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The Philodoxer
Thoughts on writing and publishing, and the various sources of entertainment...
A weekly column by Abel G. Peña, best known for his Star Wars work.

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THE PHILODOXER for 12/31/2006
Rocky VI: Is It Good?

That's debatable.

Here's what isn't: Rocky Balboa is good surgery.

Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the series, is for the long-time fans. The movie expertly stitches the gaping wound introduced by Rocky V, the self-parody originally culminating this boxing fable.

Rocky Balboa

In a perfect world, everyone knows that the Rocky series should've ended at Rocky IV. But if there had to be an epilogue, Rocky Balboa is the proper bookend and everything Rocky V should've been. The movie operates with a maturity and awareness filled with nods, echoes, and ironies culled from a celluloid history that is like a literal lifetime. Duke Evans (Apollo and Rocky's trainer), Spider Rico (Rocky's opponent in the opening sequence of the first movie), and a mature Little Mary are all here, with even references to "Home Team" and "Rocky Jr."

That actually brings me to one of the film's highlights: Rocky's son, Robert Balboa. For long-time Rocky fans, this can only come as a surprise, for nothing in the Rocky series is more likely to produce a collective cringe than the thought of this character. Played by Sage Stallone (Sly's own son) in Rocky V, his atrocious acting and pivotal role combine to torpedo that movie.

But in Rocky Balboa, Sly has done something remarkable. In a move that has rarely worked, he surprisingly redeems this third-tier putz of a character. From the beginning of the movie, Stallone's treatment is rightfully unsentimental: Robert has turned out a skinny corporate-yuppie pushover, embarrassed and resentful of his own father. In an admirable acting feat, Milo Ventimiglia captures the unintentional nuances of Sage Stallone's original portrayal: we believe this is the punk-ass kid from Rocky V, every bit still a punk, just a little older, a little unwiser. And in a deftly written and acted scene, old optimism clashes with young cynicism as Rocky lovingly lays into his coward son. It is a pivotal moment for the Rocky series. The scene signals not only the redemption of Robert Balboa, but of the Rocky story as a whole.

Burt Young gets in some good licks too. While Paulie still delivers some killer politically incorrect one-liners ("Italian food made by a bunch of Mexicans doesn't sound so special to me, Rock."), at last the character breaks out of his one-dimensional role as Rocky's bumbling sidekick and receives some nice overdue depth. We are reminded of the slight evil of Paulie's original portrayal, and that this darkness has been mollified only by the goodness of Rocky--and at the cost of Paulie becoming a beaten-down wreck of a man.

Sly himself puts in a very meditated performance, informed by a lifetime of writing, playing, and directing this character. More than almost any other movie series, Rocky has been the fictional reflection of a real life. With Rocky Balboa, Rocky truly does come full circle.

Alright, it's good, goddammit.

For a fuller meditation on the Rocky series, check out this retrospective.

Happy New Year, folks! See you in '07!

- Abel G. Peña

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