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Friday, December 22, 2006

Rocky Balboa

If you had asked me any time in the last 10 years if we might be seeing another Rocky movie one of these days I’d probably have told you that you had rocks in your head. I mean, geez, Stallone had put this tired old act out on display for four progressively less stellar sequels after what had been an inspiring and well-crafted original tale written by the star himself, and it was way past time to put the prizefighter out to pasture.

In the intervening years since the original Rocky, Stallone has had a career that has gone from well-received (First Blood) to laughable (Rhinestone) to cringe-worthy (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). He’s tried his hand at directing, practically killing both his and John Travolta’s careers with Staying Alive, the repugnant sequel to Saturday Night Fever that raised nobody’s temperature but did make a few lunches soar upward for a second look at daylight. Since then his movie choices have raised eyebrows for their general overall mediocrity (Avenging Angelo; D-Tox) or their downright Nacho cheesy goodness (Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over). It pretty much looked like the original Rocky was the lucky fluke of writing from some guy from Philly who resembled his creation more than maybe even he realized. He had talent, but he piqued early and told the one good story he had in him to tell.

Well, maybe he just needed a long rest to recharge the creative batteries because in what may be one of the greatest career resurgences ever, Stallone has turned his tough old turkey into a delicious and satisfying Christmas feast. This definitely deserves to be called Rocky Balboa to banish the taint of a ‘6’ or ‘VI’ behind the lugubrious ‘Rocky’ in its title.

Rocky Balboa could just as easily as not be a film unto itself rather than a sequel to the original Rocky from 1976, and yet if you are going to look on it as a sequel do yourself a favor and let your memory forget the degenerating dreck of 3, 4, and 5. Rocky 2 was an okay movie, really more of a remake of the first than an original, but it did advance the soap opera by giving Rocky’s wife Adrian the responsibility of giving birth to Rocky Balboa, Jr., which is only important to those of us sentimental old coots who like to remember being there for the important events in our fictional characters’ lives. The fact that Rocky Jr. has been progressively more involved in each chapter of the Rocky series and has now (finally) reached adulthood in this film makes him more interesting, especially since he is being played by Milo Ventimiglia of tv’s new hit “Heroes”. Rocky Jr. is a brooding fellow who scoots around the edges of his father’s celebrity life and for most of the first two-thirds of the movie it is difficult to be sure just why he is so angry and distant from his famous father. Did Rocky do something we don’t know about? Does this have anything to do with Jr.’s mom, who died off-screen two years prior to where the saga picks up this time around? Is he still holding a grudge because Rock Sr. lost all of his money and is back to living in the lower-class Philly neighborhood where he was when we first met him thirty years ago? I can’t imagine why that should bother Sonny Boy since he’s not living with Dad, but it is kind of sad to imagine that a two-time World Heavyweight Championship Boxer is living in a rundown apartment and still hanging out with a couple of turtles as his best friends after all these years. The truth is Rocky is depressed, clinically depressed and stuck in his grief over losing his beloved Adrian, who he visits daily at the cemetery with fresh roses and loving conversation. By evening, he fills time at his own restaurant, named for his late wife, where he acts as host, and recounts stories of his glory days to customers who come in expecting to hear about the Champ’s fights from the great man himself. It’s an empty, lonely life, and it explains why Rocky doesn’t care that his apartment is less than House & Garden spiffy.

Sure, he’s suffered some permanent brain damage from his many fights, and he’s aged like the rest of us, but other than his slowed speech, the arthritis in his spine, and the calcium deposits on his knees, he is still in just as good of shape as he was in his prime. Except for the broken heart, of course. That doesn’t seem to get any better no matter how much working out or how many vitamins and raw eggs he consumes. It would seem that Rocky has resigned himself to spending the rest of his days just waiting to take that long dirt nap next to Adrian.

That could make for a very sad and very European independent film, but since this isn’t one of those, things do happen.

The world of boxing, which Rocky himself barely keeps an eye on these days, is in shambles, and the young athletes in the field today are more obsessed with the glamour, the show, the fame, and the money of the
“game” than the actual “sport” of the heavyweight boxing scene itself. The current Champ, for example, is a mouthy, flashy, trash-talking character calling himself Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver; formerly a contestant on tv’s boxing show “The Contender”), who barely knows who Rocky Balboa is until he sees a computer generated “Then vs. Now” match-up on ESPN where the Champ from 30 years ago is recreated digitally, using film footage to calculate moves, reaches, strength, punches, etc. to fight against the similarly remastered current Champ. When the faux Rocky knocks out the fake Mason Dixon on the television show, the real champ becomes more than slightly distressed, though mostly in secret, as he studies the footage over and over in disbelief at the idea that he could be beaten at all.

Meanwhile Rocky’s grouchy old brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young; Transamerica), who is still as close to Rocky as ever, is right there to pester Rocky with the news of the ESPN show until finally he interests the former fighter in at least considering taking up the gloves again. Paulie is convincing, but he’s not the one to get the job done.

That’s a whole other twist in the story, and not the way you might expect. Yes, there’s a woman (Geraldine Hughes; Duplex), but Stallone rightly
steers clear of the obvious romance-in-the-offing between the two as that would dampen the fire that burns in his hero’s heart for long-lost Adrian. Instead, Rocky and Marie develop a mature and respectful friendship, which is a nice and rare thing to see onscreen these days between a man and a woman.

Establishing this friendship, as well as Rocky’s working on his estranged relationship with his son and, most of all, his becoming aware of his own struggles with his grief, his aging, and his need for respect for who he is now rather than for who he was and what he did thirty years ago makes for the bulk of what moves the plot of
Rocky Balboa. Don’t worry! For those expecting hard-driven boxing action, it’s there. There is a fight, a big, big, big exciting one to climax the film, so you guys don’t have to fret. But here’s a wee bit of a secret. Hidden in the midst of the hammering on sides of beef and running up and down the steps of City Hall, Rocky Balboa teeters awfully close to becoming a (gasp!) ~ chick flick. That’s right. It’s stuffed full of emotions, and I even found myself getting verklempt in a couple of scenes as Sly/Rocky teared up and choked back the words while trying to recall his feelings for his beloved Adrian. I’m sure anybody who has ever lost a loved one will feel the pain in Rocky’s dilemma and be surprised that Sylvester Stallone of all people is the one to move you to well up.

This is by far the best movie Sly has made since 1985’s Rambo: First
Blood Part II and is definitely the best of the Rockys since the original. He is currently working on a “wrap-up” for his character John Rambo, and I’m not going to roll my eyes like I would have before I’d seen
Rocky Balboa. If he can do for Rambo what he’s done with Rocky then more power to him. Rocky Balboa is about re-establishing one’s own self-respect and credibility. Ironically, the one who did it better than Rocky himself is Sylvester Stallone. Kudos to him and kudos to Rocky Balboa, now playing at the Essex Cinemas.

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