Sylvester Stallone in Rocky BalboaROCKY BALBOA

With few exceptions, the reviews for Rocky Balboa have been pretty charitable. No one is proclaiming it a masterpiece, but the consensus seems to be that Sylvester Stallone could have missed by a mile with his latest, presumably last installment and didn't; the film was almost predestined to receive a critical flaying, yet there's barely a whiff of mean-spiritedness in the reviews. "Rocky Balboa isn't great," seems to be the prevailing opinion, "but it's sweet, and kind of touching, and it's by no means an embarrassment."

Assuming I'm not completely off-base in my assessment of these critical tones, I now feel compelled to ask: Exactly what would Stallone have had to do to make Rocky Balboa a bigger embarrassment? Forget his lines? Trip over the furniture? End the film by beaming Rocky aboard the Starship Enterprise? Make no mistake: Rocky Balboa is a humiliating experience, as grand an exercise in masturbatory excess as M. Night Shymalan's Lady in the Water, and as depressing an ego-trip for the writer/director/icon as could be imagined.

For the record, my problems with the film don't stem from its ludicrous premise, which sees the Italian Stallion - now nearing 60 - preparing for an exhibition bout with the reigning heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon. (The cartoon name alone ensures his hatefulness.) Logic, though, has never counted for much in the Rocky films - remember the Russian crowd cheering the palooka on in Rocky IV? - and this sixth endeavor duly honors that legacy. (One lingering Rocky Balboa question among many: Why is Rocky, who is now a successful restaurant entrepreneur, still living in a hovel?)

And I'm not much bothered by Stallone's steadfast refusal to deviate from his traditional Rocky formula, even though these pro forma scenes were already exhausting two decades ago. We're at a Rocky movie - of course there'll be a Bill Conti-fueled training montage (or several), and Rocky will gain inspiration through the kind words of a good woman, and that irascible bigot Paulie (Burt Young) will show up and make some hateful remark we're meant to find charming. It's ridiculous to even get annoyed by these tropes. Asking for changes would be like asking Bond to give up his martini.

Yet what's unconscionable here is that Stallone appears to think his audience is as slow-witted as his leading character. The Rocky series (since II, at any rate) has always been shameless, but Rocky Balboa finds its auteur wanting so badly to resuscitate his legend - both Rocky's and his own - that he seems completely blind to the film's incoherent presentation and offensive manipulation, and thinks we must be, too.

For instance, didn't he notice that the character of Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is fashioned so that he makes no sense at all? This fighter is first introduced as modern celebrity incarnate, at the mercy of show-biz handlers and sycophants, and we're meant to find his blasé egocentrism hiss-able. But then Stallone appears to have a change of heart, having Dixon storm out of his gleaming-white training facility to return to the dilapidated gym of his youth, and the trainer who always believed in him. How novel, we think. A Rocky flick with an empathetic bad guy. Yet then Stallone flip-flops again; in Dixon's next scene some 30 minutes later, he's an even bigger prick and, we are told, in lesser physical condition, as if a half-dozen crucial scenes were left in the editing room. Wha' hoppen?

Then there's the character of Marie, the streetwise teen of the early Rocky films who serves as Balboa's (platonic) Adrian figure. Geraldine Hughes, the actress who plays her, has a touching, beaten-up quality, but Stallone has her serving so many symbolic purposes that she quickly becomes ridiculous. (She's even given a mixed-race son, ostensibly to preempt any negative response to Rocky's having an African-American adversary.) And while the director goes out of his way to insist there be no romantic attraction between Rocky and Marie, as a new love interest would tarnish the character's faultless nobility, he sends the audience wildly mixed signals; why are their heart-to-hearts accompanied by the same Bill Conti strains that accompanied Rocky's and Adrian's romantic encounters?

In short, he isn't concerned with any character but Rocky, and it's assaulting to have the character's "charms" shoved down our throats as egregiously as Stallone does here. The director never stops prodding us with how saintly and almost super-humanly decent he is, and we're beaten over the heads with his - and, presumably, Stallone's - fear of obsolescence and regret for the past. (There are a lot of pithy observations such as "Time goes by too quickly.") Yet from the evidence in Rocky Balboa, those fears are completely ungrounded. Characters are constantly greeting the former pugilist with a heartfelt "God bless ya, Rock," and from the moment he enters the ring the crowd is unquestionably on Rocky's side; one of the young ringside announcers can barely contain his glee at seeing his youthful hero in action. If Stallone sees his character as a victim, he's the only one who does.

And this leads to what most rankles me about the movie, in that it doesn't address the one question that, theoretically, has brought us all to the theatre in the first place: How is Stallone gonna pull this concept off? We expect - and with reason - the movie to at least make a perfunctory attempt to rationalize the sight of an aged Rocky/Stallone in the ring against the heavyweight champion. But Stallone, with willful determination, goes out of his way to ignore the movie's hook. When he applies to have his boxing license reinstated, Rocky is told that he passed the medical exam "with flying colors," but as far as the actual training is concerned, Stallone evades the issue. He gives us the expected shots of Rocky punching slabs of meat, and drinking egg yolks, and running up those Philadelphia steps with his dog, but such clichés seem infuriatingly negligent on the part of the filmmaker, who is trying to have it both ways here. Stallone wants us to weep for poor, aging Rocky, all but forgotten by history (and movie audiences), and then turns around and says, "What are you weeping for? I'm in great shape!" His manipulation is infuriating; Stallone brings up very real issues only to abjectly disregard them.

There's a scene in the film in which Paulie asks his brother-in-law if his insistence on returning for One Last Fight has to do with the removal of his statue from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rocky insists that it doesn't, but I'm not convinced, as the whole movie is about Stallone building a himself a new statue. The mind boggles at what this almost insanely self-obsessed filmmaker will do for his forthcoming Rambo overhaul, but I have a feeling that the critics who are ignoring Rocky Balboa's obscene self-aggrandizement will sing a different tune if a machine-gun-toting bronze figure soon graces the town square in Hanoi.

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