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'Rocky Balboa' Wins This Round

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Who asked for this? Another "Rocky" sequel in which we learn, once again, that the Italian Stallion has too much heart to ever give up?

But in "Rocky Balboa," the sixth and latest installment, there's Sylvester Stallone again, sucking down raw eggs and pounding sides of beef to train for another prime-time bout. His opponent this time: heavyweight champ and insufferable braggart Mason "The Line" Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver), who's got something to prove. Sportswriters call him a chump who never really fought a tough contender. No one like that old warhorse, Rocky Balboa.

Old is right.

Stallone, creator and perennial star of what has become a 30-year franchise, is 60. He ought to be reaching for his AARP card, not his boxing gloves. As much as most of us loved 1976's "Rocky," which took three Oscars, including Best Picture, just as many groaned through the sequels that followed. Remember 1985's "Rocky IV" with the already aging Rocky up against a steroidal Soviet named Ivan? Or "Rocky V," the 1990 film in which Rocky was so punch-drunk he mistook his wife, Adrian, for his former boxing coach? As a pop-culture hero, Rocky was down and out -- or so it seemed.

And yet . . . and yet . . . this critic found himself sitting there in the darkened theater rooting for this movie to work. Just one last time. The odds seemed impossible -- just like Rocky's. There were reports of moviegoers hooting at previews. And sitting in the middle of fellow movie critics, the bloodlust felt palpable. One false move on the screen -- a moment of insufferable vanity, a misfired attempt at poignancy -- would be enough to knock this flick to the canvas. Watching "Rocky Balboa" suddenly felt like a tussle between old-time sentimentality and postmodern derision.

The verdict?

There were titters, yes. But to this viewer, sentimentality won by a knockout. "Rocky Balboa" comes out swinging as soon as the "Rocky" theme blares from the speakers -- that portentous anthem that has most of us picturing Philadelphia's First Citizen at the top of the steps of the Museum of Art, arms aloft.

But "Rocky Balboa," which brings back Burt Young (the irascible brother-in-law Paulie, who's a few knuckle hairs shy of Cro-Magnon when he drinks) but not Talia Shire (Adrian is dearly departed, alas), doesn't rest lazily on its own nostalgia. Written and directed by Stallone, it smartly reprises the atmosphere of Hollywood's yesteryear, when pug-ugly heroes played by Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum and Ernest Borgnine won audiences over with their burly souls. They had big chests, square mugs and they talked common sense -- when they talked at all. They were sportswriters, wrestlers, gangsters and boxers. When they walked, change jingled in their pockets. They saw things simply. They were working class -- or they came out of it. They were crude princes of the docks, the slums, the street and the screen.

And that's Rocky, with his slurry voice, his porkpie hat and two pet turtles called Cuff and Link. That's the guy who keeps an old chair nestled in the crook of a tree above Adrian's grave so he can sit with her for hours. He's the one who nurses the hurt of a grown son (Milo Ventimiglia), who's embarrassed by his sad-sack, over-the-hill father. He's the one who's reduced to sharing war stories with customers in the South Philly restaurant he owns. But he's no paragon of palooka virtue, either. When some punks taunt him, for instance, Rocky walks over to those disrespectful hecklers and takes care of conflict resolution the old way.

A guy like this needs to fight. Then comes the opportunity to prove his mettle: an ESPN computer-simulated match that suggests the old-timer might give Mason a run for his money. Cue the crowds, the trash-talking, the early-morning workouts and that glorious walk to the ring. In Vegas. Ten rounds. Mano a mano. But it feels like the first fight all over again. And suddenly a silly little movie built entirely on classic hokum seems to matter. Not just because it's one last roundhouse punch at the world of digital zeros and ones. Not just because it's another underdog story. It matters because this boxer taps into something deeper in our collective souls than the desire for entertainment. It's the hope that one day we're going to win big, too, after everyone's given up on us. It's as hokey as it's true.

Rocky Balboa (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for boxing violence and minor profanity.

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