Review: 'Rocky Balboa'

Bottom line: Well, whadda ya know? It looks like you can teach an old underdog new tricks.

First 007 gets back to basics, now, 30 years after the Italian Stallion came out swinging, Sylvester Stallone has returned to Rocky's humble roots with an unplugged edition that emerges as one of this season's more pleasant surprises.

Dispensing with those bloated Roman numerals, "Rocky Balboa" -- for those keeping count, it's the sixth in the series and the first since 1990's winded "Rocky V" -- defies all expectations with a low-key, technically stripped-down production that really does come close to capturing the heart and soul of the original.

That one, with a budget of less than $1 million, played like gangbusters, punching up more than $56 million in 1976 dollars.

But is Rocky gonna fly now?

Given that Bill Conti's mighty fanfare still has a way of putting a lump in the throat, the nostalgia factor, combined with the picture's underdog status among the holiday heavy hitters, might just result in Rocky going the distance for one final round.

There's a disarming quality to Stallone's thoughtful script that has a way of stopping smirking skeptics right in their tracks, as if to say: "Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking. But at least give me a shot here."

And darned if that gently self-effacing approach doesn't melt away those preconceived notions.

With his beloved Adrian having passed away, Rocky trudges along the streets of his South Philly neighborhood like a man who's been beaten down by the ravages of time and bittersweet memories of all-too-distant glories.

He's only too happy to regale patrons at his eatery, Adrian's, with those stories, but his habit of living in the past is beginning to grate on his old buddy Paulie (Burt Young, who's been there for all six rounds), who's no longer willing to accompany Rocky on those ritual tours through his old haunts.

Fortunately the guy we all know and love snaps back into form when an installment of ESPN's "Man vs. Machine," which pits two athletes from different eras against each other in a computer-simulated competition, has current heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (real-life boxer Antonio Tarver) going up against Balboa in a hypothetical bout that gives the Italian Stallion the upper hook.

Before you can say "yo," Rocky's back in training for the real thing, cartilage and all, much to the embarrassment of his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), who's still struggling to crawl out from under his dad's formidable shadow.

Although the picture hits a few, er, rocky patches once it ultimately enters the ring -- it also overplays the dead Adrian card with one too many visits to the cemetery -- up until the rather abrupt finish, Stallone's grass-roots approach works quite effectively.

Passing on studio sets in favor of actual locations with extensive handheld camerawork (incorporating both 35mm and high-def film), Stallone reconnects with a lot of what made the character so endearing in the first place.

In addition to all the familiar faces -- Tony Burton also returns as Balboa corner man, Duke -- Irish actress Geraldine Hughes does affecting work as the grown-up Marie (played three decades ago by Jodi Letitizia), now a hard-working single mother of a grown son (James Francis Kelly III), whom Rock has taken under his wing.

Of course, Rocky wouldn't be Rocky without that signature theme, and Conti has turned it into elegiac lament for the first half of the picture before cranking it up to full throttle for that last hurrah, as well as backing amusing end-credits footage of tourists from all over re-enacting the iconic ascension of those Philadelphia Museum of Art steps.

Rocky Balboa

Credits: Director-screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone; Producers: Charles Winkler, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Kevin King, Guy Reidel; Executive producers: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff; Director of photography: Clark Mathis; Production designer: Franco Carbone; Editor: Sean Albertson; Costume designer: Gretchen Patch; Music: Bill Conti. Cast: Rocky Balboa: Sylvester Stallone; Paulie: Burt Young; Marie: Geraldine Hughes; Robert Balboa Jr.: Milo Ventimiglia; Mason "The Line" Dixon: Antonio Tarver; Steps: James Francis Kelly III; Duke: Tony Burton.
MPAA rating PG, running time 102 minutes.