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'Rocky Balboa' goes the distance

‘Rocky Balboa’

Rated: PG (Boxing violence, language)

Running length: 1 hr. 42 min.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Tarver, Burt Young, Geraldine Hughes, Milo Ventimiglia.

Writer/director: Sylvester Stallone

Rating: PPP (out of 4)

Everybody loves an underdog. We loved the underdog fighter Rocky Balboa in 1976, and we loved the underdog Sylvester Stallone who wrote the screenplay and refused to let the movie be produced unless he could star in it. Produced on a shoestring budget, “Rocky” was huge, winning three Oscars including Best Picture. It was the auspicious beginning of Stallone’s action film career — recently in eclipse.

When word got out that Stallone (now 60) was writing and starring in yet another Rocky — the sixth and final installment — people placed pretty long odds on the movie being a success, especially in light of the much-reviled “Rocky V,” which strayed from the fairy tale formula.

Unlike “Rocky V,” “Rocky Balboa” does not disappoint.

As the movie opens, Rocky is still mourning the loss of his beloved Adrian to cancer. He visits her grave often — we know because he’s brought a folding chair to the cemetery that he stashes in the fork of a tree. Every year he takes brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) on an Adrian nostalgia tour — to the tropical fish store where she worked, to the ice skating rink where they skated.

At night, he holds court at his Italian restaurant, regaling customers with Ring Cycle tales of past fights.

His young urban professional son, Robert, feels diminished by his famous dad and is struggling to escape Rocky’s shadow.

One storyline involves Rocky’s friendship with “little Marie” (Geraldine Hughes) from his old Philly neighborhood — a troubled teen who appears in the first Rocky film. Rocky gives her a job and some hope and befriends her teenage son Steps.

In one funny scene, Rocky takes Steps with him to pick out a dog from the shelter. Rocky picks a scraggly old mutt, who won’t even get up to wag his tail.

“He’s conserving energy,” says Rocky, who can relate.

Unfortunately, the dog storyline is for the most part undeveloped, as is the friendship with Steps.

ESPN airs a simulated fight between Rocky in his prime and current heavyweight champ Mason Dixon (played by retired light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver), who’s fought a series of bums to retain his title. Dixon’s a cocky young fighter ripe to learn a few things from an aging brawler.

Seeing the virtual fight fires Rocky up. He tells Paulie he still has “some stuff in the basement” and wants to start fighting again, on a small scale.

When Dixon’s team gets wind of Rocky’s desire to return to the ring, they smell a big payday and get Rocky to agree to an “exhibition” bout in Las Vegas.

When Robert begs his father not to embarrass him, Rocky lays some fatherly and fighterly wisdom on his son: “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place an’ no matter how tough you think you are, it’ll always beat you to your knees and keep you there, permanently, if you let it. You or nobody ain’t never gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward.”

The training montage features many echoes from the original Rocky, including the stirring Bill Conti music, the raw egg cocktails, and the now iconic run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art — this time with his aging dog Punchy in his arms. The gray sweats are also back, and I found myself wishing that Stallone had left a little gray in his hair as well, since Rocky doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’d dye his hair.

When he strips off his shirt you’ll have to admit that Stallone looks damn good for his age, or for any age.

I wasn’t crazy about the way the fight was shot — it looks too much like a mishmash of Nike and Gatorade commercials for my taste — but it doesn’t really matter.

The film’s real beauty is not in the fight scene but in the moments along the way: Rocky taking a light bulb from his pocket to replace a burned-out one outside of Marie’s apartment; a drunk Paulie creating a scene at the restaurant after he’s let go from his job at the meat-packing plant; Rocky hilariously entering the ring to Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” (Paulie’s choice) which is juxtaposed with Dixon’s scary entrance to “It’s a Fight” by Three 6 Mafia.

While the series faltered along along the way, “Rocky Balboa” is a sweet and fitting coda that proves Rocky and Stallone can go the distance.

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Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-707-4270 or kscarvey@salisburypost.com.

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