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‘Rocky Balboa’ not quite a knockout 

But the sixth installment is a fitting bookend to ‘Rocky’ series.

BALBOA'S BACK: And better.
  • BALBOA'S BACK: And better.

This writer is a firm believer that the biggest killer isn’t heart disease or cancer or clogged arteries — it’s regret. While physical ailments can kill your body, regret can kill your soul. As you read this, the world is full of old men and women staring out windows or into TV screens, all of them wondering what might have been had things turned out a little differently.

The subject of regret permeates Sylvester Stallone’s new film “Rocky Balboa.” Forget all the cartoonish, overblown “Rocky” sequels of the Reagan/Bush I era. This film and the original teach you everything you need to know about both Stallone and the indelible character he created almost 30 years ago. Though it does succumb to a few of the same saccharine pitfalls of Rocky II through V, “Rocky Balboa” turns out to be a moving and highly personal piece of cinema, with enough of the awkward simplicity of the original to make it a fitting bookend to the classic.

In interviews, Stallone has said that in a perfect world the 1976 film would fade out, and “Balboa” would begin with a title card reading “Thirty Years Later.” It isn’t a bad suggestion. The Rocky in “Balboa” is much more the streetwise leg breaker from Philly than the chiseled, movie-idol Adonis seen in Rocky II through V. With Adrian recently having succumbed to “the woman cancer” as Rocky puts it, “Balboa” finds the fighter in his paunchy mid-50s, running an Italian restaurant named for his lost love and reeling off tales of past glories to diners who already know them by heart.

By day, Rocky takes his old friend Paulie (Burt Young) on frequent, pathetic trolls through the old neighborhood, reliving his past happiness with Adrian. At his wife’s grave, Rocky visits often enough that he has stowed a folding chair in the branches of a nearby tree. There are signs that he is beginning to come out of his funk, however. Early in the film, he reaches out to his estranged son, Rocky Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), and soon after, a stop at the old tavern he once frequented lands him in a sort of halting romance with Little Marie (Geraldine Hughes), the now-grown-up girl who told him to “Buzz off, Creepo!” in the original film.

The film sails along beautifully like this for a good 45 minutes, building on the character sketch of a man who finds himself in twilight and discovers that he still wants more. Then, in a slightly goofy twist, ESPN uses computer-generated imagery to try and see what would have happened had an in-his-prime Rocky been pitted against the current and much-maligned world heavyweight champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (real-life ex-heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver).

With the cyber-Rocky winning by knockout, Rocky begins exploring the possibility of stepping back into the local ring. After he applies for his boxing license, however, Dixon’s money-grubbing managers smell a way to bring Dixon back to profitability and popularity: a gimmick match between Balboa and Dixon. Training, doubt and the forthcoming match bring Rocky and those in his corner to some surprising revelations about themselves and what they want from life.

While the final boxing match between Balboa and Dixon might be a new high-water mark for the realistic depiction of boxing on film — with Stallone making good use of digital handhelds and editing with the speed and purpose of a pay-per-view bout — it’s also the point where the film spins out of control a bit. Before the fight, “Balboa” provides a nice riff on all the best parts of the original film, building on our knowledge of the straightforward, uncomplicated but by no means dumb former champ and making us understand how much seeing his physical body deteriorate has hurt him. Without the fairly ridiculous fight between Dixon and Balboa at the end, “Balboa” might have been a nice little film about the long downhill trudge mere mortals must make after winning a moment on Mount Olympus, and why getting older doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go gentle into that Good Night. With the Dixon/Balboa climax — which seems tacked on just so Stallone can show us he’s still got something in the pecs department — “Balboa” loses something from its spare and lovely beginning, harkening back to the bad old days of the “Rocky” franchise.

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