Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Everything that made the best "Rocky" movies ("Rocky," "Rocky III," and "Rocky IV") blissfully entertaining appears conspicuously absent in Sylvester Stallone's new movie "Rocky Balboa" (** out of ****), reputedly the last hurrah for "Rocky." Chiefly, "Rocky Balboa" lacks spontaneity and surprises. Indeed, actor/athletic Sylvester Stallone looks—for a man in his sixties—like he could go the distance in the ring, but writer/director Sylvester Stallone virtually recycles the original without anything that made it Academy Awarding material. In "Rocky," Stallone created a charming Brando-esquire misfit, surrounded by other larger-than-life misfits, who slugged his way to the top of the American dream. Each sequel eroded the title character's charisma, and you knew that "Rocky" could never go down for the count. Worse, Stallone's trademark aphoristic dialogue yields few quotable lines.

Another element woefully amiss is a solid villain. A third of what made "Rocky," "Rocky III," and "Rocky IV" engaging on a visceral level were the opponents. Carl Weathers established the baseline for Rocky's rivals in the first two "Rocky" movies, while a pugnacious Mr. T raised the bar in "Rocky III" and Goliath-like Dolph Lundgren took it one punch further in "Rocky IV." Not surprisingly, "Rocky Balboa" should take the bad taste of "Rocky V" out of the mouth of "Rocky" fans. "Rocky V" featured the least intimidating contender of the series. Unfortunately, as much as "Rocky Balboa" surpasses "Rocky V," Rocky's latest adversary is bland to his boxers. Mason Dixon emerges as more vulnerable than vicious. You won't care if Rocky beats him to a pulp, gets beaten to a pulp himself, or they fight to a draw in "Rocky Balboa." This painfully predictable punching bag of clich├ęs never generates the blood, sweat, and cheers of the original.

Anybody who remembers the forgettable "Rocky V" knows that the doctors warned Rocky that if he ever climbed back into the ring that he could possibly die from one blow to the brain. In "Rocky Balboa," Rocky's physical ailments never impair his potential. Aside from a brief bout with the Pennsylvania boxing commission, Rocky obtains a license to box again. During the first hour of the action, our world-weary hero revisits his past on a sight-seeing trip to his old stomping grounds where he grew up and met his wife Adrian. Adrian has followed in the footsteps of more memorable "Rocky" characters, such as Apollo Creed and actor Burgess Meredith's Mickey Goldmill. We learn in "Rocky Balboa" that Adrian died from cancer back in the 1990s, and Rocky supports himself with a Philadelphia restaurant named after her. He recounts his pugilistic exploits for the entertainment of his customers. Meanwhile, in the ring, the latest heavyweight boxing champ Mason "the Line" Dixon (ex-light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver) finds himself tangled up in the ropes of his own troubles. After 30 knock-out fights, the undefeated Dixon cannot find anybody to go toe-to-toe with who can match his merciless barrage of blows. Worse, just about everybody in the fight game hates him. Sure, Dixon sounds like a terrific adversary, but Stallone gives Tarver nothing to do or say that makes his character remotely dangerous. He never attains the flamboyance of the egotistical Apollo Creed in the first three "Rocky" epics. He doesn't present a challenge like the sadistic Clubber Lang in "Rocky III." Physically, he is no match for towering Ivan Drago in "Rocky IV." Instead, Mason Dixie emerges more as misunderstood than merciless.

During his tour of his old neighborhood, Rocky runs into a local girl from his past. Marie (as played by the original "Marie" Geraldine Hughes) told him to bug off in the original when he offered her advice about her friends. Marie and Rocky get friendly this time around and the ex-champ shows an interest in her fatherless son. Unfortunately, the romance between Marie and Rocky ignites no sparks because the chemistry between them is wrong. At the same time, Rocky's own son Rocky, Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia who plays Peter Petrelli on the NBC/SCI-FI Channel TV show "Heroes") has his own selfish issues. Rocky overshadows him. At one point, Rocky confides in his boorish brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young of "The Killer Elite") that he still has his own unresolved issues. Paulie thinks Rocky has lost his mind when he proposes to put the gloves back on for one more bout. The inevitable fight between Rocky and Mason Dixon occurs as a result of an ESPN computer generated boxing match that prompts Mason's managers to approach Rocky about a match. Mason Dixie derides it as a publicity stunt, but Rocky sees it as a place in the sun. "Rocky Balboa" boasts too much soul and not enough heart. Cue "Rocky" composer Bill Conti to bring on the music from the original as Rocky jogs around Philadelphia in his sweats training.

Sylvester Stallone looks more muscle-bound than ever, but he does not have the underdog charisma of the best "Rocky" movies. Clearly, Stallone has gone into the ring one time too often. The Rocky character has never looked so out of place and his actions do little to endear him. Stallone's worst mistake in "Rocky Balboa" was sacrificing Adrian from his screenplay than his obnoxious, cigar-chomping brother-in-law Paulie. The first hour of the new "Rocky" drags and the last forty minutes doesn't make up for it. Stallone stages the boxing match without flair. Amazingly, the hand-held photography doesn't add energy to the fight. Despite some moments that remain too far and few between, "Rocky Balboa" has no clout to flout.

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