Dir/scr: SylvesterStallone. US. 2006. 100mins.

Sixteen years since the last installment,multi-hyphenate Sylvester Stallone delivers RockyBalboa, a stirring and pleasingly grounded tale of an erstwhileunderdog-turned-champion coming to terms with his ownageing. The most emotionally resonant film in the iconic series since theOscar-winning 1976 original, it also showcases by far Stallone'sbest performance in years.

While the last film in theseries, Rocky V, comparativelyunderperformed in the US,internationally it almost doubled its $40m Statesidehaul, and both Stallone and the character have a worldwide recognition andappeal that will serve the picture well overseas. Theatrical receipts hinge on notonly the adult audiences that have aged with Rocky returning for this one lastencore, but also young, new audiences intrigued by the character's legend andboomers not necessarily predisposed to Rockymovies.

While its boxing action isacutely observed, this is first and foremost a firmly rooted character drama,which may befuddle more gung-ho genre fans. For this reason, the higher reachesof the series may be out of graps. Regardless,ancillary value will be high, as RockyBalboa provides the perfect emotive bookend to Stallone'ssignature franchise.

Leaving intact his humblefinancial stature but ignoring some of the more dire health predictions of Rocky V, the movie findsby-his-own-bootstraps boxing champ Rocky recast as a modest restaurateur,telling patrons the same old war stories and kindheartedly feeding a former,down-on-his-luck opponent for free.

With his namesake son (Milo Ventimiglia) busy trying to establish a separate,professional career track for himself, Rocky leads a pretty lonely life, keptcompany only by his irascible brother-in-law Paulie(Burt Young). That starts to change a bit when Rocky meets single mother Marie(Geraldine Hughes), an old girl from his neighbourhood.

Back in the ring, Mason "TheLine" Dixon(Antonio Tarver) is the current undisputed heavyweight champion - but a fanfavorite he is not. Cold rather than charismatic, he's a victim of his ownsuccess and a lack of worthy competition. After a computer simulation on acable talk show pits the two fighters against one another, Dixon's manager sees how to revitalise his client's image, all of which dovetails witha reticent Rocky's desire to entertain a few localexhibition bouts. A quick solicitation of Rocky and one brisk training montagelater, the table is set for a third act showdown in Las Vegas.

As it wore on, the Rocky series often dipped into machoposing, but Rocky Balboa delivers avery basic and relatable tale that - to its great credit - could easily beenvisioned without the boxing. In a rather savvy and smartly structuredscreenplay, Stallone deftly captures the awkwardness of Rocky'srelationship with his son ("You throw a long shadow," says Junior).

He also, in dialogue thatsometimes amusingly indulges Rocky'scharacteristically circuitous logic, does a good job of writing realisticallyto the level of his blue-collar character. Skating just around cliches, Rockyspeaks in elliptical, working man chestnuts, and theirdepth of feeling and unaffectedness ring true and quickly re-establish a strongaudience identification with him.

It's Stallone's melancholic,well-worn performance, however, that most capably sells the movie. Reminiscentof many other Stallone vehicles, there is still the scene in Rocky Balboa where he stands up torandom, mouthy jerks, only here it's tinged with a palpable sadness thathighlights Rocky's humanity. It's but one example ofhow the movie trades in practical payoffs (acquaintance rather than newfoundlove, measured successes rather than huge victories) instead of pompousnarrative grandstanding.

Shot chiefly, like the otherfilms in the series, in Philadelphia,Rocky Balboa exudes a working classgrittiness that further enables its story. While not a reinvention of thewheel, the boxing sequences are extremely well done, with announcer Jim Lampley and a crazed ringside cameo from former heavyweightfighter Mike Tyson lending authenticity to the proceedings. The angles andlighting are just right, and not a Hollywoodput-on, like too many sports films.

Directorially, only a fewaffected colour bleeds and slow-motion montage fades mar what is otherwise ahighly credible and surprisingly poignant tale of life's hard knocks and oneman's continual response to them.

Underscoring the film's inspirationalemotional appeal is an end credit sequence reprisal of composer Bill Conti'slegendary theme. It is set to real-life, modern day footage of kids and adultsalike running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, mirroring thefamed training sequence from the original Rockythat has served as one of its calling cards ever since.

Production companies/backers
Revolution Studios
MGM Pictures
Columbia Pictures

US distribution
MGM Pictures

International distribution
20th Century Fox (most)

Executive producers
Irwin Winkler
Robert Chartoff
Sylvester Stallone

Charles Winkler
William Chartoff
David Winkler
Kevin King
Guy Reidel

Clark Mathis

Sean Albertson

Production design
Franco Carbone

Bill Conti

Main cast
Sylvester Stallone
Milo Ventimiglia
Geraldine Hughes
Burt Young
Antonio Tarver
James Francis Kelly
Tony Burton
Pedro Lovell
A.J. Benza