3 out of 4 Smiling Kotites (Yeah; that's a smile ...)
There are a few things in this world that get any man riled up: A sexy woman, a few shots of tequila and the music from "Rocky." Whether it's the original instrumental version, or the Survivor "Eye of the Tiger" power ballad / instant erection (for me anyway) from the sequels.
"Rocky Balboa" doesn't stray far from the road that led its predecessors to success:
Step One: Establish Likeable Underdog Status for Protagonist.
Step Two: Establish Dominant Antagonist for Underdog -- Preferably a Minority (Mr. T, Apollo Creed, George Washington Duke and this versions Mason Dixon) or Foreigner (Ivan Drago).
Step Three: Establish Some Sort of Love Interest.
Step Four: Show Vastly Different Training Montages.
Step Five: SHOWDOWN! with a) ring entrances, b) motivational speech for Rocky, c) first and/or second and/or third round domination by underdog and then finally d) triumphant Balboa wins over the crowd, earns his opponents respect and rights all wrongs.
However, this "Rocky" - out of all the sequels - is the most similar to the original, which dominated the 1977 Academy Awards, and launched our boy Sly into the spotlight. The story begins in a graveyard, at Adrian's headstone, who seems to have past between film five and six from, as Stallone later describes, "Ladies Cancer." He lives in a crappy Philadelphia house (although in that city, what house isn't crappy?) and has two pet turtles in his bedroom, feeds the birds outside some sort of candy and does roughly six chin-ups a morning with his coffee. He runs a somewhat successful restaurant, with, what Paulie sums up in the funniest part of the movie, "... a bunch of Mexicans cookin' Italian food ..." His son is some sort of financial bitch, and seems to be doing OK for himself. During all this, we see glimpses of the current heavyweight champion, Mason "The Line" Dixon - another phenomenal name from the "Rocky" saga (played decently enough by current Light Heavyweight Champion Antonio Tarver). He's not the people's champion Balboa was, and, in many ways, we see Stallone taking jabs (pardon the pun ...) at the real boxing scene.
The most confusing part of the film - to Rich Kotite, anyway - was the character of Little Marie. Remember her from the first one? The cigarette-smoking, street-walking little girl? She's bartending now in South Philly, at a place I'm sure a ton of Eagles fans inhabit on game day. Balboa comes in to reminisce about a date he and Adrian had there years before, and is recognized by Little Marie. He drives her home, which begins what appears to be a courtship/friendship/parentship of Marie and her son, "Steps." ("Steps," by the way, was fathered by a Jamaican man, to which Balboa replies "Jamaican huh? So he's European?" Sly Stallone may be the only person on the planet who could deliver that line and actually convince me of the sincerity.)
"Steps" slowly turns into the son Balboa wishes his own boy was; the two buy a dog together, he gives the kid a job in his restaurant and he even takes him into the gym during the training montage.
Anyway; back to the plot. ESPN - that SOB - is what ultimately gets Balboa back into the ring. After showing a computer-generated bout between the current versus former Heavyweight champion, Balboa wins and pisses off Dixon, who has been searching for a way to regain his popularity with the Pay-Per-View buyers he so dearly wants to impress. Dixon's manager and publicist find their way into "Adrian's" to make an offer to the Italian Stallion - after learning of its location from "Cold Pizza" and Skip Bayless (who should be shot in the fucking head). Balboa accepts - after learning some of the proceeds will go to charity, of course - to a ten-round exhibition in Las Vegas; and then, my friends, the movie goes from good to orgasmic.
The training montage we've all grown to love hits hard, with an appearance from Apollo Creed's old manager, Duke (Tony Burton, one of only four actors to appear in all the films, by the way ...), telling Balboa he's got no speed and is falling apart. Balboa's only chance, Duke says, is the line that made me want to stand up and punch the lady next to me: "What we will be calling on is blunt force trauma ... Let's start building some hurting bombs ..." Solid gold. 100%.
Once the fight is on - and Balboa enters the ring to Frank Sinatra singing "High Hopes" - the action finally picks up; waiting for the climax like only the first "Rocky" did. Dixon warns Balboa not to try and hurt him, or else he'll punish the old man. Balboa does what he knows how to do: Leads with his chin and works the body. These scenes are the only ones Tarver looks comfortable in, pummeling a somewhat jacked, somewhat geriatric Stallone on and about the head and face.
I won't give away the ending, but it doesn't end with a senile Balboa screaming and crying "ADRIAN!" on his way to the nursing home (like I'd feared).
Overall, the film is exactly what you'd expect it to be: A cookie-cutter version of the series, with a modern twist. Look for Mike Tyson making a jaw-dropping cameo in Las Vegas, and keep your ears open everytime Paulie speaks. If you're a fan of the old "Rocky" movies, see it. If you're a boxing fan, see it. If you have something hanging between your legs, see it. Tell 'em Richie Kotite sent ya!