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If you’re hoping to create an indelible portrait of a sports underdog, it’s probably a bad idea to release your movie the same week as the latest Rocky opus. Sixteen years after the franchise petered out, writer–director–punching bag Sylvester Stallone has resuscitated the marble-mouthed Philly boxer, he says, as penance for the not-even-ironically enjoyable Rocky V. With both Stallone’s box-office pull and his Italian Stallion character on their last legs, it’s not surprising that the Roman numeral–less Rocky Balboa consciously apes the spare look and feel of the original Rocky (1976). Stallone, it seems, has tried to make Rocky Begins—a movie that desperately wants to win back cred by tearing down the wretched excess of the series’ latter days.
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Rocky Balboa trades on the assumption that the audience has grown old with Rocky. For fans of the first film, it’s touching to see the beaten-looking fighter sit beside Adrian’s grave and loiter in front of the pet shop where they met. The 50-something Rocky never sees his son (Milo Ventimiglia), a white-collar number cruncher who resents the shadow that his famous pop has cast over his life. The has-been spends nights at his restaurant (Adrian’s, of course), regaling customers with tales of his glory days. The buildings are crumbling in the old neighborhood, and Rocky looks paunchy and worn down himself. “The whole world’s falling apart. Look at us,” says his best pal Paulie (Burt Young), who’s started to resemble Yoda after a four-day bender.
While Stallone the auteur isn’t at all subtle in using the boxer’s advancing years to gin up poignancy, his acting has a lighter touch. Perhaps Stallone is a master thespian. Perhaps his persona has simply become indistinguishable from Rocky Balboa’s. But either way, there are dozens of small details—his hunched gait, a well-worn anecdote he dishes out at the restaurant, a throwaway comment to neighborhood girl Marie (Geraldine Hughes) that carrying stuff in his pockets makes him “feel like a kangaroo”—that give Rocky the bearing of a real guy.
For all the film’s pounding on the emotional heavy bag, the Rocky formula requires that the standing-around-looking-sad phase give way to the desperately-wanting-to-kick-someone’s-ass phase. On account of there not being one, Rocky Balboa doesn’t trouble itself with conjuring a logical reason for the over-the-hill champ to resume his one-armed push-up regimen—the best Rocky comes up with is that there’s a “beast inside me” and, strangely, that “there’s still some stuff in the basement.” (I’m 98 percent sure he’s talking about a metaphorical basement here.)