Monday, December 18, 2006

Requiem (maybe) for a heavyweight

Stop the presses: Rocky is back. Sixteen years after he was allegedly pensioned off for good, the Italian Stallion, Sylvester Stallone, is leading the nicer of his two franchise characters back into theaters on Wednesday (MGM). Is there any reason you should see Rocky Balboa? Well, no. But maybe, yes, if you're looking for an unpretentious and unassuming holiday entertainment that's as cozy as a visit from an aging relative you haven't seen much since 1990.

Am I a Rocky fan? Let's put it this way: When, in the summer of 1977, as the first, Oscar-winning film was continuing to find audiences long after its release, and my 12-year-old self had to choose between seeing it and the killer whale picture Orca, I chose the sadistic Shamu over the soft-hearted slugger. I didn't see the first Rocky until I had seen Rocky II (1979) and Rocky III (1982), not in theaters, mind you, but on cable. (Orca never got a sequel.) When I did, I liked it, immediately; what had gotten a little shopworn after the two matches I had seen seemed fresh, like a Scorsese fairy tale. My pleasure was not to last, however: When Stallone, fresh from the success of the Rambo pictures, reconditioned Rocky as a cartoonish Cold War avenger for 1985's Rocky IV, I was ticked off. Campy today, IV was, at the time, one of the more offensive artifacts of the Ronald Ray-gun era, up (or down) there with the clumsily "arty" White Nights and the awful Iron Eagle. (Rambo: First Blood Part II gets a pass from this corner; the politics are objectionable but it's cleanly, elegantly machine-tooled and effectively brisk and exciting, a model of 80's-style action pictures.) The movie was a huge hit, the biggest of the Rockys; the opportunistic gains, however, were short-lived, as were those the era's junk bonds. By the time the embarrassingly titled Rocky V came around, the Berlin Wall had fallen, making for an (allegedly) kinder and gentler nation, and no one cared about Rocky or Rambo or Stallone anymore.

So now we have Rocky Balboa, a movie no one asked for, a movie only an on-the-ropes actor like Stallone would even consider making. Most performers would probably consider playing the underdog at this point in their lives and careers shameful. But they're not Stallone. And Rocky Balboa turns out to be a likable if, at this point, superfluous reprise, which the writer-director-star keeps simple and unfussy. It's a second attempt to return the character to his Philly roots after the forgotten fifth installment, and a better film (which I saw in a near-empty theater in Hong Kong); only Rocky purists will complain that Stallone has shamelessly rewritten the character's medical history to get him back into the ring one (or, one?) more time.

Balboa finds him mourning the death of his beloved Adrian to "woman cancer" and distanced from his white-collar son, Robert (played by the small and wiry Heroes castmember Milo Ventimiglia, an interesting physical contrast to Stallone and very well-cast; the movie needed more of him). He runs Adrian's Restaurant and relives the glory days for his customers; Paulie (Burt Young), cranky as ever, sulks. For a lot of the film (maybe too much) Rocky is a palooka Dr. Phil, dispensing nuggets of street wisdom advice to the supporting characters, the most central of whom is barkeep and single mom Marie (Geraldine Hughes), who knew the champ when she was a kid and serves as a kind of Adrian surrogate. (Rest assured that in this PG film--I counted maybe two raw words--Adrian is not displaced in Rocky's affections, though by the end Hughes, again quite good in an Emily Watson sort of way, sports a sexier haircut and a more take-charge attitude.)

Of course, this being a Rocky picture, there must be an opponent, and in this corner we have heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (played by light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver), a kind of gangsta boxer so egotistical a cameo-ing Mike Tyson doesn't like him. When a computer game depicting Dixon duking it out with an in-his-prime Balboa becomes a hit, an idea is hatched to pit the new champ with the old one, in a well-publicized exhibition match. Rocky agrees, but no one expects for him to do anything except put his thickened brawn through the motions--everyone, that is, except Rocky, who if you hadn't heard after five films is as much heart as muscle and brings both to the ring for the final, 25-minute bout, after, of course, a training sequence and a run up the museum steps, dog and Bill Conti in tow. Fans of these final fights will be relieved that Stallone has put the 80's-relic MTV editing to bed; the match is instead intercut with brief B/W flashbacks from former glories (with color flashes) as Rocky goes down for the count, which may or may not be a satisfying alternative. (I would have preferred a straight bout, no fancy stuff, but it's not too distracting.)

Not, then, a bad way to spend 102 minutes this Yuletide. It would have helped if Dixon had been better defined and a more memorable adversary--he's no Mr. T--and that there was more heft to the father-son relationship, which should be the center of the picture but winds up a peripheral. It seems to wind down abruptly, too. Still: Stallone hasn't screwed up, and the movie has been crisply shot on Philly's gentrifying mean streets by Clark Mathis. You can imagine everyone on location calling Stallone "Rocky," so easily does he step back into character after his hiatus. Let's put it this way: Rocky Balboa won't make any Top 10 lists, but it won't make any Bottom 10 lists, either, which for its star, punchdrunk from so many flops, is an accomplishment. Just, please, no more Cobra pictures.

Even if you'd never be caught dead at a Rocky picture, you'll probably get a kick out of Stallone's relaxed, funny, and unguarded running commentary about his hits and misses, over at
Ain't It Cool News. Good stuff.

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