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Italian Stallion back for final round on DVD

Brian Doxtader | Sunday, April 1, 2007

“Rocky Balboa” is supposed to be the end of the line for the Italian Stallion, but it’s easy to get the sense that the movie gives writer-director Sylvester Stallone a new beginning – after all, he can now follow it up with “Rocky Balboa II,” which sounds a lot less geriatric than “Rocky VII.”

Actually, though, critical reception to “Rocky Balboa” was surprisingly warm, but that’s probably because the film isn’t a complete disaster. Shot with lip service to the grittiness and charm of the original, “Rocky Balboa” is a superfluous sequel. While it does get things back on track after the proverbial train wreck that was “Rocky V,” it doesn’t really stand on its own as a film.

Stallone’s latest is essentially a glorified “thank you” to the legions of Rocky fans who stood by the Italian Stallion as he got married, became the heavyweight champ, had a kid, fought Mr. T, lost Mickey, trained with Apollo, lost Apollo, went to Russia, got brain damage and trained Tommy Gunn. At least half these things are thrown by the wayside in “Rocky Balboa,” a film that revisits several old set pieces, including the skating rink from the first picture.

The film is about Rocky Balboa, former heavyweight champion turned restaurant owner, who comes out of retirement to engage in an exhibition match against current champ Mason “The Line” Dixon. While this might sound like the stuff of parody, Stallone reaches deep into his sentimental pockets and pulls out a picture that isn’t nearly as cloying or coldly calculating as it could be – in fact, there are scenes of genuine warmth, even without the presence of girlfriend/wife Adrian, who was often the convenient emotional anchor for previous “Rocky” pics.

“Rocky Balboa” is well shot and well directed, though Stallone chews a lot of scenery. Balboa was always talkative, but he was never this loquacious. “Rocky Balboa” might have more words than any other “Rocky” film, but never before have they added up to less, and all of the long-winded monologues are enough to make audiences long for the days of, “Adrian, I never asked you to stop being a woman. Don’t ask me to stop being a man.”

The DVD is passable, though not nearly the quality of MGM’s two-disc special edition for the original film. It includes an audio commentary by Stallone, who is always intelligent and well spoken (he did, after all, write all of the “Rocky” films). There are also deleted scenes that include an alternate ending, though the ending that was ultimately chosen seems to be the most appropriate.

Finally, there are three documentaries – “Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa,” “Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky’s Final Fight” and “Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight.” Of these, only the first is really substantial, and the third, which talks about an in-film computer fight depicting an ESPN special featuring Balboa vs. Dixon, is rather fluffy.

There was never a need for “Rocky Balboa,” but if Stallone was intent on making it, he could’ve done a lot worse. There is quite a bit to admire, and, for “Rocky” enthusiasts, a lot to love. Comparing “Rocky Balboa” to the original “Rocky” shows just how far the franchise has strayed from its humble beginnings, but this latest (and hopefully last) sequel brings back some of the 1976 Best Picture Winner’s charm.

Best of all, it’s enough to make viewers forget about “Rocky V,” which is itself a minor miracle and something to be thankful for.