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Movie Review: ROCKY BALBOA

As I settled into my theatre seat to watch "Rocky Balboa", the sixth and final installment in an initially cherished and later maligned franchise, my hopes were high and I was ready to cheer. Hyped by positive pre-release buzz, it seemed that Sylvester Stallone had finally recovered the magic that made him a star exactly thirty years ago. The original film, directed by John Avildsen (The Karate Kid), was sweet, tender, humble and authentic in tone – all qualities that each subsequent sequel lacked more and more. This classic film won Stallone acclaim not only as an actor, but deservedly garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, having scripted a heartfelt role that mirrored his underdog existence up until that time. Rare is the film that moves audiences honestly and continues to inspire generations of filmgoers. In a movie climate too often cluttered with cynicism and apathy, could Stallone deliver the same kind of wholesome, soul-lifting experience thirty years later?

Sadly, no.

The writing is clunky, the editing is awkward and many of the performances are negligible. Within the first ten minutes, my enthusiasm began to deflate and I was ready to throw in the towel. The theatre audience I sat among, who initially seemed as eager as I was for a rousing piece of entertainment, soon fell silent and could only muster meagerly forced reactions during the picture's disappointing "power" moments.

Curiously, many reputable critics and anxious moviegoers across the country are categorizing "Rocky Balboa" as a sure fire knockout. The only moments that inspire any emotional response, though, succeed only by virtue of nostalgia. Approached as a return to the spirit of the original installment, "Rocky Balboa" leaves us with only a greater appreciation of the 1976 film and an overwhelming desire to revisit it.

That 1976 film featured Stallone as an unassuming, ditch-poor lug from Philadelphia who found the courage to pursue his life's dreams in the ring and out. In the new installment, Rocky's professional accomplishments of old have been made all the more bittersweet by the loss of his wife Adrian, who was played so wonderfully by Talia Shire in the previous films. He is now a broken man; coasting on his illustrious fighting past, but missing the personal cheerleader who spurred him to victory. He becomes inspired to give himself one last fighting chance after witnessing a virtual reality match between he and the current heavyweight champion of the world.

The script is very much a paint-by-numbers affair. We never get a true handle on what it is that draws Rocky back into the ring. The motives are all paid lip service -- never losing the will to test yourself, validating the contributions of the older generation -- but they're not dramatized effectively enough to feel them. Rocky and his oppponent, an arrogant young hotshot who lacks the respect of the public, are both skeptical about the proposition of an exhibition fight. We can imagine why they would ultimately agree to the event, but after exerting ample effort in establishing their initial doubts, the moment when they both decide to participate in the fight is oddly absent. Rocky meets a woman in a bar, a face he first encountered many years earlier, and begins a friendly, platonic relationship with her. The script makes it clear that the relationship will never move beyond this realm (and it shouldn't indicate otherwise, given how significant Rocky's integrity was established by his relationship to Adrian), but that begs the question: what purpose does she serve in the narrative? Rocky has a strained relationship with his son, who feels his progress is impeeded by his father's fame. This plot element at least bears some exploration, but moves from point A to point B without any real sense of development. A dilemna is established in scene one, an intervention is carried out in scene two and the warm-hearted outcome is on display in scene three (scenes two and three of this plot point are awkwardly placed back to back). The arc of their relationship is all very by the book, undeserved and impersonal. In passages like this one, Stallone proves that he is an effective writer, just not a very expressive one. Good writers certainly utilize the same strctural forms in their work, but posses the savvy to make the execution feel more fluid and less routine.

To Stallone's credit, he does pepper the script with some smart touches. Rocky is now a restaurantuer and is relagated to stopping by tables entertaining his fans with the same old tired stories from his youth. This device is responsible for several mildly amusing moments, but even so, they seem to be directly lifted from the far superior "Raging Bull". I also appreciated that Rocky's opponent Mason Dixon, played by real-life champ Antonio Tarver, was given some semblance of depth; he's not a cut and dry villianous character like some of those featured in the previous sequels. But again, the possibilities are raised, but not explored.

Stallone's direction is equally inept. The performances, all of which may have glimmered with some level of effectiveness, fail to register under the strain of wobbly staging and poor editing. Across the board, every performance seems genuine one moment and false the next. The close-ups, in particular, often don't match the emotional continuity of the other shots. It seems as though Stallone placed the camera on his actors for the close-ups and gave them absolutely nothing to work off of. The interaction in the two shots are effective enough, but in close-ups their emotional level seems to be set one notch too high or too low. The abrupt editing truncates their effect even more. There is some atrociously obvious looping work, especially noticeable in the early part of the film. The picture produces some potentially moving moments as Rocky revisits his past on the anniversary of his wife's death (again, the only effective moments of the film rely on nostalgia for the original), but the stylistic choices sabotage them. The screen morphs to blue tones and an unfortunate overlay image of Adrian's floating head appears over these sections. Suddenly, these passages decline from the emotional to just plain odd.

The same can be said of the final ring battle. All of the picture's faults can be largely forgiven if the climactic event delivers, but sadly it does not here. This sequence is another strange anomoly -- the proceedings are presented more naturalistically as though they were captured on HBO or ESPN. On the other hand, there are intrusive stylistic flourishes that distract you from the action -- Oliver Stone-inspired subliminal flash cutting and black and white/color mix montages. We want our "Rocky" bouts to be straight-forward, but cinematically exciting. We don't want to see them as we would on our televisions at home. It should be of no surprise, given the evidence throughout the rest of the picture, that this fight never seems to develop. You feel short-changed afterwards, like you've been fed a morsel instead of a meal.

I have no doubts that Stallone's heart was in the right place when he decided to pursue this latest venture into "Rocky"-land. The first film worked for many reasons, but chief among them was the fact that Stallone was an underdog when he wrote the screenplay -- you could feel the man merging with the world of the film as you were watching it. This go around, Stallone rightly plays the character as an extension of his current self -- a has-been looking for another shot at glory. This isn't necessarily a put-down on Stallone's estimable gifts -- he refers to himself as a has-been. I always found him to be a charming talent who lacked good professional judgment.

I wanted so badly to enjoy this film and have my faith restored that Stallone could make his personal journey a palpable cinematic experience once again; I'm a sucker for the all-American cheese of an underdog tale. And I do enjoy "chapters" 2 through 4 of the "Rocky" series. These sequels no longer benefited from the honesty of the original, but they were madly entertaining on their own pulpy trash terms. Ideally, though, this series should have gone down for the count when it first peaked thirty years ago. C-

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