I have long argued that the decade of the 1970s was a golden age for filmmaking. Think about some of the Best Picture winners during the decade: Patton, both Godfathers, The Sting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Annie Hall. Even more astounding, think about some of the films that did not win Best Picture: (a mere sampling) The Way We Were, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, The Last Detail, Jaws, M*A*S*H, Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown, Love Story, and the list goes on. In 1976 alone, the non-winners included: All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and The Omen (the latter two were not even nominated for Best Picture).

Why were the 1970s so golden? It was a fortuitous end of an era. For years, great talents learned and labored under the efficient but stifling studio system. In addition, these artists operated within the restrictive Hays production code, which policed motion picture content to insure "wholesome entertainment" (read the code here). When old Hollywood collapsed, the restrictions evaporated and a new generation emerged. These screenwriters and filmmakers, generally trained under the discipline of the ancien regime, felt free to experiment outside the old envelope, and their genius flowered. The results are the plethora of masterpieces cited above.

An aside: What happens when a generation emerges without training and no deeply embedded sense of propriety to which they must conform and against which they must inevitably rebel? Now appearing at your local video store. Sadly, there is a big difference in the ability to bend and/or break through the old standards and having no standards at all. Our current generation of filmmakers suffers from too much freedom and a palpable lack of cultivation.

I mentioned the non-winners from 1976. Do you remember the winner? Rocky.

Rocky was not an especially rebellious film. Of course, there is coarse language and implicit sexual intimacy outside of marriage; there are sympathetic criminals, and there are times when right and wrong is not clearly defined. But, in its essence, Rocky is the classic underdog narrative; it is a plot that goes back to the beginning of story telling and the halcyon days of Hollywood. In fact, in an almost quaint fashion, Rocky tells the utterly contrived tale of a club fighter who gets a title shot and, more importantly, an opportunity to reclaim his life.

Rocky Balboa is not down-and-out exactly when we first encounter him; he is working steady as a "leg-breaker for a second-rate loan shark." He has a warm albeit dingy place to sleep, plenty of food, and two pet turtles and a gold fish. The tragedy of his life is more subtle than material deprivation. What is the darkness that hovers over Rocky Balboa's wintery existence? He is thirty years-old, and he has squandered his prodigious talent. As a vehement scold points out early in the film, his is "a wasted life!"

But this is a story of redemption. The opening shot frames the story under a giant wall painting of Jesus, who stares down upon a fight matching a hulking Rocky, sleep-walking through another bout, on the way to his twenty-first career loss, against a less-gifted opponent, Spider Rico. But Rico makes a mistake. In control of the fight, he intentionally and gratuitously head-butts our hero, which brings Rocky alive to quickly pummel the offender into a stupor.

After he claims his winner's purse ($40.55 after fees), Rocky continues to go through the motions of his life: collecting on the docks, courting his mousey love interest (Adrian), and suffering continuing ignominy outside the ring at his gym.

Then: "Do you believe that America is the land of opportunity?"

"Apollo Creed does." The impossible happens; the heavyweight champion of the world finds himself in a bind and decides to bestow the opportunity of a lifetime upon this nobody with the right color skin and a marketable nickname (the Italian Stallion), who happens to be in the right place at the right time. And Rocky's journey begins.

Sylvester Stallone, the creative force behind Rocky, was a relative newcomer to Hollywood when he penned a star vehicle for himself and improbably rode the property to outrageous fame and fortune. In 1976, the allegory resonated with an America recovering from scandal, in the midst of a recession and on the verge of malaise. As a people, we were frustrated and demoralized enough to see ourselves as an underdog not living up to our potential. We gladly embraced Rocky. As the years rolled by, Rocky became stronger, richer and more patriotic, continuing to defy long odds and win moral victories.

Now, after three decades, in the midst of another American crisis of confidence, Rocky Balboa is back. He is thirty years older (long past his prime). A mere mortal would have been completely incapable of battling a current heavy weight champion at his age--but, then again, this series has never been about plausibility.

The plot to the final Rocky movie is basically identical to the first: the impossible dream. Resurrection. The lessons are similar as well: the journey is more important than the destination. Once again, Rocky wins by losing. Along the way, Rocky preaches the necessity of tradition and loyalty to place. Back in South Philly, Rocky is firmly rooted in community and history.

Forgiveness and reconciliation have always played a crucial role in the apologues. The first Rocky turns upon the reconciliation of Rocky and his erstwhile tormenter, Mickey Goldmill, whose expertise as a trainer and corner man allows Rocky to fulfill his potential. The relationship is only possible as a result of Rocky's forgiveness, which also allows Mickey his own shot at redemption for a long list of sins and missed opportunities. In addition, Rocky must forgive Paulie over and over, seventy-times-seven. And Paulie must continue to reconcile himself to living in the shadow of his much bigger friend. Rocky and Apollo battle one another ferociously in the first two films--but their relationship culminates in a friendship bonded by deep understanding in III and IV.

Moreover, Rocky Balboa, the conclusion, finds and rehabilitates some of the minor characters lost along the way. Spider Rico, Rocky's first opponent, finds a family and a purpose. Little Marie, on the wrong track in Rocky, emerges battered but chastened in Rocky Balboa. Struggling to find their own place in a world in flux, the young people of this film learn to embrace the working class values of their pioneering elders.

Rocky and Sly are way past their salad days. Rocky was high art in 1976. Today it barely passes muster with some critics as harmless nostalgia. One superstar movie critic famously called Stallone "the next Brando" back then. He wasn't. But Stallone is back for one more Rocky. Rocky is back for one more fight. And they don't disappoint.

Rocky can still throw and take a punch. Stallone still has no equal in staging the cinematic main event. Rocky Balboa delivers once again.