Thursday, December 21, 2006

'Rocky' climbs back in the ring

Somewhere amid all that “Italian Stallion” mumbo-jumbo and wastes of time like “Cliffhanger,” Sylvester Stallone learned how to act. And direct.

Don’t laugh, but “Rocky Balboa,” the latest, and hopefully last, chapter in Stallone’s career-making franchise, is a fine picture.

The film opens as Balboa (Stallone) is mourning the loss of his beloved wife Adrian, who succumbed a few years back to what Rocky calls “the woman cancer.” He lives in a little rundown house in South Philly, owns an Italian restaurant (called Adrian’s) and tries his best to reach out to his estranged son Rocky Jr. (Milo Vintimiglia).

But he admits to his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) that he’s got “stuff in the basement,” demons needing to be exorcized. All that remains moot until ESPN simulates a fight between Balboa and the current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver).

Balboa wins. Dixon, criticized for not fighting worthy opponents, is in need of a PR triumph. Rocky is looking for a road back.

And so an exhibition fight is set up in Las Vegas and thus, too, is set the crux of the film. Rocky climbs back in the ring for one last round.

What makes “Rocky Balboa” so good isn’t the climactic fight. Rather the film’s success lies in the scenes leading up to the climax—Rocky struggling with Adrian’s death; his touching “adoption” of Marie (Geraldine Hughes) and her son Steps (James Francis Kelly III); the gulf of emotions separating Rocky and his son.

In scope, feel and aesthetics, this film is the true sequel to the first “Rocky” film. These movies have always played on America’s sentimental fascination with the underdog. For the first time in 30 years, Balboa is just that – and it works quite well.

There is less of an emphasis on the star spangled patriotism or professional wrestling gimmicks that marred the mid-1980s sequels. No, this film is about that guy we fell in love with years ago — the simple dude from Philly who worked his way to the ring the old-fashioned way.

Rocky has always been Stallone’s best role and his take on the aging champ is real and believable. His direction is understated—at least until the fight, where the strange, “you’re watching this on HBO” technique falls a little flat. This may also be the best acting performance of Stallone’s career. Really.

The whole thing feels like one big nostalgic trip, back to the days when movies were designed to make you feel good, and stories could be told without one pyrotechnic show after another. It’s familiar and refreshing, right down to Bill Conti’s familiar score and Stallone’s trek—this time with a dog—up the steps of the art museum.

The ending is somewhat clichéd, and maybe even underwhelming. But somehow it all works. The final scene, and indeed this entire film, is a fitting epitaph to a beloved American character.

I didn’t have high hopes, but “Rocky Balboa” succeeds brilliantly. After all these years, “Rocky” is still the champ.

“Rocky Balboa” is now playing. It is rated PG.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gonna have to agree with you here. Nick and I saw Rocky Tuesday night...and I have to tell you, there were a couple of times that I honestly got a little choked up. If nothing else, this movie just proves that when you spend the better part of your life doing something (or you spend it WITH somebody), they or it becomes you. It (or in some cases, he or she) makes you who you are.

The symbolism in the movie...his love for Adrian, and his love for boxing are one in the same...and boxing is what he has left.

Call me cheesy, but I was moved. I loved it.


3:12 PM  

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