If the Academy could take back one Best Picture award, it would probably be the one for Rocky—not because it's the worst Best Picture winner (consider Crash, for example) or even because of the sterling class of '76 nominees: Taxi Driver, All The President's Men, Bound For Glory, and Network. No, what really must embarrass Oscar voters is that what seemed at the time like an underdog story with real heart turned out to be the beginning of a cynical franchise, complete with four sequels that include bouts with Mr. T and Mother Russia. Geriatric writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone attempts to return to his roots in Rocky Balboa—those with short memories might forget that he tried doing the same in Rocky V—but clearly you can never go home again.
Once again a washed-up palooka in Philly, Stallone's Rocky operates a modest Italian restaurant named after his late wife Adrian (death by contractual issues, apparently) and spends most of the first half moping through the old neighborhood with his brother-in-law Burt Young. They visit the site of his training facility (the sign's faded), the pet store where Adrian worked (boarded up), the ice rink where he and Adrian had their first date (torn down), and the stoop of his old apartment (still there), where she gazed up at him through Coke-bottle glasses. After a computer simulation shows that he would beat the current champion—an undefeated but untested boxer played by real-life light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver—Stallone decides to challenge the young fighter in an exhibition match. His estranged son (Milo Ventimiglia), meanwhile, isn't keen about the renewed attention.
When asked why he would step back into the ring, even though he's out of shape and in his late 50s, the Italian Stallion mumbles something about "the stuff inside," which sums up the thin justification for Rocky Balboa. The film's feeble attempt to recapture the original Rocky's gritty magic results in fewer boxing sequences; considering his age and lack of conditioning, Stallone needed at least an hourlong training montage to get back into shape, but he only gets a paltry few minutes. Watching Rocky Balboa go through the usual paces does trigger a few helpless waves of nostalgia, especially once Bill Conti's famed score kicks in and Stallone sticks it to a few sides of beef. But audiences needn't be responsible for helping an over-the-hill actor through his midlife crisis.