- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Comeback stories don’t get more improbable than “Rocky Balboa.”

And we’re not referring to the film’s story, which pits a fiftysomething boxer against the current heavyweight champ.

We mean the notion that Sylvester Stallone could invest this Hail Mary sequel with the same soul that launched the franchise — and his career.

This is the same Mr. Stallone who wrote and starred in 2001’s malodorous “Driven,” mind you.

In “Rocky Balboa,” our hero has lost Adrian (Talia Shire), the emotional crutch of the series, to “woman’s cancer.”

Rocky runs an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia named after his late wife, regaling diners with shopworn stories of fights gone by. He’s neither poor nor rich, but his life appears empty. Even his son (Milo Ventimiglia) keeps his distance, for reasons which become more clear as the movie develops.

Our inner cynic envisions Adrian’s death as a means to introduce a newer, younger love interest. Instead, Mr. Stallone gives us Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a local bartender who looks like she could have been plucked from any South Philly dive. She’s divorced with one son and could stand a shot of confidence — precisely the kind of woman an aging boxer like Rocky might meet.

Their courtship is slow and wonderfully understated, but we don’t pay good money to see Rocky in love. ESPN drags him back into the limelight when it instigates a computer dream match between the Italian Stallion and the current champ, Mason Dixon (real-life fighter Antonio Tarver). It’s just like the Marciano-Ali simulated match years ago, and the results rekindle interest in boxing.

In the film, as in real life, the sport is suffering for want of great fighters or sizzling rivalries. That gives Mason’s managers an idea. Why not stage a live exhibition match between their boy and Rocky to piggyback on the computerized buzz? Sure, it’ll be a circus, and Rocky won’t stand a chance. But there’s no one left for Mason to knock out, and it’s a quick and easy payday for everyone involved.

You have to swallow hard to think a fighter in his 50s could last very long against a fresh champ, but the film explains it partly away by emphasizing Rocky’s brute strength. A puncher always has a chance. Just ask Michael Moorer, who lost his crown in 1994 to the fortysomething George Foreman.

Mr. Stallone’s acting talents will never be confused with those of the late Sir Laurence Olivier, but he is never more natural than when he’s inhabiting Rocky’s skin. The character never stops boxing. Even standing still, his arms are in motion, his fingers clenched as if ready to throw a punch. It’s an appealing tic and one reason why we’re roped in to what should be a desperate sequel.

The obligatory training scenes could have been choreographed by that ESPN computer, but “Rocky Balboa” offers enough minor notes to make the formula forgivable. Paulie (Burt Young, as disheveled as ever) has softened a bit, but Mr. Stallone allows him to be casually racist without explanation or forgiveness. And when Paulie enters the ring by Rocky’s side for the final match, he’s wearing a blatant Web ad on his cap — as sure a sign as any that Mr. Stallone knows just how far the real sport of boxing has tumbled.

The fight brings out the best in Mr. Stallone as the arbiter of pure, kinetic entertainment — even if we’ve seen every “Rocky” film before it. And God bless him for being in such spectacular shape at an age when most of his peers are carrying around a full set of spare tires.

The original “Rocky” became cultural code for the American comeback story.

Mr. Stallone’s “Rocky Balboa” fulfills that legacy better than anyone could have expected.

TITLE: “Rocky Balboa”

RATING: PG (Intense boxing sequences, some mild profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone.

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

WEB SITE: www.rocky.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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