Saved by the Bell

'Rocky Balboa' is, without a doubt, another Rocky movie

In 1976, Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture, beating out Bound for Glory, Network, All the President's Men and Taxi Driver. Yes, Rocky beat Taxi Driver.

Well, so what? Rocky may have been inappropriately raised above four better films in a year of great movies, but it was certainly the most Hollywood of the films it faced in the Best Picture category, and it made by far the most money. It also launched Sylvester Stallone into a somewhat ignominious career as the standard-bearer of the sappy-action-film genre.

Over the course of four more movies, the Rocky franchise went from Academy Award fodder to the kind of B-movie that would have played for a weekend in 1932 at a drive-in in Tuscaloosa, Ala., before being cut up for leader. 1990's Rocky V, seemingly the last in the series, was less like a movie and more like a wet, oily massage followed by a forced hug from a drunken relative. Thus, one thought, ended the slow, downward slide of one Sly Stallone, a serious actor and dedicated writer who couldn't quite make it in the world of gritty art films that his fellow Italian Americans Scorsese, Coppola and Cassavetes had pioneered back in the day.

But apparently Stallone has a little more fight in him, and thus, at age 60, he writes, directs and stars in Rocky Balboa, the best Rocky movie of the last 15 years. In fact, it's one of the four best Rocky films that Stallone himself directed, and easily one of the six best Rocky films ever made.

If you're a Rocky fan (and, by law, all U.S. citizens are now Rocky fans), then your biggest question is, "Do we get to hear the Rocky theme song, and will Rocky come out of retirement for one more bout against a brash, young champion who lacks Rocky's heart and who will learn from Rocky's fighting spirit what it truly means to be a warrior?" I can say, without spoiling anything, that the answer is not "no."

Rocky Balboa is exactly the film you would make if you could distill the vital essence of the Rocky series. It's almost redundant to recount the plot, since there's pretty much only one plot that this film could have. In fact, everything about this film seems to have been preordained in the beginning of time (i.e., 1976) such that it is the only possible Rocky film that could now be made.

The minor twists include Rocky's difficult relationship with his son (played handsomely by Milo Ventimiglia of TV's Heroes), Rocky's attempts to cope with the death of his wife (I take it Talia Shire was too busy not appearing in any more Rocky movies to reprise her role) and Rocky's mentoring of a young neighborhood toughie who maybe, just maybe, is gonna turn out to be OK.

One of the best things about Rocky Balboa is that it includes a lot of footage from earlier Rocky movies. It's kind of like sitting around with your dear old uncle, looking through family photographs and smiling wistfully as he recounts his glorious past. "See?" he says, "Here I am starring in Rocky! It was quite the film. Oh yes. Those were the days." And you smile and you say, "Yes, Uncle Sly, you were really something!"

Stallone himself is perfect for the part of Rocky. It's as though the role were written and conceived for him. He's also got the body of a 60-year-old hard-core body builder, which is sort of cool or grotesque, depending on how you feel about huge muscles and even bigger varicose veins.

I really can't say he does a bad job as a director. The fight scene starts off beautifully, then it gets a little too arty with the modern special effects, but still, it mostly holds together. The flashbacks are schmaltzy and overcooked, but they're supposed to be. And the camera always knows where to turn: right on Rocky's big, expressive mug as its intense largeness massively conveys the hugeness of being sad, and nostalgic, and Rocky.

There's even a cameo by LeRoy Neiman, who is to painting what the Rocky movies are to cinema.

On the downside, there are a lot of inspirational speeches in this movie. Also, people always give these speeches in doorways. It's a very strange motif: Person X says, "Won't you come inside?" and person Y says no, and then proceeds to give a speech. I wonder if they just couldn't afford the interior sets, or if in the world of Sylvester Stallone, the standard response to being invited into someone's room is to stand in the doorway and pontificate.

Still, I feel like I can't really say anything bad about this film, even if I just did, because it completely captures what a Rocky movie is all about. Rocky himself is so intensely likable that you can't help but root for him, and Stallone is secure enough in his Rockyness that he includes some jokes about the state of the Rocky franchise.

So should you see this film? I think, if you've gone to the trouble to watch the other Rocky films, then you have the same moral obligation to see Rocky Balboa as you did to see the three Star Wars prequels, and at least in Rocky Balboa, there are no talking frog-men.

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