All Fight Long

Rocky Balboa is back in the ring to take another swing.

All Rocky Balboa wanted to do was go the distance. By the end of the now-iconic, John Avildsen-directed 1976 film that introduced American audiences to everybody's favorite underdog, that's exactly what he had done. The former loan-shark enforcer had stood toe to toe with the fearsome world champion Apollo Creed and lasted his 15 rounds. He hadn't won the fight, just something much bigger: eternal glory for himself and a handful of Oscars for the movie around him. Rocky passed into the pantheon of films that can stand the trials of time.

And then came the sequels. Rocky II's rematch provided the foundation for a solid sequel, but while Rocky III continued the legend, that old Academy Award patina was wearing thin. In III, Mr. T was entertaining, and the series started to get serious.

The charmingly addled deep-thought pronouncements of the title character gave way to intense training montages and moments of melodrama, a process furthered in the Cold War-centered fourth. But both movies were spawned from the excessive '80s and had more spiritual kinship with a cocky Creed dancing around dressed like Uncle Sam, the center of a pay-per-view spectacle, than they did with scruffy, sad-eyed Rocky pounding slabs of frozen meat. Audiences still loved Rocky, though, a testament to Sylvester Stallone's crowd-pleasing writing and the charisma of the character he had fought for so long to create.

Then, the sucker punch that was Rocky V threatened to stop all that in its tracks. The film has its fierce defenders, but bankruptcy and a bad-attitude protege were not what most fans wanted from the Italian Stallion. Rocky had only ever wanted to go the distance, but the fifth installment was a film too far. Instead of being remembered for a truly great first movie that gave pop culture one of its most iconic characters, the Rocky series was suddenly just a legend that had stayed too long past its prime.

Stallone waited 16 years to strike back and, to the surprise of critics and moviegoers alike, his current film Rocky Balboa manages to resurrect and redeem the Rocky we all first-loved. How? By allowing the character to revert to his earliest incarnation, a fighter who's not sure if he's got greatness in him but is just stubborn enough to try to find out.

The former champ is 60 now, and alone; he regularly goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of his beloved wife Adrian and makes his living running a restaurant bearing her name. It seems as though everyone in Philadelphia knows him ' and wants to know him ' except his son (Milo Ventimiglia), who'd rather not wither in his pop's long shadow. Grumpy Paulie (Burt Young) is still around, as sour as ever. Adrian still stares down at Rocky from a wall of photos in the restaurant, but ringside, it's Marie (Geraldine Hughes), a kid from the old neighborhood all grown up.

Life limps along, until one night the sports-geek pot-stirrers at ESPN digitally pit Rocky-in-his-prime against the current champ, the unpopular Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver). The result has Rocky thinking maybe he's got a little left in the tank ' and Dixon's handlers thinking maybe an exhibition fight is their brooding boxer's ticket to wider acceptance and respect.

The strength of Rocky Balboa is not Stallone's direction. At times, it's technically inferior ' a boom mic lingers in one shot at the restaurant for so long, you'll wonder if there's a television crew interviewing Rocky that we just haven't been shown yet. At other times, it's just a little too cheesy: heavy on the montages, sprinkled with tinted shots where the red of blood is the only vibrant color, and a few too many slo-mo fade-outs of characters walking away. Still, he choreographs fight scenes more tightly than anyone else, placing the audience directly in the punch line.

The real reason Rocky wins and is still champion, though, is because of the way Stallone settles back into the skin of a down-and-out Philly fighter. Going back to his beginning, he scripts himself endearingly dopey things to say and then lets loose through twisted lips with two impassioned speeches directed at those who have given up on him: his son and the boxing commission. Once again, he just wants to believe in himself and the people around him. If he can just stand up one more time, with the right people in his corner, then he'll have gone the greatest distance. That's what Rocky Balboa gives us back. A champion who doesn't win, yet somehow wins just the same.