Punchless, yet poignant
Stallone and Rocky stagger to final bell in sentimental sequel
There's probably a psychological term for obsessively returning to key moments of one's past, seeking renewed relevance and an illusion of youth.
For today's purposes, let's just call it "Rocky Balboa."
The sixth entry in the on-again/off-again saga of the Pug from Philly -- arriving 16 years after "Rocky V" -- is a surprisingly quiet affair for much of its running time. It harks back to the marble-mouth , proto-indie neighborhood sensibilities of the original 1976 "Rocky," before the series got hooked on steroids and went Hollywood. Like its hero, the movie is endearing, clumsy, and mawkish, and its joints creak alarmingly.
As nostalgic as this may be, it's probably necessary for no one but the man who made it. "Rocky Balboa" is about a 50-year-old boxer's last shot at glory, but it clearly represents the 60-year-old Sylvester Stallone's attempt to climb back in the ring after a career that has dwindled into inconsequence in the past decade.
Can you blame him for resurrecting his signature character? Where most aging jocks dust off their trophies, Stallone dusts off his training montage: the beef-carcass punching bag, the run up the museum steps. It's shameless, heartening, and fairly sad; the cinematic equivalent of a toupee that doesn't convince.
The law of sequels requiring one sacrifice per installment, everyone from the first "Rocky" is dead now except for the title character (Stallone) and his pal Paulie (Burt Young). This doesn't stop the ghost of Adrian from floating through, played by Talia Shire in sepia-tone clips from the earlier movies, or Rocky from tending her grave religiously. (That business about the crippling brain damage in "Rocky V"? Fuhgeddaboudit .)
Rocky runs a successful restaurant named after his dead wife; every night he poses for pictures and tells old stories. Philadelphians hail the Italian Stallion on the street but also take him for granted: He's a beloved cartoon. This chafes his yuppie son Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), embarrassed of his pop and tired of living in his shadow, and it bugs Rocky, too.
It's a fertile subject for a movie -- the vanity and anxieties of an aging athlete -- but "Rocky Balboa" wants no part of it. Instead, the hero decides to start training again, spurred by a much-discussed computer simulation on TV that pits a young digital Rocky against current heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver). The bout shows Balboa winning, and sometimes that's all an old man needs to start dreaming.
Rocky's appearance before the local boxing commission allows Stallone to write and perform one of the movie's Big Monologues about self-respect; like so much here, it's simultaneously noble and ridiculous. Much better are the scenes in which Rocky sort-of romances a single-mom bartender (Geraldine Hughes).
Stallone knows his "Marty" and "On the Waterfront" ready-mades, and these sequences have a gentle and genuine humor.
Don't ask how, but "Rocky Balboa" works its way up to an exhibition match between the aging lion and the young champ, a brassy Las Vegas affair with the crowd primed, once again, to cheer the underdog. Rocky has no knees, no speed, he can't spar; his only recourse, to quote one character, is "good old-fashioned blunt force trauma." Which is a pretty good description of the last third of the movie.
The first two rounds of the fight are taut and coherent, but then Stallone and editor Sean Albertson lose their grip, throwing every "Raging Bull" cutting-room trick at us in an endless, undifferentiated welter of images. It's a desperation move, and it reveals "Rocky Balboa" as the wishful fantasy it is.
This is no corporate project made to squeeze a few more dollars from a fading cash cow. No one else has been asking for another "Rocky," other than maybe Burt Young . No, this is a rarer beast -- an auteur sequel -- and it's so wrapped up in its maker's personal mythology and psychic needs that it becomes a hall of mirrors to which we're given a slack-jawed ringside seat.
The parallels between Rocky and Sly are everywhere, whenever Rock's son scoffs, "People will think you're crazy -- what are you trying to prove?" or when the old boy himself grumbles "There's still some stuff in the basement." This may be the first meta-movie for mooks. "Rocky Balboa" isn't a response to Stallone's late-life crisis, it is his late-life crisis, right up there on the screen. And if it doesn't do the trick, well, "Rambo IV" is in the works for 2008. No fooling. Can somebody break it to Sly that we all know it's a toupee?