Thursday, April 05, 2007

Let's start building some hurtin' bombs.

Rocky Balboa is unprecedented, a Sylvester Stallone-directed film that's actually pretty good. Stallone, who also reprises his most popular character here, could have easily thrown together a by-the-numbers retread and made a few bucks off the nostalgia craze - easier still, he could have just sold the remake rights. Instead, he's made a surprisingly low-key and personal character study that honors the qualities that made the first Rocky such a rousing moviegoing experience. The result is far from perfect, but it is likeable, entertaining and oddly moving.

Sixteen years after the execrable Rocky V, the film finds the Italian Stallion living a modest but comfortable life, spending his nights entertaining guests at his restaurant with stories of his famous fights against Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang (no mention of having defeated Communism). The biggest change in Rocky's life is the loss of his beloved wife Adrian, who died of "lady cancer" (as Rocky puts it) several years earlier. The opening scenes follow Rocky on the anniversary of her death as he visits spots (such as the lot where an ice rink once stood) that remind him of Adrian, her brother Paulie (Burt Young) reluctantly tagging along. These scenes set a surprisingly melancholic tone for the film, which eschews the overblown theatrics (and talking robots) of previous sequels in favor of a muted color palette and a quiet, observational style. And while earlier entries in the franchise have taken a by-the-numbers approach, Rocky Balboa has a structure that hearkens back to the first film, following the characters as not much happens - Rocky befriends a younger woman and her son, Rocky gets a dog, Paulie is still a prick - and allowing the interchanges between the characters to propel the story. The main villain in the film isn't any fighter but Rocky's own advancing age; while this isn't the most original of premises, Stallone invests it with a level of insight and wit that reminds us of how the star of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was once a promising voice for our populist myths.

Stallone also takes the piss out of any jokes at the near-60 fighter, not to mention his own checkered filmography - imagine what it must be like to live with the fact that you starred in Tango and Cash, and you'll get an idea of the pathos behind Rocky's indirect admission that, yes, you can call him Punchy. When Rocky agrees to fight heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Vodka Drunkenski was unavailable), his goal isn't to knock out the younger fighter but to leave the ring with his dignity intact (and to teach the young whippersnapper a thing or two). There's something charming about Stallone's modesty, making a movie that not only appeals to serious fans but demonstrates that he's trying new things as a filmmaker. This is nowhere more evident than during the fight, which is filled with sudden cuts to moments from Rocky's (and our) memories. It's not entirely successful - a purple-tinted closeup of Burgess Meredith is sort of terrifying - but it does reveal Stallone as an auteur in his own way, preoccupied with the persistence of memory.

Rocky Balboa has a lot of problems - the scenes between Rocky and his son don't work, the narrative is weirdly compressed (probably due to the small budget), and there's far too much A.J. Benza. But watching Rocky, calcified joints and all, training with Paulie and Duke (the eternally awesome Tony Burton) to Bill Conti's classic theme, it's impossible not to smile, not just out of nostalgia but geniune fondness. This is Stallone's The Straight Story, and whether this is a good or bad thing is for you to decide. All I know is, I'm now illogically excited to see John Rambo.

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