Eye of the Tiger

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3SR: The return of the greatest underdog ever. Stallone proves he’s stil got plenty of heft in that swing.

Rocky Balboa (2007)

Directed by: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky 2, 3 & 4)

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Milo Ventimiglia, Antonio Tarver, Talia Shire

Action, Drama, Sport, Running Time: 1:42, Rated: M, contains medium level violence

****1/2

When a computer generated Rocky Balboa appears in a TV sports show’s ‘fantasy fight’ against the current, hugely unpopular (think Mike Tyson at his worst), Heavy Weight Champion, and wins magnificently, a soulless PR team smell big money in the form of staging an actual fight between 50-something Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and the youthful champ, Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver).  After some soul searching Balboa accepts the fight, but he has to put aside the past and the prejudices of his son (played here by up and coming star, Milo Ventimiglia), before he can step into the ring one the last time for what could be the fight of his life.

If we could pretend that the Rocky sequels never happened, and God knows most of us want to, then we’d be able to remember the original Rocky as one of the great 70’s movies, right up there alongside Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver.  After all, Rocky won the Best Film Oscar in 1976 for it’s gutsy portrayal of a down on his luck prize fighter rising to the top of his game despite all the odds.  Unfortunately our memories of this great film were sorely distorted by subsequent images of the pint sized white guy bashing out Mr.T in Rocky III, and blonde behemoth, Dolf Lundgren, having the idea that Communism is bad pounded into him in Rocky IV.

Well, Rocky Balboa is Sylvester Stallone’s apology for all of that.   A fine piece of retro film making – the story is so elegantly simple and grittily real, with just the right combination of action and down to earth emotion, that you could almost imagine it is the 70’s all over again – that will secure Stallone’s legacy as a film maker for years to come.

Hugely popular and deeply meaningful to an entire generation of macho movie goers, it is easy to forget that Rocky became an international Icon the second he first bounded, thousand pound fists flying, to the top of the Pennsylvania State Library Steps.  But Stallone wants us all to remember, and when he recreates that moment in Rocky Balboa, admittedly somewhat slower (and inexplicably with a dog) it is no less powerful, uplifting and exciting than it was the first time around.  Stallone’s Balboa tugs at every single heartstring in the most delectable ways:  from that awesome horn driven score, to playing up Balboa’s age – in one memorable scene Rocky’s trainer reels off a catalogue of Rocky’s physical damage starting with, arthritis, atrophy, nerve damage, old ageness, and leaving The Italian Stallion with one chance and one chance only survive: his sheer sledge hammer, south paw power.

Stallone also leads us down the sentimental primrose path as Rocky grieves for Adrian (Thalia Shire) who we learn has passed away, and best of all he reminds us how much we loved the original Rocky with flash backs cut directly from it and a bevy of beloved original cast members – Pauly (Burt Young) is at his tragi-comic best as Balboa’s alcoholic, out of work, heart of gold brother in law.

So by the time Rocky gets to the ring only the most cynical and cold hearted of us won’t be silently chanting ‘Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!’ along with the hysterical onscreen ringside audience.

And it’s when he gets the ring that Stallone’s real dedication to this role and this film shine through.  The fight itself is absolute boxing poetry.  There is not one second of doubt that Stallone, in prime physical condition and easily as buff as he has ever been, can take or dish out the punishment we see in the ring.  Stallone actually does have the face of a man who has spent his best years getting pounded like chuck steak at a barbecue, and it’s his face which really crumbles the last defense you might have against Rocky Balboa.  Because it’s hard not to love something that messed up; just like it’s hard not to love his slurred, salt of the earth voice, and his innocent do-right Balboa wisdom.

Rocky Balboa is the perfect film for sentimental true believers, for dreamers and of course, for Italian Americans everywhere, not to mention all those closet Stallone fans that’ve been waiting so very patiently for the big come back.  Not quite a masterpiece, but definitely 102 minutes of uplifting, nostalgic, cinema gold, that proves without a shadow of a doubt that “It ain’t over, ‘til it’s over.”


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