It's hard to remember a time when Sylvester Stallone was not a walking parody, a once-powerful star whose shine faded so greatly that he became a joke not even worthy of a punch line. Almost equally difficult to recall is a time when Stallone was nothing more than a character actor struggling to make a name for himself, a nobody catapulted into stardom by a little film called Rocky.
But 30 years ago that's exactly who Stallone was, and now what he has become is something only a few steps removed from a has-been. And it is the journey that has no doubt haunted Stallone, becoming the demon that feeds on his soul. But rather than give in to the cinematic damnation of artistic irrelevance and diminishing box-office returns, Stallone has chosen to exorcise the demons that taunt him—the ones that wave his Oscar nominations for Rocky in his face and say, "Remember when you didn't suck?"
The attempted redemption of Sylvester Stallone comes in the form of Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the boxing franchise. Many years have passed since our hero first fought for—and did not win—the heavyweight championship of the world. In that time he won the title (Rocky II), lost and won the title back (Rocky III), defeated communism and avenged the death of his adversary-turned-best friend (Rocky IV), and did something no one can quite remember (Rocky V). But now, after all the fanfare and adulation has faded, Rocky is a widower, mourning the death of his beloved Adrian, running a restaurant, waxing blue-collar philosophy with his brother-in-law, and reaching out to his son, who can't be bothered by dear old dad. When an ESPN special uses a computer simulation to pit Rocky against the current heavyweight champ, the ultra-unpopular Mason Dixon, the outcome has the Italian Stallion winning. This leads to an inevitable match—for charity, of course—between Rocky and Dixon.
Rocky Balboa is not a terrible film so much as it is a poorly realized one that wears the creator's intentions on its sleeve. This is Stallone making up for years of bad decisions fueled by big paychecks and what is ultimately a limited acting range. The movie fails for many reasons, not the least of which is that Rocky himself has long been dead. He was killed off many years ago by Sly, whose massive shadow managed to slowly obscure whatever humanity he imbued within his characters, until there was no life left, just the crass commercial commodity that is Stallone. And that makes the failure of Rocky Balboa that much sadder, because Rocky was a pop-culture hero who was mortally wounded by his creator. The hero that once represented the dreams of so many underdogs has become a joke worthy of little more than mocking disdain—which is sad, because making fun of Rocky is more unpatriotic than making fun of Bush. But at least Rocky was once worthy of respect.
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