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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.

If you’re a fan of the original “Rocky” film, this is a good way to find closure. Even if you’re not, the first 40 minutes are worth the price of a ticket — if only to show you what might have been had Stallone’s career not gone the “Tango and Cash” route after his promising debut.

— David Koon

Shepherding the CIA

The new film “The Good Shepherd” can best be summed up by a single scene: CIA man Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) is touring the new agency headquarters in Langley when he enters the lobby and comments on the inscription chiseled into the marble there: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”

“Who’s idea was that?” Wilson asks.

“It’s classified,” his handler replies.

Absurd, yes. But as seen in “Shepherd,” in the through-the-looking-glass world of counterintelligence, up is frequently down, left is often right, and only those who draw the maps know the difference.

In short, “The Good Shepherd” is the story of the CIA, told through the lens of career agency man Wilson. In 1961 in the aftermath of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Wilson receives a mysterious package on his doorstep — a photograph of a young man and woman making love in a non-descript hotel room, and a garbled and purposefully manipulated audio recording of the moment. On the tape, among other things, the young man tells his bedmate the location of the Bay of Pigs landing. Throughout the film, the emotionally distant Wilson seeks the origins of the package, playing spy games with his Russian counterparts and mining the photo and audiotape for every ounce of information they might yield in hopes of finding the mole inside his agency.

As he does, the possibility that JFK might splinter the CIA over the Cuba fiasco sends Wilson flashing back to his days before, during and after World War II, when first the OSS counterintelligence agency and then the CIA was born. Over and over again, we see how the agency has come before everything else for Wilson: his wife, his son, and even his own happiness. (Not to mention his self-respect. A rather homoerotic scene from the early days has Wilson, as a new initiate to Yale’s secretive “Skull and Bones,” going a couple of rounds of naked mud-wrasslin’ in the center of the Bones sanctuary while his compatriots stand around, pissing on the combatants).

Though Robert De Niro does a workmanlike job in the director’s chair (he also makes an appearance as CIA-godfather Gen. Bill Sullivan), the problem with “The Good Shepherd” is that it can’t decide whether it wants to be a film about a man, or about the grand sweep of history as seen through the all-seeing eye of the counterintelligence community. This indecision is mostly due to Matt Damon, who just doesn’t have the stuff to pull off the stony-hearted Wilson. Damon — like a submarine — has a limited depth. And Wilson’s odd dual nature (a young, truth-obsessed poetry scholar, grown to a man so dedicated to spycraft that he would literally see a family member killed off to keep the agency sound) is pretty much below Damon’s crush rating. Instead of the quiet but multifaceted performance we might have received from a slightly younger De Niro, we get something like a granite-faced puppet on a stick.

Still, though Damon doesn’t quite make the grade, “Shepherd” turns out to be an interesting movie, detailing a turning point in American history — a tale of the similarity between professional secrecy and personal distance; the story of what some will give up for the country they love or the power they helped create.

— David Koon

The black Jesus

The first dramatic film in Hollywood history to ever portray Jesus as a black man is presented in the powerful Color of the Cross,” a Nu-Lite Entertainment production.

Independent filmmaker Jean-Claude LaMarre, a Haitian-American and native of Brooklyn, N.Y. who made his acting debut in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”, is the screenwriter, director and lead actor in the world’s most controversial religious film since Mel Gibson’sPassion of the Christ.” Other cast members include Emmy-winning actress Debbi Morgan (“Coach Carter,” “Woman Thou Art Loosed,” “All My Children”) as Jesus’ mother, Mary, and TV personality Ananda Lewis as one of Mary’s daughters.

“Color of the Cross” examines the final 48 hours of Christ’s life, opening with Jesus and his disciples evading the Roman army in Jerusalem to have the Last Supper and ending with Jesus’ capture at Gethsemane and his death on the cross. This version examines the role race may have played in Jesus’ crucifixion, showing that the Jews expected the Messiah to be a figure of high authority rather than a black Nazarene carpenter. The flair of a major production is absent, but the film should truly provoke thought as to Jesus’ earthly identity.

“Color of the Cross” focuses on four areas: Jesus and his disciples; the state of mind of the Romans occupying Judea; the issues facing the rabbis of the Sanhedrin; and the life of Joseph, Mary and their remaining children — including James, who went on to write one of the books of the New Testament — as they were affected by Jesus’ persecution.

With an air of understated dignity, LaMarre deftly captures the essence of Jesus as a conscious, devout God-man determined to fulfill his father’s will. Highlighting his performance was an almost tantrum-like prayer in the garden of Gethsemane as Jesus fought his human reluctance to sacrifice his life for mankind. The troupe of actors portraying the disciples — especially Peter (Jacinto Taras Riddick) — were realistic as men committed to serving Jesus, yet also being men. The Roman soldiers are presented as haughty, harsh and despising anyone of any color not of the caliber and stature of the Romans.

Most notable is the fact that the Sanhedrin are not portrayed as those who coldly turned Jesus over to the Romans; here, they are a group of various-minded Rabbis who want Jesus to appear before them and explain himself, and they are reluctant to leave him at the mercy of those outside the faith — mainly, the Roman army.

The musical score is one of the film’s best aspects and makes the viewer feel as though he is there going through the last days with Jesus. The movie’s main flaw is its low-budget effects, most notably the blood used for the crucifixion scene.

This movie was extensively researched for its depiction of Jesus as a black man. The story is based not just on interpretation of Daniel 7:9 in the Old Testament, but other historical data that points to Jesus, his family and his disciples being dark-skinned. But ideally, this retelling of this biblical story from a black perspective will do more to repair the anti-Semitism that has been associated with the story of Christ than it will to draw angry responses from those used to seeing Jesus portrayed in the traditional image.

— Renarda Williams

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