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With: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, A.J. Benza, James Francis Kelly III, Lou DiBella, Mike Tyson
Written by: Sylvester Stallone
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
MPAA Rating: PG for boxing violence and some language
Running Time: 102
Date: 12/20/2006

Rocky Balboa (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Late Punch

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the mid-1970s the struggling actor/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone reportedly wrote the screenplay for Rocky over a weekend, and a legend was born. It went on to become one of the biggest hits of the decade, even winning an Oscar for Best Picture. It turned Stallone into an instant star, but with the exception of the Rambo franchise, he has spent his entire career trying to overcome it. In recent decades, he has become something of a running joke, making consistently low-quality movies; some infamous examples include Rhinestone (1984), Over the Top (1987) and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot (1992).

And so, now at age 60, Stallone went back to the drawing board and wrote another screenplay as passionate and as personal as that first one. Perhaps knowing full well he would be ridiculed for doing Rocky Balboa, he turned in a story about an aging fighter who, knowing full well he will be ridiculed, goes back into the ring. It's a fascinating and ultimately stirring look at an artist's soul.

The retired Rocky now runs a Philadelphia restaurant, signing autographs from time to time and regaling customers with tales from the ring. His brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) is still around, but his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire) has passed on. He befriends a local barmaid (Geraldine Hughes) and offers her a job; this friendship hints at elements of romance, but remains touchingly tactful. Rocky tries to spend quality time with his grown son (Milo Ventimiglia), but the young man wishes to climb out from under his famous father's shadow. When a sports show programs a computer-generated fight between Rocky and the current heavyweight champ, Mason 'The Line' Dixon (Antonio Tarver), it gets Rocky thinking about renewing his license. This leads to an actual fight with Dixon.

To date, Stallone has contributed to nearly 20 screenplays and has directed six movies, but he has never showed as much skill as he does here. The film has a few clunky moments, mostly due to an overuse of music, but it also shows a discreet use of foreground and background to highlight or underline emotional moments. Additionally, his writing seems to be coming from an honest place, and the characters exhibit real emotional centers. A scene in which father and son confront one another may be Stallone's finest moment on film.

Even the fight scene feels fresh; Stallone shoots it in the style of a hyperactive, graphic-heavy cable TV event, with constant flash and chatter. Rocky clearly does not belong to this modern boxing world anymore, but he's comfortable enough here to make a last stand.

Still, we're not talking Best Picture material anymore. The script falls off a cliff more than once. A subplot about Dixon and his manager suddenly disappears, and the expected "training montage" (set to Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now") turns up once again. Nonetheless, I sat down to Rocky Balboa expecting a disaster on the level of Rocky V (1990) or Rambo III (1988), but instead I was treated to the season's most delightful surprise.

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