'Rocky Balboa' The comeback kid

A few thoughts inspired by a recent screening of “Rocky Balboa”…

» Sixteen years after Sylvester Stallone left his prolific franchise bleeding on the mat with the lackluster “Rocky V,” the brand name endures. It’s easy to smirk at “Rocky Balboa,” yet another retelling of the underdog story whose endearingly simple hero spouts hoary clichés and trite motivational speeches before returning to the ring. But Rocky’s salt-of-the-earth charm is real, and the grand finale doesn’t disappoint.

» Give credit to Stallone, who faced a daunting challenge in trying to make the Rocky saga relevant again. If he’d tried something new — as he did in “Rocky V,” which ended without the adrenaline rush of a big-ticket bout — he would have been criticized for tinkering with a winning formula. If he’d stuck with the plot that produced four carbon-copy blockbusters, he would have been accused of spinning his wheels. Instead, “Rocky Balboa” is a pleasant mix of old and new, complete with an updated training montage that nostalgically mirrors the 1976 original.

» Former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver isn’t a bad actor, but he still ranks as the Italian Stallion’s least intimidating foe. The “Rocky” movies have always been populated with larger-than-life villains, but Tarver, as Mason “The Line” Dixon, is positively cordial in his dealings with the big lug. Where have you gone, Clubber Lang?

» What’s with the names? Rocky never fights guys with names like Joe Frazier or — speaking of larger-than-life villains — Mike Tyson, who appears in an amusing cameo. He battles Greek gods (Apollo) or, in this case, Dixon, whose name refers to the geographical line that separated the slave states from the free. Perhaps in “Rocky Balboa II,” he’ll fight Hephaestus. Or Alsace Lorraine.

» As Paulie, Rocky’s unapologetically self-centered brother-in-law, Burt Young is boisterous as ever, a far cry from the terminally ill gangster he played a bit too convincingly on “The Sopranos.” Here, his gruff outbursts (“Ice is stupid!”) provide a nice comic offset to Stallone’s unwavering earnestness.

» Stallone, now 60, has something in common with Rocky — he’s an awkwardly bulked-up dinosaur, fighting to prove that the game hasn’t passed him by. On that level, he succeeds. “Rocky Balboa” isn’t a great movie, but it marks a rousing return for an icon long considered down for the count.

Credits

Rocky Balboa ***

Starring Sylvester Stallone, Burt Young, Antonio Tarver, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia

Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone

Rated PG

Running time 1 hour, 59 minutes

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