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MOVIE REVIEW : A Kinder, Gentler Rocky Balboa : Of Sylvester Stallone's 'Rocky' sequels, No. 5 comes closest to some of the endearing qualities associated with the first.

November 16, 1990|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rock 'n' roll may never die. What about Rocky?

In "Rocky V" (citywide), the fifth and presumably last episode of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa saga, the writer-star once again contrives a way to make his hulking, sad-eyed gladiator the underdog. And we get whiffs of funkiness and humanity stirring around for the first time since the original "Rocky."

Supposedly this is the ultimate round, the "Final Bell," the last myth of Sylvester. And Stallone--who, like legendary Sisyphus, has gone to preposterous lengths, endlessly rolling his Rock up the mountain only to let him crash down and rise again--here makes the ultimate sacrifice. He strips Rocky of the title and hurls him back on the Philadelphia streets.

Not an easy task. In 1985's "Rocky IV," Balboa seemed to have scaled heights so high no one could topple him. Not just a boxer, he was America's gladiator against the entire Soviet Evil Empire, single-handedly pulverizing the Iron Curtain until the Politburo, headed by Gorbachev, rose up to chant "Rock-\o7 eee! \f7 Rock-\o7 eee!"\f7

Here, Stallone takes Rocky back to his roots, stripping his hero of title, money,home and gloves, leaving him bare-knuckled and brain-damaged after a business maneuver by his bumbling goombah of a brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) goes sour and his accountant robs them all blind.

Within 15 minutes of the credits, Champ Balboa has scrounged, out of the attic, his old jacket and porkpie hat, the ones he wore while buoyantly bobbing down the streets in the original Oscar-winning 1976 "Rocky." Also salvaged are manager Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), briefly back from the dead, and John Avildsen, "Rocky's" original director, solidly behind the camera once again.

Arrayed against him are the media--a pack of yapping, snarling dogs--and the perfidious George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a nattily attired but unscrupulous promoter who keeps trying to tease him back into the ring, yelling "I'll sue!" when violence seems imminent. Against Rocky, also, are his own rebellious boy, Rocky Jr. (well-played by 14-year-old Sage Stallone) and Okie acolyte and eventual turncoat Tommy Gunn--played by pro boxer Tommy Morrison, great-grand-nephew of Stallone's idol Marion Morrison, better known as John Wayne.

Of course, most of this is absurd. Champs aren't forgotten so thoroughly, especially champs partially responsible for \o7 glasnost\f7 . What about his old fans? Endorsements? Vegas casinos? And what about the rapid rise of protege Tommy, compared to the glacial pace of Balboa family life? Tommy fights 10 fights in the time it takes Rocky Jr. to dispatch two schoolyard bullies--who instantly become his best buddies.

But carping about illogic, howling unreality or massive plot inconsistencies in the Rocky series, is, by now, meaningless. It's like walking up to a lake and complaining that it's wet.

This movie actually \o7 does \f7 have something all but the first of its predecessors lacked: charm. Stallone, perhaps stung by the mauling he's taken from critics and tabloids over the last five years--the ravenous newsmen may be his metaphor--has tried to resurrect Rocky as he was in the beginning: a lovable, shambling, big-hearted goofus. It's a silly thing to do, but endearingly silly--rather than ferociously silly, like "Rocky II-IV."

The Rocky of 1976 was part tender-hearted Brandoesque idealist. But, somehow, over the years, he seemed to have fused in Stallone's mind with his own persona and experiences, his own rise to fame and wealth. Then, in the mid-'80s, the character began to fuse with Stallone's other alter-ego, laconic, stoic killing machine John Rambo.

The whole appeal of the original Rocky--a boxer of ebullient humanity but limited skills who hung on with sheer heart when he was severely outclassed--was all but dropped. Only the shtick of improbable, last-minute success remained.

Daydream followed daydream, finally getting swollen and bloated. But the '80s are over and so are the myths of omnipotence and money that dominated them.

What's most interesting about "Rocky V," in fact, is the way the dreams have adjusted. The '80s were a quick-fix, instant-gratification decade and that's the style of the middle three "Rockys." They're impatient, terse, super-glossy, effective but empty. This one, despite its frequent absurdities, tries to drum up human connections again: Stallone seems to have written more dialogue here than in the last three "Rocky's" combined and the cast--especially Young and Talia Shire--deliver it exuberantly.

But, more important, "Rocky V" signals what may be a shift in American self-perception. No longer bellicose or swaggering, the movie suggests the mood all around us: the ways the crash-and-burn of the go-go stock market, the HUD scandal and the even more mammoth savings-and-loan fiasco, may have shaken that invincibly cocky self-esteem of the mid-'80's: the era of Moloch and moolah, myths and marketing hooks.

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