Christ, Rocky Balboa WORKS. Not always, and certainly not consistently, but more often than not Rocky Balboa is a movie that grabs and exhilarates the audience – and that’s despite huge problems like a bizarre structure, rampantly flat acting and sloppy editing. This film just shouldn’t be this enjoyable, and that’s part of its charm.

Rocky Balboa could never have worked if there hadn’t been Rockys II through V; it was only by ruining the character and the franchise that Sylvester Stallone could properly return them to underdog status. The movie, like its aging, punch-drunk hero, was considered a laughable dinosaur, and so Rocky’s triumph in the movie is a meta-triumph for author Stallone. While Rocky hasn’t debased his boxing career in the way that Stallone has debased his acting career, the movie exists as a metaphor for itself and the man behind it all.

Rocky Balboa opens a couple of years after Adrian’s death. Rocky is unmoored from the world around him: every year he goes on a tour of locations from the first film, reliving the past. His son, now grown and working in finance, is distant. Rocky owns a restaurant where he walks around in a bad red jacket telling stories of his glory days to diners who would rather focus on the spaghetti. He’s not Jake LaMotta doing monologues badly, but he’s going through the motions in a life that doesn’t mean much to him. But then two things happen – he runs into a woman who he once knew as a little girl (in the original film) and takes her, and her son, under his wing, recreating his family, and a computer simulation of Rocky in his prime versus the new and unliked heavyweight champ shows that the young Italian Stallion would have won by a KO. Rocky decides to get back in the ring, just to work out some of the feelings that haunt him, but when the champ’s managers find out Rocky is into fighting again, they decide they can clean up on Pay Per View with an exhibition match between the two.

That’s essentially the whole movie – Rocky Balboa is almost totally made up of a first act. The second act is a quick training montage, and the third is the fight itself. I don’t know how the movie ended up being structured like that, but it does lead to a very abrupt ending – you hit the training montage and you think the movie is just a little more than halfway over when the truth is that the thing is almost done. But that lengthy set up makes the movie more of a character piece; Stallone doesn’t seem as interested in Rocky as a boxer as he is in Rocky as a man. It’s a nice return to the original film.

In many ways, everything in Rocky Balboa is a return to the original film. Fans will recognize echo after echo in the film, making this not so much Rocky VI as the real sequel to Rocky. The events of the other four films happened, but none of them matter when this one opens. And that’s how it should be – Rocky is a character who is only interesting when he’s underestimated, when he’s going against the odds. When your film series has come to the point that you have to put him against a super-powered Soviet to get him in that position, you’ve lost the way. Rocky Balboa is a film made by a man who has found the way again.

It’s easy to forget that Sylvester Stallone was nominated for two Oscars in 1977 (maybe because his Oscar noms have been dwarfed by his number of Razzie noms), and it’s even easier to forget that one of the nominations was for Best Screenplay. With Rocky Balboa Stallone reminds us that, when he’s not throwing himself into some of the worst films ever made, he has a real understanding of urban lower middle class life. At times the characters and situations feel like something Steinbeck might have come up with if he had been born in Philadelphia instead of Salinas, and Rocky retains a folksy, corny sense of humor that would never fly in any other Stallone film. Stallone also shows a real understanding of the power of small moments, and often lets a scene speak for itself.

Unfortunately Bill Conti’s score doesn’t do the same. The music is slathered on the film, and it’s usually a “sad” version of the Rocky theme, which ends up sounding sort of like the “sad” music from the Incredible Hulk TV show. But when the full Rocky theme comes up during the training montage… well, I dare any lover of the first film to not get choked up. The response is partially Pavlovian, but it’s also earned – we’ve spent most of the film’s running time yearning for it, and Stallone keeps it back as long as possible.

I wish that Rocky Balboa was just a little bit better. The big boxing match at the end of the film is almost terrible, and about half of it is presented as if we were watching it on TV. It’s a good device for a minute, but it goes on and on, with blabbering sportscasters saying things like, “There’s a real sense of foreboding here tonight.” The match itself is poorly choreographed – most of the punches look unconvincing, and the action gets incredibly repetitive. Rocky is taking hits… he lashes back… he takes a bad shot to the head… Rocky’s down… now he’s getting back up… rinse, repeat. And Stallone makes bizarre choices, like filming in black and white…except for a couple of chosen colors, like blood, or the yellow on Rocky’s ringside team’s jackets. It looks like a lost A-Ha video from 1984, or a cologne commercial.

And yet it works! Even with that bad fight, and the presence of many bad actors, and the tinkling sad Rocky theme, the movie works. It’s a sports film, and in sports films, everybody talks about heart. That’s what this movie has – it may not be the best made film of the year, but Rocky Balboa has more heart in a single frame than any of the other inspirational sports films of the 21st century. Let’s hope Stallone has the good sense to end it here, though.

8.5 out of 10