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Original Issue

Still Standing

He's thicker and slower in Rocky Balboa, but Stallone's punchy hero recaptures his youthful appeal in Round 6

The mortality rate in the Rocky franchise is quite high--Adrian, Mick, Apollo, all gone--and yet Rocky himself, the pug who's actually taken this 30-year boatload of punishment, remains mysteriously vital. Here we find him, five sequels later, wandering the same South Philly streets (same porkpie hat!) making exactly the same sense he did in the 1976 original.

This is not always a lot of sense, of course. When a young man is introduced to him as Jamaican, Rocky nods knowingly: "From Europe, huh?" But for Rocky Balboa this familiar obtuseness amounts to the baseline measurement for neurological fitness. He's good to go! In fact, Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment in Sylvester Stallone's ongoing paean to the brain-battered underdog, is nothing if not a return to the series' roots, when he was innocent and vulnerable--appealing even. (Sometime, in other words, before he was battling Drago in the Soviet Union.)

Whether this represents a failure of imagination or just budget, the development is welcome. Now haunted by loss (he spends as much time in a cemetery as in his restaurant) and irrelevance (patrons there finish his stories for him), he strikes a chord for that American man of a certain age, cast aside before his time. To watch Rocky stumble through his reduced life, accepting the insult of insignificance, is to wince more genuinely than at any of his bloodbaths. Cut us, Mick!

But the series being what it is, Rocky is soon obliged to step from his character study and between the ropes. (What studio would have been willing to sign off on another sequel unless there was going to be a training montage, a little Gonna Fly Now and a couple of raw eggs down the hatch?) The script strains to make sense of this. There is the idea that Rocky somehow needs to move forward in his life and that ... aw, who are we kidding? In a Rocky movie he fights a bully and somehow acquits himself, and that's the way it is.

The fact that Stallone is 60 years old (his tended physique suggests Rocky is supposed to be about a decade younger) does not help us suspend much disbelief, especially in that Balboa has been lined up for 10 rounds (10!) of exhibition boxing with the heavyweight champion of the world in his first fight out of the chute. No amount of explanation (and there is a lot) quite makes adequate sense of this. Still, what would a Rocky movie be without an opportunity for our good-hearted lug to demonstrate heart on HBO? It's like raw eggs; you just have to swallow it.

Oddly, the most moving part of the movie comes not during the fight but the credits, when Stallone the director unspools a newsreel of folks--women, children, old-timers--running up the museum steps and striking one of film's most iconic poses. There is, finally, even a shot from the very first film, all those sequels ago, Rocky dancing in the twilight, arms up, turning slowly to face us, that now familiar fanfare giving us goose bumps, resist all we might. He was so young. Probably we all were.


IT'S HARD enough following a sequel when you haven't seen the original; picking up a series on a sixquel like Rocky Balboa can be downright impossible. Luckily for those too young or old to remember every twist in Stallone's epic series, MGM has released the Rocky Anthology, a five-disc box set of the first five installments. Serious Rockyphiles may be disappointed: The set includes a 90-minute making-of documentary but no other special features. Hey, something had to be saved for the six-disc set.


New York Giants

A stellar documentary celebrates the Cosmos' reign

MLS RECENTLY adopted the so-called Beckham rule, which allows teams to exceed the salary cap and chase big-name overseas players, such as David Beckham. Supporters think star power will translate into better gate receipts; critics say the focus should be on talent development and fiscal responsibility. Once in a Lifetime shows both sides have a point.

This terrific documentary traces the evolution of the NASL's New York Cosmos from a collection of guys with day jobs who played on a college field in Long Island to a unit that boasted some of the world's most recognizable players and packed Giants Stadium. How'd they do it? By throwing loads of money at Pelé (left), who had just retired, in 1975. Lifetime has fantastic game footage, but what makes it such a pleasure is the look it offers at life in the NASL--which rivaled the ABA as the Most Colorful League of the '70s. Of course, the league expanded too far too fast, and when Pelé and the stars who followed him retired, it collapsed. So Lifetime serves as a cautionary tale but not a puritanical one: Splurging on big names might lead a league to ruin, but getting there can be one hell of a fun ride.

Bound for Glory

Hollywood shines a light on a historic champion

SPORTS MOVIES generally fall into two categories: saccharine (see Invincible) and silly (Talladega Nights). But Glory Road--the drama based on the 1966 Texas Western basketball team, which beat an all-white Kentucky squad to become the first NCAA champ with five black starters--is different. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and starring Josh Lucas (right) as coach Don Haskins, Road is part civics lesson and part time capsule, an honest look at the difficulties faced by young men knocking down racial barriers. Says Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, a guard on that Kentucky team, as the end credits roll, "This game was probably the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966."

Road was a modest success at the box office ($42.6 million) and doesn't threaten to replace Hoosiers as anyone's favorite hoops flick, but its impact is felt in other ways. Since the movie's release the '66 team has been nominated for the basketball Hall of Fame. Enshrinement--now that would be a Hollywood ending.

The Most...

Great Basketball Documentaries.
Like Hoops Dreams--the gold standard of such films--Ward Serrill's outstanding Heart of the Game benefits from an unbelievable ration of compelling plotlines. The story of a Seattle high school girls' team and its endearingly eccentric coach includes a sexual assault, a racially tinged rivalry and a fierce legal battle. And Through the Fire, a behind-the-scenes look at Brooklyn high school star (and current Celtic) Sebastian Telfair, manages to offer one thing Hoop Dreams couldn't: a happy ending.

Since the dawn of time there have been exactly zero great animated sports movies, and that didn't change in 2006. Though it was the year's highest grossing sports flick, Pixar's Cars is a mediocre racing tale that lacks the witty charm of the studio's Toy Story franchise and The Incredibles. Worse still was Everyone's Hero, an animated feature starring William H. Macy about a boy (left) who's trying to hunt down a bat stolen from Babe Ruth in 1932. The film wasn't enough fun for kids (how many eight-year-olds care about Babe Ruth?) or clever enough for their parents.

Written and directed by two Georgia Baptist pastors, Facing the Giants is the story of a born-again high school football coach who persuades his team to put its fate in God's hands. (There's an undersized kid named David, and the foes are the Giants; guess how it ends.) The film was made for $100,000--donated by church members. It grossed $9 million.

Playing a recognizable figure is never easy, but Greg Kinnear nailed former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil in Invincible. Never over-the-top in his portrayal of the emotional coach who gave walk-on Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) a shot, Kinnear is the best thing about the film.

Talladega Nights wasn't a particularly well-thought-out movie; it was pitched to studios as, "Six words: Will Ferrell as a NASCAR driver." It never did get much of a plot, but Nights still works thanks to Ferrell's Ricky Bobby, a good ol' boy who named his sons Walker and Texas Ranger. Especially hilarious are his scenes with pal John C. Reilly (right) and a snobbish French driver played by Sacha Baron Cohen. Very nice!