New `Rocky' Film Fights for Respect

By JAKE COYLE, AP Entertainment Writer

We've all experienced this during the coming attractions: Hollywood puts forth a dramatic, inspiring pitch for an upcoming production - and everybody laughs.

That's happened with the trailer for "Rocky Balboa," the sixth installment in the franchise after a 16-year absence. And the film has been battered with derision and peppered with punch lines even before it hits theaters.

That hasn't blindsided the film's 60-year-old star, however.

"I understand, I do. I totally get it. They're going to have that polarization," Sylvester Stallone told The Associated Press when asked about audience reactions. "My hope is that people that have screened it have enjoyed it and say, `You know what? It's not as bad as you think.'"

Stallone's comeback bid is part of a larger trend of aging stars revisiting dormant franchises. Sharon Stone, 48, earlier this year again crossed her legs for "Basic Instinct 2," 14 years after the original. Harrison Ford, 64, wants to make another "Indiana Jones" (which last was in theaters in 1989) and more than a decade later, Bruce Willis, 51, thinks he can "Die Hard" again.

Back in 1983, Sean Connery had moderate success returning to 007 in "Never Say Never Again," an encore to his James Bond run which had ended in 1971 with "Diamonds Are Forever."

But Stallone - who's also hoping to revive "Rambo" - is playing a role particularly revealing of the aging process. Even in 1990's much-disliked "Rocky V," the fighter was presented as over-the-hill.

It is, though, a story often replayed in the boxing ring; George Foreman's multitude of comeback attempts extended even until 2004 (when Foreman was 55), but that attempt didn't make it past training.

In "Rocky Balboa" (which carefully avoids the roman numeral "VI" since marketing research suggests moviegoers prefer original titles for sequels) Rocky comes out of retirement after a televised virtual simulation shows he could beat the current champ, Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver).

"It sounds like something somebody said as a joke at a pitch meeting and people wrote it down," said Mark Lisanti, editor of the L.A. gossip blog The site has repeatedly poked fun at the new "Rocky" film - as have a number of late night talk show hosts and comedians.

"It's hard for it not to look desperate," Lisanti added.

Stallone, who also wrote and directed the film, has repeatedly said he wanted to make "Rocky Balboa" to erase the bad taste left by the dark "Rocky V" and conclude the franchise on his terms.

Stallone's comeback clearly mirrors the underdog story of an aged Rocky.

"There are a lot examples of life imitating art and vice versa in this project," said Perry Stahman, president of domestic theatrical marking for MGM. "The one thing we didn't want to do was we didn't want to run away from it. He brought that to the movie. He's very aware of what people are saying and thinking."

"Now more than ever, this is truly an underdog story," Stahman added.

Any cynical response to the prospect of Rocky's return to the ring has been combated with a robust marketing campaign by MGM, which is trying to regain its distribution and marketing footing after being acquired by Sony last year.

The trailer for "Rocky Balboa" addresses some of the movie's real-life circumstances.

"People are going to think you're going crazy," Rocky's son (Milo Ventimiglia) says.

"What's crazy about standing toe and toe and saying, `I am'?" replies Rocky.

Posted by MGM on YouTube, the trailer has been viewed by more than 1.7 million people and received a rating of four stars out of five. Such a reaction hints at high anticipation for "Rocky Balboa" - even if a good helping of the comments posted on the Web site demean it. ("Rocky Balboa's next opponent ... erectile dysfunction and memory loss.")

MGM also has aggressively marketed the film through sports outlets like ESPN and Web sites such as eBay. But has the studio convinced people that the new "Rocky" isn't laughable?

David Poland, who runs the movie industry blog, doesn't expect it to reach $30 million on the opening weekend.

But a box-office take even approaching that figure would probably please MGM (since the movie's budget has been estimated at just $25 million).

"I think between what will be not very good reviews, a skeptical crowd with a lot of movies they can go see in December, teenagers who have no idea what Rocky is - it's going to be very hard to get this one rolling with any kind of velocity," Poland said.

Releasing "Rocky Balboa" amidst the Oscar-bait season could seem like a punch-drunk decision. But Stahman believes the PG-rated film makes for good holiday viewing, and imagines fathers will take their sons to see it.

The original reaped three Academy Awards including best picture - beating an elite group of nominees that included "All the President's Men," "Network" and "Taxi Driver."

This time around, modest box-office success just might be all the moral victory that the iconic pugilist from Philly needs.

After all, Rocky has always been more about perseverance - going the distance - than fame or fortune.