The Reeler


December 20, 2006

Rocky Balboa

Punchy with self-reflexivity, Stallone swan song is unremarkable -- and that's a good thing.

Blaring trumpets are the first harbingers of royalty afoot. A solo figure jets across the landscape, soaked in the sweat and tears of dedicated labor, his eyes deliberate and lips curled into a menacing sneer. The music slowly builds to crescendo. Enter an obstacle -- a staircase, perhaps -- that the figure surmounts with ease.

A glove-sheathed fist rises in triumph.

Let no audience member doubt: This is the Rocky universe.

A 30-year franchise filled with such consistent cornball stylization that you could catch any of the first five entries on cable and spend a few minutes figuring out which one it is, the Rocky movies boast one of the most endearing pop personalities this side of James Bond. Boxing stories were great before Sylvester Stallone created the lovable champ, but the series uniquely embodies the sport's main attractions: brutal competition and an endearing cult of personality. Rocky Balboa, written and directed by Stallone himself, needs no Roman numerals to enhance its clout; the title signals the completion of one mighty tardy character arc.

The entries rapidly lost quality towards the end of the '80s; Rocky fought a Cold War enemy the third time out, and then had hardly anywhere else to turn. By the sixth installment, which follows the 60-year-old Balboa into the ring for one last romp, the whole thing sounds like a bad joke. Turns out it's actually a pretty solid sports movie: a jubilant pastiche of its predecessors to satisfy the fans, but free of the overindulgence in five movies' worth of background that might alienate newbies. Had the story followed an entirely fresh personality, its central thrust would remain engaging, if somewhat basic: Balboa, still the lovably naïve everyman (one too many head injuries?) despite his celebrity stature, settles into a cozy veteran life running his fancy Italian restaurant in Philadelphia and sharing anecdotes with adoring customers. Among the regulars are Rocky mainstays Spider (Pedro Lovell), the spacey former fighter, and Paulie (Burt Young), Balboa's faithful sidekick.

During off-hours, Balboa visits the cemetery for one-sided chats with his dearly departed wife, tries to befriend his increasingly distant twentysomething son (Heroes star Milo Ventimiglia) and develops a sweet spot for "Little Marie" (Geraldine Hughes), the former teenager who once told off the boxer with stinging vulgarity and has since developed into a friendly single mom.

Then a fateful night changes everything. Using video game graphics, a television sports show pits Balboa against boxing's current undefeated champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon (genuine retired fighter Antonio Tarver). To everyone's surprise, the computer projects that Balboa would win, piquing the interest of Dixon's crude managerial team, a couple of slick creeps desperate for a fresh publicity tactic to bring their client to new levels of stardom. Easily convincing the nostalgic Balboa to engage in one final battle (just for kicks), they secretly hope to see him pulverized. The portrait of craven media exploitation suggests strains of Network (incidentally, the first Rocky beat Sidney Lumet's immortal satire of the television industry for the Best Picture Oscar in 1977), but the plot's cynical edge eventually settles into convention. With the date of the fight looming, Balboa jumps into action. Cue the aforementioned music, training sequences, rousing monologues about soul searching, and so on. Then comes the inevitable climax, a rote punch-a-thon with all the visceral impact the Rocky mythology entails.

If Rocky Balboa is fairly unremarkable, that's a good thing -- at least it's not a disaster. These movies aren’t known for their subtlety, but Stallone never the takes the premise further than sheer adrenaline will carry it. A few troublesome details keep the story from rising high above the lowbrow material, most notably the stereotypical traits Stallone allots to the main black character; while Dixon isn’t an incredulous villain, he does sport a wildly exaggerated gangster mentality that distracts from the story's innocuous intentions. Balboa's son, meanwhile, is disappointingly one-note, a frazzled working professional transplanted from the average teenage dramedy.

Whatever. Rock's the real star of the show, and Stallone's screenplay carries him along. The dialogue has an appreciable wit, acknowledging that the series has frayed over the years. "It ain't over 'til it's over," Balboa tells his younger opponent. "What’s that from, the '80s?" Dixon retorts. "Actually," Balboa sneers, "it's from the '70s." That self-reflexivity keeps Rocky Balboa afloat, allowing the story to end on a satisfactory note. When a giddy announcer says he grew up watching Rocky fight, he speaks for a generation.

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