Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh

A deep and astonishingly authentic streak of melancholy runs through this fifth sequel to the 1976 sleeper that made both struggling actor Sylvester Stallone and hard-luck slugger Rocky Balboa international stars. It's been 30 years since Rocky Balboa (Stallone), a none-too-bright palooka from run-down South Philadelphia, got his chance to be a contender. He became famous, got rich, married mousy local girl Adrian, had a son, lost everything and took on a steady stream of bigger, meaner, younger opponents because that's what fighters do — they fight. But now he's retired and has lost his beloved Adrian to cancer. Lonely and rudderless, Rocky visits her grave, schmoozes with the star-struck patrons of his small but flourishing restaurant and bickers companionably with his dyspeptic brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young). Rocky has moved back into the old neighborhood, and lives alone — except for those pet-store turtles he's had since he was in his twenties. His petulant son, Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia, stepping into the role played by Stallone's own son, Sage, in ROCKY V), has systematically distanced himself from his famous father. Then a segment of ESPN's "Man vs. Machine" — a show that pits classic fighters against current champs via computer simulation — pairs Rocky in his '70s prime with reigning heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver, a former light-heavyweight champ), a spoiled diva who's never gone toe-to-toe with a real challenger. Rocky comes up the winner, and Dixon's management puts together an exhibition match. For Rocky, a real fight is a reason to get out of bed in the morning — that, and Marie (Geraldine Hughes), whom he first saw as a wayward teenager. Smart-mouthed "Little Marie" has grown up since she rebuffed the young Rocky's well-intentioned advice with a terse, "Screw you, creep!" Now a bartender and the single mother of her own troubled teenager (James Francis Kelly III), she welcomes his friendship. Written and directed by Stallone, this modest drama is clearly an attempt to return to his roots, and the remarkable thing is how often it succeeds. There's some bluntly obvious dialogue, troubled sons Steps and Robert Jr. are introduced and then instantly relegated to the background, the scruffy pound puppy that Rocky adopts has to shoulder an elephant-sized load of symbolic freight, and continuity with the intervening films is hit-and-miss. But Stallone's own evident age puts some real teeth in this variation on the underdog theme, and the climactic bout with Dixon comes to a satisfying yet believable conclusion.