MovieMantz Reviews: ‘Rocky Balboa’ (December 18, 2006)

Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!

by Scott Mantz

"Rocky Balboa"
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Geraldine Hughes
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone

Admit it; when you first heard that Sylvester Stallone was stepping back in the ring for a sixth "Rocky" movie, you thought to yourself, you're kidding me, right? Who needs another "Rocky" movie? Didn't we suffer enough through "Rocky V?" Well, yes, but that was 16 years ago, and times have changed for both Stallone and the former Italian Stallion.

Stallone hasn't had a hit in over a decade, and even that film, 1994's "The Specialist," didn't exactly set the box office on fire. After that, his movies came and went, and despite a critically acclaimed turn in 1997?s "Copland," 2002's "Avenging Angelo" went straight to video. That's a far cry from the glory days of the 80's, when the "Rocky and "Rambo" movies made him one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. And as if Stallone's fall from grace wasn't bad enough, it must have hurt that his main competitor from the Reagan era, Arnold Schwarzenegger, went on to become the Governor of California. Yes, times had changed indeed.

But if Stallone had it rough, then Rocky Balboa had it worse. Thirty years after going the distance with Apollo Creed, Rocky lost everything and ended up back on the mean streets of South Philadelphia. These days, he tells old stories to appreciative customers at his restaurant, Adrian's, named after his late wife, whom he painfully mourns. But his son (Milo Ventimiglia) is too busy trying to make a name for himself in the business world to spend time with his old man, leaving Paulie (Burt Young), his bitter brother-in-law, as his only confidante.

Then a computer simulation matches current heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver) with Rocky Balboa in his prime, and when Rocky actually wins, it sparks the public's imagination about a real life match up between the two titans. Dixon?s sleazy manager (A.J. Benza) seizes the opportunity in an effort to revitalize his client's unlikable image, but for Rocky, who's nearly twice Dixon's age, it means the second chance that he never thought he'd get. Will he actually take the risk, get back in the ring and go for it? Eye of the tiger, baby! Eye of the tiger!

If the then-unknown Stallone found his own underdog story mirroring Rocky's when the original 1976 film made $117 million and beat the likes of "Network" and "All the President's Men" to win Best Picture, then he finds himself in a similar situation with the new movie. Just as Rocky was bound to face ridicule by taking on an undefeated opponent, so would Stallone by writing, producing, directing and starring in a sixth film just five years away from being old enough to retire.

Given those circumstances, I'm happy to report that "Rocky Balboa" is a pretty decent movie it works. It's not a knockout by any means, but it still packs a strong emotional wallop and is stylistically closer to the first film than it is to the others in the series. Rocky is still a likable guy with a heart of gold, and you're bound to get the chills when he runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to the glorious sounds of Bill Conti's famous musical score.

The problem is that it takes well over an hour to get there, during which time the film is bogged down by a slow pace and episodic melodrama. If Rocky isn't preaching to Paulie, then he's lecturing his son and his new friend Marie (Geraldine Hughes, effectively evoking Talia Shire). The film also short changes key emotional moments, since we are told about, but never see Rocky's tests to qualify for a boxing license, nor are we properly re-introduced to Duke (Tony Burton), the corner man from the previous five movies. And for an out-of-shape former boxer who?s about to fight the undefeated heavyweight champion on the world, Rocky's training goes by way too fast and is limited to just one stereotypical montage.

But when the impressively fit Italian Stallion finally does get back in the ring, that's when it feels like a "Rocky" movie again. It was worth the wait too, since you'll want to leap to your feet and cheer, just like you did with the first few films. And as if revisiting Rocky wasn't nostalgic enough, now comes word that Stallone is in pre-production for a fourth "Rambo" movie, almost 20 years after the last one hit theaters. So come to think of it, maybe times haven?t changed that much after all.


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