New in Theaters
No fooling. Like no "Rocky" since the first one, this fifth "Rocky" sequel makes you smile and wins your heart. Rocky Balboa is 58 now, and he shouldn't even be having dreams of comebacks, but Stallone, 60, has cooked up one more unlikely underdog battle for his never-say-die champ.
This time the Rock's foe is an arrogant, undefeated, largely untested heavyweight title-holder named Mason Dixon, a.k.a. "The Line" (played by actual retired light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver). Dixon and his slick handlers decide to give the long-retired Rocky a real fight when a computer-generated matchup between the two gives the Rock the decision.
If George Foreman can come back decades after the "Rumble in the Jungle" and win the title at 45, why can't Rocky fight an exhibition at his advanced age? Vaulting over plausibility, as the series always has, with the help of a buff Stallone and a realistically brutal Las Vegas-set slugfest for its rousing climax, the movie raises spirits, milks cheers and gets us back into Rocky's world.
So, why is that a surprise?
Back in 1976, almost everyone loved Rocky Balboa. Created by struggling young actor-screenwriter Stallone, Rocky -- a has-been to some -- was still young, full of dreams. A South Philly heavyweight nicknamed "The Italian Stallion," he lived in a threadbare, charming little world with his dog, his turtles, his buddy Paulie (Burt Young) and , his girlfriend, Adrian (Talia Shire), of that shot at the top. He got it when the Muhammad Ali-like champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) decided to steal some good publicity by giving a nobody a title shot.
"Rocky" was a heart-warmer. But, the overblown follow-ups, "Rocky II," "Rocky III" and "Rocky IV" were increasingly swollen monstrosities, with one improbably contrived challenge after another,: climaxing with a Russian superman (Dolph Lundgren). Then, switching gears, came "Rocky V," a failed attempt to get the series back to its common-man roots and win sympathy by way of Rocky's alleged brain damage.
"Rocky Balboa" hits the spot this time by really going back to the basics--bringing back all the elements that audiences loved in "Rocky": the meat-locker punching bags, the Philly atmosphere and lower-class sweat, the race up the steps and training montage (which it nicely parodies). Even the first picture's original pet turtles, Cuff and Link, are back. (The brain damage isn't mentioned or visible.)
So, happily, is the Rocky we remember from the 1976 film, as he would be with more years and poundage: a shambling, slurry-voiced, lovable doofus with fists of steel. Now he's a genuine has-been, an ex-champ running an Italian restaurant, spinning old fight yarns. He's also a widower who has John Ford-style colloquies at Adrian's grave, hangs around with brother-in-law Paulie, has troubles with business-guy son Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia) and quietly watches the new blood on TV, especially Dixon.
Stallone's movie, this time, gets on emotional track in its first scenes and stays there. Like many critics, I loved the first movie but got fed up with the sequels. But the new movie's mood, before the bloody hoopla at the end, is more like the first. It's tender, low key and full of roughneck charm. There's a new mutt (named Punchy) and a romance (sort of) for Rocky. For that, Stallone brings back the character Marie (warmly played by Geraldine Hughes, writer-star of the play "Belfast Blues"). Now a weary, sweet-faced mother, in the first film she was the foul-mouthed teen (Jodie Letizia) who sassed Rocky.
Perhaps what ultimately went wrong with the "Rocky" series -- not for the mass public but for critics and the colleagues who made the first picture an Oscar-winner -- was that the later movies kept the big-box-office formula of the underdog fight, while downplaying the old character and charm. Bigger, louder, more improbable and more expensive, they seemed to forget that everyone loved Rocky in the first movie even though he lost the fight.
"Rocky Balboa" has more character scenes and a lot more dialogue, and Stallone has given his tenderhearted, rock-fisted champ a last act that both diehard fans and some of the ones lost along the way will like. This Rocky is a character who's entertaining even when he's not fighting, whom we enjoy watching even when he's just an old guy spinning yarns, playing with his pets, hanging around and meeting new people. The new old Rocky doesn't need a last minute, come-from behind, rock 'em, sock 'em victory to give us a good time.
You know what? I smell a sequel.