there’s only a smattering of the bombs-away, nobody-ever-blocks-a-punch stuff we’ve come to know and love from the series—it’s kind of interesting as a commentary on how lackluster a sport boxing has become since the time of the original film. There’s definitely a “things were better back in the day” feel to Stallone’s story, but not in a cranky way. He simply wants to give a character he cares about as much as we do an appropriate send-off, one that honors his legacy. For all its clunkiness, Rocky Balboa is moderately enjoyable—though less for what Rocky has become than as a paean to everything Rocky once was.


**1/2 (two and a half stars out of four)

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver

Directed by Sylvester Stallone.

Rated PG.

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