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Balboa’ lacks original film’s underdog spirit

Brian Doxtader | Friday, January 19, 2007

ROCKY BALBOA

That “Rocky Balboa” is not a terrible film is a testament to the character and Sylvester Stallone’s obvious respect and affection for his creation, but that doesn’t make it a good film either. Its positive critical reception seemed mainly due to low expectations, and while it doesn’t tarnish the “Rocky” legacy, it doesn’t really enhance it either.

“Rocky Balboa” is ridiculously illogical, and this is its biggest problem. This, in a lot of ways, has become the series’ trademark. Somewhere between Rocky’s bouts with Clubber Lang (Mr. T) and the Soviet Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), his humanity and warmth were stripped away and replaced with a superhuman quality that was more comical than epic.

“Rocky Balboa” was written by, directed by and stars Sylvester Stallone – as were “Rockys II – IV.” While “Rocky Balboa” presents itself as a stripped-down return to the realism of the first installment, the truth is that the central conceit of the film is more outrageous than even his mountain-climbing, wood-chopping trip to Russia. A simulated fight between Balboa (Stallone) and reigning Heavyweight Champ Mason “The Line” Dixon claims that an in-his-prime Rocky would’ve beaten Dixon. Balboa himself is retired, but runs a restaurant called Adrian’s. Adrian herself passed away sometime between “Rocky V” and “Rocky Balboa,” so the Italian Stallion is left with just Paulie, who has become no happier nor wiser since the first “Rocky.”

Balboa, who spends most of his time putzing around his restaurant entertaining guests, finds a new friend in Little Marie (Geraldine Hughes), whom fans might recognize as a foul-mouthed girl from the original film. Grown up and with a son, Rocky takes her under his wing, presumably because he has nothing better to do. He also tries to reconcile things with his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who has become an office worker and resents being in the shadow of his famous father.

Upon hearing about the simulated fight, Rocky is persuaded to step into the ring one last time. You can guess what happens next.

When Dixon’s agents approach Balboa for the first time, they tell him that the simulated fight got a lot of people interested, which is why the proposition of an exhibition match between the former champ and the reigning champ is put on the table. Yeah, right. ESPN could simulate a football game and claim that the 1977 Notre Dame football team could’ve beaten 2006 Florida, but odds are that it’s not enough to inspire Joe Montana and Ken McAfee to suit up and take to the field. It’s just not realistic.

“Rocky Balboa” is a nice little movie and it’s a solid “goodbye” to the cinema icon, but it didn’t need to be made. If anything, it just undoes the damage of “Rocky V,” a truly horrendous film that really, really didn’t need to be made. Yet somehow, Stallone managed to make the character age gracefully.

There are obvious elements missing from “Rocky Balboa.” If it is, as Stallone purports, the last of the series, then why not tie up all the loose ends? Key characters like Apollo Creed and Mickey are simply ignored, and the film leaves open the possibility for another sequel. If Stallone wanted to close on the highest possible note, it would have been better if he had come full circle and made the series feel like a complete arc.

The first “Rocky” was about going the distance, fighting until the last bell and winning the girl of your dreams. It was a simple movie, and that simplicity was part of its appeal, something the sequels lost sight of. “Rocky Balboa” is more like those sequels than it seems, it is a superhero send-off, but it also shares a key quality with the original that hearkens back to the simplicity of the 1976 Best Picture Oscar winner – it is not a film about a man who wants to win, it is a film about a man who once again wants to go the distance, to prove to himself that he wasn’t just some bum from the neighborhood.

ROCKY: THE COLLECTOR’S DVD

Something lost in the sequels, the hubris and the less-than-stellar career of Sylvester Stallone is that the original “Rocky” is – surprise! – a fantastic movie. The Best Picture winner of 1976, “Rocky” helped launch the careers of its director, John “Karate Kid” Avildsen, and its writer/star, Sylvester Stallone, drawing comparisons to (and this is true) Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro in the process. And while the careers of Stallone and Avildsen and the subsequent sequels have done much to dilute the original’s impact, “Rocky” is still the ultimate underdog story and a really great picture in its own right.

“Rocky” follows a small-time boxer and hustler, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), as he is given a chance at the title by World Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). He enlists the help of crusty old trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith) while also romancing local pet shop worker Adrian (Talia Shire).

Another year, another DVD edition of “Rocky,” which means there are at least three releases of the same film – the original “Special Edition,” the upgraded “Better Picture Quality” and now the two-disc “Collector’s Edition.” Like the series itself, the DVD of “Rocky” seems to have breathed its last, only to resurface yet again. This version promises to be the last, because really, can MGM put much more content on these discs? The picture quality (a “new high-definition transfer”) is quite good, and the film includes a sparse 5.1 audio track, which is unsurprising considering that it was originally released in mono (a track which is noticeably absent). There are three commentary tracks, and two of them are new – one from Sly himself, and one featuring trainer Lou Duva and commentator Bert Sugar. Stallone’s commentary is intelligent and informative, filled with anecdotes and asides about the blood, sweat and tears that went into the making of “Rocky.”

Few people probably thought that the “Rocky” franchise would run its course over 30 years and five sequels. And really, it didn’t have to. The first film is a minor miracle, a serendipitous marriage of timing and talent, and a complete and satisfying story. Watching the first film again is a reminder that “Rocky” is truly a great film, free from the glossy sheen and cheap thrills that marred the sequels. While Stallone might have thought that audiences wanted slick, action-packed “Rocky” movies, he should have looked to the original and remembered that nothing is more thrilling than the simple pleasure of watching the Italian Stallion run up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to the strains of “Gonna Fly Now.”