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Last Updated: Friday, 22 December 2006, 08:26 GMT
Balboa back for one more bout
By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Three decades on from his first appearance, Sylvester Stallone's plucky pugilist is back in the ring with the release of Rocky Balboa in the US. But can he still go the distance?

Sylvester Stallone in the original Rocky
Stallone refused to sell his script unless he played the lead role
He has survived countless beatings, financial ruin and even brain damage. But battling boxer Rocky Balboa is still out there swinging.

Even so, Sylvester Stallone's decision to revive his best-known character 30 years after his Oscar-winning heyday may well be one rematch too far.

"Who is Rocky fighting this time - incontinence?" joked US chat show host Jay Leno when news of a sixth instalment surfaced.

Stallone, however, is taking such criticism in his stride, acknowledging his hero's advancing years as he makes one last bid for glory.

Ever since Rocky made his cinema debut in 1976, his career has been inextricably linked with the man who plays him.

Persistence

Having written a script about a Philadelphia leg-breaker given an unlikely chance to fight the reigning world heavyweight, Stallone refused to sell it unless he played the role.

Talia Shire and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky
Both he and co-star Talia Shire (left) were Oscar-nominated
The studio wanted Burt Reynolds, James Caan or Ryan O'Neal, but the 30-year-old New Yorker stuck to his guns.

The reward for his persistence was overnight fame, phenomenal success and 10 Academy Award nominations.

Rocky went on to win three Oscars in all, for best direction, editing and picture.

Its success in the latter category came at the expense of such acclaimed modern classics as Taxi Driver, Network and All the President's Men.

Stallone was nominated for his acting and screenplay, while co-stars Burt Young, Talia Shire and Burgess Meredith were all shortlisted for their performances.

'Waxy feeling'

All went on to reprise their roles in Rocky II, this time directed by Stallone himself.

Released in 1979, the film saw Balboa and nemesis Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) strap on their gloves for a title fight rematch.

Sylvester Stallone in the original Rocky
Millions visit Philadelphia's Museum of Art because of Rocky
But while audiences came to see Rocky's return in their droves, critics and awards bodies were less impressed.

"Rocky II has a waxy feeling, and it never comes to life the way its predecessor did," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times.

A similar response met Rocky III in 1982, which saw Stallone go toe-to-toe with aggressive new challenger Clubber Lang - played by The A-Team's Mr T.

Not half as aggressive, though, as the critics were towards Rocky IV, which saw Stallone trade blows with a man mountain from the Soviet Union (Dolph Lundgren).

"The Rocky series is finally losing its legs," rued Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, dismissing Stallone's fourth outing as "movie-making by numbers".

Lean period

By this time, of course, the actor-director was a dab hand at Roman numerals, having initiated a rival franchise involving volatile Vietnam veteran John Rambo.

With both Rambo III and Rocky V floundering at the box office, however, it seemed that audience had finally tired of their muscle-bound star.

Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Tarver in Rocky Balboa
Rocky Balboa is the sixth film in the long-running franchise
The 1990s were a lean period for Stallone, his attempts to sustain a career away from his two most familiar guises resulting in a string of flops.

Small wonder, then, that Rocky Balboa will be followed in 2008 by a fourth Rambo picture, provisionally titled Pearl of the Cobra.

So far reviewers have been kinder to Rocky's belated comeback than the earlier sequels, the Hollywood Reporter applauding "a low-key, stripped-down production that really does come close to capturing the heart and soul of the original".

It remains to be seen, however, whether audiences in the US and elsewhere will be as keen to celebrate the return of a character so steeped in iconography and cliché.

Rocky Balboa is out now in the US and opens in the UK on 19 January.


SEE ALSO
Star Stallone donates Rocky props
06 Dec 06 |  Entertainment
Stallone ends 'real Rocky' fight
09 Aug 06 |  Entertainment
Stallone filming Rocky comeback
04 Dec 05 |  Entertainment
Stallone back in ring for Rocky 6
17 Oct 05 |  Entertainment

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