2006, PG, 102 min. Directed by Sylvester Stallone. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia, Tony Burton, A.J. Benza, James Francis Kelly III.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 22, 2006
Boxing movies, truly great ones, are as rare as memorable prize-fighters these days, but the genre – and it is a genre, beholden to its own sweaty language and too-often sappy storylines – has occasionally managed some bracing filmic glories. Even Clifford Odets, no slouch in the fisticuffs-of-the-human heart-department, threw his hat into the ring with the 1937 play Golden Boy (later a politically gutted film starring William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck which still later found itself echoed in Elia Kazan's more famously pugnacious tale of love and labor lost, On the Waterfront; perhaps not coincidentally, Kazan had a role in the stage version). But first-round cinematic TKOs? You can number those pug-uglies on a lone dockworker's mangled paw: John Garfield in Body and Soul, the Rod Serling-scripted Requiem for a Heavyweight (with Jack Palance on TV's Playhouse 90, Anthony Quinn in the film version), Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, anything sporting a gorgeous, young Cassius Clay or the floating, stinging conscientiously objectified Muhammad Ali. And then there's Stallone's mush-mouthed and even mushier-hearted Italian Stallion, a brawny slab of meat who, in round one, floored not only Apollo Creed but also Academy Awards voters. I was 10 years old when my parents dropped off me and a pal at a grim New York theatre during Rocky's premiere engagement in 1976, but the memory lingers like an ill-stanched nick above a boxer's bony orbit. Kids love Rocky, and why not? The perpetual underdog who never says die, he's the playground equalizer gone grownup, your buddy, your pal, your bodyguard. That first Rocky was, and remains, sheer Palookaville genius. Rockys II-V, were very much less so, by degrees and occasional magnitude. Which brings us to Rocky Balboa, the final chapter in the saga: It's terrific. Maybe not great, like that first kiss of fist in ’76, but good, solid, exhilarating entertainment of the stand-up-and-cheer variety. "I'm fallin' apart," the now-59-year-old Rocky confides to Paulie (Young, the ecstatically grizzled series stalwart). "So's the whole world, Rocco." But, yo, it's worse for Balboa, who in the interim has lost his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire, seen in flashback) to the "women's cancer;" his son (Ventimiglia, replacing Stallone's real-life offspring Sage) to the corporate world; and, most importantly, his passion for living (what he calls "the beast inside") to the unstoppable wallop of time. Enter world heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Tarver), who, having lost the love of the crowd to the fact that he's too unbeatable, goes toe-to-toe with Rocco in a Mandalay Bay exhibition match, the doughy warhorse versus the rippling, pre-stud stallion. Stallone infuses Balboa with a sense of soulful urgency not fully evinced in the character in ages, and for this reason – despite some clunky melodramatics and questionable, MTV-esque editing barrages – the film swings, stings, and sings. Like the character of Rocky, it's got heart to spare and is by turns one of the sweetest of the sweet-science pictures, as well as one of the most doleful. Fighters fight, it's what they do. And Balboa, God bless him, fights on.