After having seemingly been put out to pasture for good, the Italian Stallion returns after a 16-year hiatus for yet another comeback in “Rocky Balboa.” The time away from the ring has done Rocky and the franchise some good, although it takes pic a good long while to gather momentum and clout before a surprisingly satisfying third-act heavyweight bout. Absence has fostered a certain fondness toward Stallone’s mythic underdog that will translate into solid if not quite K.O. B.O. through the holidays, with fine vid tourneys to follow in ’07.
The long stretch away from the ring for Philly’s favorite son — and for Stallone as director, it’s been a full 21 years since “Rocky IV” — has allowed a certain coursecorrection toward the grimier, small-scale sensibility of the 1976 original, helmed by John Avildsen. The title itself, eschewing the increasingly risible Roman numerals, denotes a change required after Avildsen’s bloated “Rocky V,” even as certain aspects of previous entry’s storyline have been conveniently or oddly ignored in Stallone’s script.
Even before the movie catches up with Rocky’s personal life, it wastes no time establishing what every boxing fan knows: The heavyweight division is mired in mediocrity, with Mason “the Line” Dixon (played by ex-light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver) alone at the top and unable to scrounge up a meaningful competitor in his division. Unlike most of Rocky’s past opponents, Dixon is seen as a pro without peer, unluckily fighting during the sport’s lowest ebb.
Where pic runs into early trouble is with Rocky himself, who’s mourning the loss of wife Adrian (once played by Talia Shire, seen here in a few brief, soundless memory images). Felled by cancer five years before, Adrian lives on as a kind of ghost, with her name still on the restaurant Rocky runs like a party host.
Whether in scenes opposite Burt Young (reprising Adrian’s meatpacker brother Paulie) or with his son, Robert Jr. (played not by Stallone’s son Sage, but by the unimpressive Milo Ventimiglia), Stallone’s 60-year-old Rocky exhaustingly plays exhaustion, and early sections slog along. It hardly helps that Rocky and Paulie, sometimes resembling Beckett characters if they were goombahs, endlessly muse about how “the whole world is fallin’ apart” but without a deeper sense of loss and regret.
The screenplay never knows exactly what to do with Robert Jr., a young man in the corporate world whose repeated complaints that he’s living in Rocky’s shadow come off as whiny and shallow. The ex-champ’s standard of living, an issue in “Rocky V,” is confused here, since on one hand he lives in the same beat-up Philly digs of yore yet owns and manages Adrian’s restaurant, where business appears to be thriving.
The most interesting aspect of “Rocky Balboa” is how it considers the ways in which television has utterly transformed the sports world. A mock match, rendered in computer animation and pitting Rocky vs. Dixon, sets off a flurry of debate (ESPN regular Skip Bayless cracks that Rocky’s specialty in the ring should be “pounded chicken”) that generates interest in staging the real thing. Thus, plot hinges on hype generated by a cable channel — an all-too-credible scenario in contempo sports.
It awakens Rocky, and Stallone, to new possibilities. To Robert Jr.’s horror, dad wants to fight again, and Rocky’s barkeep friend Marie (Geraldine Hughes) ends up supporting his new impossible dream. In script’s worst stroke of creative amnesia, Rocky’s brain damage in previous pic is utterly ignored, as if it had vanished into thin air. Even an initial rejection by the Pennsylvania boxing commission can’t stop Rocky from meeting Dixon in a lavish exhibition match in Vegas.
Final build toward the bout is handled with real pleasure by Stallone and editor Sean Albertson, effortlessly tossing in several iconic “Rocky” movie images — from the egg drink to the raw-meat punching bag — that work as celebration rather than self-parody. Match itself is remarkable for being largely staged and shot like an actual HBO pay-per-view event, from lensing in HD to HBO’s Jim Lampley (with Larry Merchant and Max Kellerman) doing the play-by-play.
Without Hughes’ solid, blue-collar humanity as Marie, pic’s first half would be pure drudgery, and the fact that Rocky and Marie show no sexual sparks enhances their scenes’ emotional clarity. Young’s Paulie feels tired and dull, while Tarver is shrewdly asked to play a close version of himself. James Francis Kelly III, as the African-American son of Marie (who’s Anglo), is intro’d with much fanfare and then given little to do — or may have had his part trimmed in the editing room.
Though Stallone directs with little visual inspiration outside the ring sequence, he sticks to the original’s up-from-the-streets spirit and rejects the slickness that had crept into the franchise. He also leaves no doubt in the final shot that this is the end of the Rocky saga. Capper is a lighthearted montage over closing credits of everyday folks running up the Philadelphia museum steps a la their hero.