How much punishment can an audience take? Even 007 gets his license renewed by younger models every decade, but not Rocky, who now has arthritis in his neck, calcium deposits in his legs and, as before, pebbles in his head. But, yo, those arms are like tree trunks, and pushing 60 or not, this fighter is all heart. As for Stallone, he tends to lead with his chin and I don't mean that metaphorically. Leaning forward when he speaks, the veteran actor projects as if he's looking to get hit, particularly in the scene with the Philly athletic commission, which threatens to deny ol' Rocky's application for a new boxing license. "Maybe you're just doing your job," Rocky sputters, his aching neck stretched from here to Palookaville, "but why you gotta stop me from doing mine?" Could the dialogue have been much different when the stallion known as Sly stood toe-to-toe with MGM's roaring lion and begged its commissioners for another round?
Rocky Balboa, effortlessly reflexive and patently, even proudly, absurd, is a tough movie to dislike believe me, I tried. Stallone's "deez, dem, doze" routine truly echoes a bygone era, even as his most famous character continues to epitomize the times. In 1976, the tough guy went the distance and lost, like our troops in Vietnam. In '85, he fought the Cold War in the form of Dolph Lundgren's Commie and, like Reagan, he won. Now Rocky VI equals Bush II: However bloody things get, the born fighter refuses to throw in the towel. "It's about how much you can take and keep movin' forward," Rocky says. Chin-first, presumably.
Rocky's return to the ring can be blamed, like this DVD-ready sequel, on the digital revolution. A computer simulation program predicts that the Italian Stallion, at least as he was in his prime, could take the heavyweight champ Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver). Naturally, neither Rocky, now a restaurateur, nor Dixon can resist the Vegas exhibition offer that follows.
Rocky's wife, Adrian, has succumbed to what he calls, with characteristic sensitivity, "the woman cancer." The site of the odd couple's ice-skating date is now a vacant lot strewn with garbage. "Whole world's fallin' apart," claims Adrian's astute brother, Paulie (Burt Young). Still, some things never change. Our hero's training outfit is gray sweats, his breakfast a raw egg, his punching bag a side of beef.
Maybe all-out parody would've better suited Rocky Balboa. Earnest as it is, the movie hardly resists laughs. Identifying solely with a forlorn old mutt named Punchy, Rocky has become a philosopher in his old age. "A few too many birthdays," he says, "shouldn't be a reason not to fight." Or to write and direct and star.