ROCKY BALBOA, the sixth installment of the long-running film franchise, should amount to nothing more than a lame punch line to a TONIGHT SHOW monologue joke. However, just as his longtime corner man Paulie describes the Italian Stallion himself, this movie is all heart. Thirty years after Sylvester Stallone first introduced the underdog backroom brawler from Philadelphia in the Oscar-winning ROCKY, Rocky Balboa returns for one last dance. Speculation as to whether Balboa, in his prime, would have been able to defeat lackluster champ Mason "The Line" Dixon spurs Dixon's management to set up an exhibition fight between the two. That Balboa is in his 50s in the film and wouldn't be sanctioned to fight anyone, let alone a man 30 years his junior and in the prime of life, must be left up to the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief. To its credit, however, the movie addresses at every turn the insanity of a man approaching 60 getting back into a boxing ring, and Balboa's impassioned explanation of his motivations is just believable enough to give all other improbabilities a free pass.
Though it may sound like faint praise, this is the best ROCKY movie since the original. It's very much a love letter to Philadelphia, and Stallone, who wrote and directed the movie, shoots everything with an unflinching eye that humanizes the mean streets of the City of Brotherly Love and evokes the gritty dignity of the original film. And while Burt Young's cantankerous Paulie and Tony Burton's Duke both return, Talia Shire, sadly, does not reprise her role as the beloved Adrian. It's revealed early in the film that Adrian has died of cancer, and it's the pain of that tragedy that ultimately fuels Rocky. Boxing as a metaphor for life is certainly nothing new, but Stallone makes a legitimate contribution to the tradition with ROCKY BALBOA. Life hits harder than any man can, and one's ability to keep getting up until the final bell rings is the true measure of self. Corny? Perhaps. But when Bill Conti's legendary score kicks in and Rocky starts pounding the heavy bag, the metaphor feels truly profound.