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Still Standing
Richard Hoffer
December 18, 2006
He's thicker and slower in Rocky Balboa, but Stallone's punchy hero recaptures his youthful appeal in Round 6
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December 18, 2006

Still Standing

He's thicker and slower in Rocky Balboa, but Stallone's punchy hero recaptures his youthful appeal in Round 6

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The mortality rate in the Rocky franchise is quite high--Adrian, Mick, Apollo, all gone--and yet Rocky himself, the pug who's actually taken this 30-year boatload of punishment, remains mysteriously vital. Here we find him, five sequels later, wandering the same South Philly streets (same porkpie hat!) making exactly the same sense he did in the 1976 original.

This is not always a lot of sense, of course. When a young man is introduced to him as Jamaican, Rocky nods knowingly: "From Europe, huh?" But for Rocky Balboa this familiar obtuseness amounts to the baseline measurement for neurological fitness. He's good to go! In fact, Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment in Sylvester Stallone's ongoing paean to the brain-battered underdog, is nothing if not a return to the series' roots, when he was innocent and vulnerable--appealing even. (Sometime, in other words, before he was battling Drago in the Soviet Union.)

Whether this represents a failure of imagination or just budget, the development is welcome. Now haunted by loss (he spends as much time in a cemetery as in his restaurant) and irrelevance (patrons there finish his stories for him), he strikes a chord for that American man of a certain age, cast aside before his time. To watch Rocky stumble through his reduced life, accepting the insult of insignificance, is to wince more genuinely than at any of his bloodbaths. Cut us, Mick!

But the series being what it is, Rocky is soon obliged to step from his character study and between the ropes. (What studio would have been willing to sign off on another sequel unless there was going to be a training montage, a little Gonna Fly Now and a couple of raw eggs down the hatch?) The script strains to make sense of this. There is the idea that Rocky somehow needs to move forward in his life and that ... aw, who are we kidding? In a Rocky movie he fights a bully and somehow acquits himself, and that's the way it is.

The fact that Stallone is 60 years old (his tended physique suggests Rocky is supposed to be about a decade younger) does not help us suspend much disbelief, especially in that Balboa has been lined up for 10 rounds (10!) of exhibition boxing with the heavyweight champion of the world in his first fight out of the chute. No amount of explanation (and there is a lot) quite makes adequate sense of this. Still, what would a Rocky movie be without an opportunity for our good-hearted lug to demonstrate heart on HBO? It's like raw eggs; you just have to swallow it.

Oddly, the most moving part of the movie comes not during the fight but the credits, when Stallone the director unspools a newsreel of folks--women, children, old-timers--running up the museum steps and striking one of film's most iconic poses. There is, finally, even a shot from the very first film, all those sequels ago, Rocky dancing in the twilight, arms up, turning slowly to face us, that now familiar fanfare giving us goose bumps, resist all we might. He was so young. Probably we all were.

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