Lord of the ring

Thirty years after the original, Sly Stallone is back in fighting form.

'Rocky, you went the distance! You went the 15 rounds. How do you feel?" Iconic words from the 1976 United Artists film "Rocky" that could just as well be asked of Sylvester Stallone today. It's been 30 years since Stallone wrote and starred in the first "Rocky" film, propelling himself from the depths of anonymity as an aspiring actor to the heights of international celebrity. Much was made of the parallels between the success of the film's underdog hero and Stallone himself.

The actor impresario was involved with four "Rocky" sequels in the intervening years, some hits, some just time spent with his face pressed against the mat. But Stallone's feeling pretty good today. A sixth installment, "Rocky Balboa," which Stallone wrote, directed and stars in, is poised for a 3,000-screen release Dec. 20 by MGM. The film has garnered great early buzz, and there's even been talk that the 60-year-old Stallone still looks hot in boxing shorts. What more could a guy want?

"When the film was announced, there was chuckling," recalls David Winkler -- a producer on the film along with his brother, Charles, Kevin King and William Chartoff. "I think it was Jay Leno who joked, 'Who is Rocky fighting this time ... incontinence?' And we expected it. But in the first week of shooting, we released a photo of Sly in the ring with his shirt off. He was in such amazing shape. The photo ran in every magazine and newspaper, from People to Newsweek. Suddenly, the quips stopped. People started to wonder, 'What if ...' And when people started to see the film and realized the story deals with the question of Rocky's age straight-on, they did not feel cheated."


The original "Rocky" was a low-budget sleeper that wound up becoming a boxoffice sensation around the globe -- and a contender in no fewer than 10 Academy Awards categories, including best actor and screenwriter for Stallone. Ultimately, it won for picture, director (John G. Avildsen) and film editing (Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad). Some critics even hailed it as being the best boxing movie ever made.

"Rocky Balboa" was produced for a budget estimated to be in the $25 million range, modest by Hollywood standards. It's an underdog of sorts, too, since no film franchise has ever successfully been revived after three decades with its original star. The entertainment power elite can hardly be called a sentimental bunch. They can be as fickle as any fan when it comes to tearing down icons and chasing the flavor of the month, and it's not hard to imagine the uphill battle Stallone must have faced when he was offering his new script around town.

"(The story) has a lot of heart, about a man really wanting to give something back," says Irwin Winkler, who produced the original "Rocky" with Robert Chartoff and has enjoyed seeing the franchise handed off to a new generation of producers -- their sons. (The duo executive produce the new installment.) "It very much has a 'now' time and a 'now' place to it. When you look at most sequels out there, you don't get that."

"Rocky Balboa" finds the aging boxer once again hitting bottom. His wife has died, his son doesn't want to spend time with him and so many years in the ring have made the former Italian Stallion a shadow of his former self. His fists are deformed, his shoulders are slouched and he spends his evenings telling old stories to patrons of his restaurant.

As a publicity stunt for reigning heavyweight champion Mason "The Line" Dixon, a fight is arranged between the two, the champ vs. the icon. And what begins as a joke turns out, for Rocky, to be a chance for redemption, the opportunity to prove himself, one final time, against an opponent half his age. "Rocky Balboa," David Winkler says, "returns to the drama, pathos and emotion of the first film and yet feels modern and fresh." New castmembers in this latest round include Geraldine Hughes as Marie, a single mom who met Rocky while she was a teenager, and Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky's only son. Light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver does a turn as Dixon, with James Francis Kelly III as Marie's son.

Signing up for another bout are "Rocky" veterans Burt Young as Paulie, Rocky's lifelong friend and brother-in-law; Tony Burton as Duke, Rocky's trainer; and Pedro Lovell as Spider, a one-time opponent who now hangs out in Rocky's restaurant.

"There are a few new characters in this story, as well as some new personal conflicts Rocky faces, unlike any of the sequels," David Winkler says. "And Sly modernized the way the boxing scenes were shot and edited to make them even more exciting. The film appeals to both a generation that loved the first, as well as to one who only recognizes Rocky from the theme music ('Gonna Fly Now,' written by Bill Conti)."

Adds MGM chief operating officer Rick Sands: "It's a cultural phenomenon, something everyone knows about. The music is at every sporting event -- you want a stirring theme, play 'Rocky.'"

The rocky road

Getting "Rocky Balboa" from concept to the big screen was fraught with challenges. The 1990 film "Rocky V" earned only $40.9 million in U.S. theaters, a sharp drop from the $127.9 million generated stateside by 1985's "Rocky IV," and there was a feeling that it was time to put the franchise to bed. But Stallone had never been pleased with the film and wanted to end the series on a more uplifting note.

And thus began what Charles Winkler calls "the long and tortured history of the script." Stallone began working on it 10 years ago and presented it to Irwin Winkler, who suggested he change course. Stallone thought things over and ultimately came up with the present story.

"Sly rewrote it so many times, he lost count," David Winkler says. "He knew that if the story wasn't great, no amount of hype would get people to want to see it. He was constantly scribbling away on a legal pad in longhand."

By the time the script was in satisfactory shape, however, MGM was in the throes of being sold, and there was little interest in making a new "Rocky" movie.

"Sly was really desperate, looking for any way he could to make the movie," Charles Winkler recalls. "Then right before the studio did get sold, Sly, Irwin and (Revolution Studios') Joe Roth all by coincidence wound up at the same New Year's Eve party. Joe said, 'Why don't you make another 'Rocky' movie, and Sly said, 'We've been trying, but we can't get the studio to pay attention to it.' So, Joe turned to Sly and said, 'If you keep it under $25 million, there's no way we can lose, and if MGM can't get it together, I'll do it at Revolution.' And the ball started rolling."

Ultimately, the film was produced by MGM, Sony (which led a group of investors in buying MGM) and Revolution. "The script made it easy" to greenlight the film, Sands says. "The story was so strong, and now the movie is so strong -- it really wraps up the whole series and brings it full circle."

While it remains to be seen how strong the film will perform at the boxoffice, one thing that appears certain is Stallone has given it his all.

The actor underwent an extensive training regimen and opted to film the fight scenes early, before directing and acting ate up his training time. The title bout was filmed in Las Vegas, and a little movie magic, courtesy of Look Effects, allowed the crowds from a real HBO pay-per-view match at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino to be used in the film. HBO also allowed the production to film Stallone entering the full arena, walking down the aisle and entering the ring with six cameras covering the action. When Stallone raises his arms, those are 14,000 real fight fans chanting, "Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!"

Later, Stallone and his team returned to South Philadelphia -- Rocky's hometown and the location for much of the original film -- to shoot the remainder of the tale. "Shooting in Philly, we had our hands full with crowd control," David Winkler recalls. "Sly is an icon there. Thank God he loves his fans, so every couple of hours, he would walk out and sign autographs and let people take pictures with him. He had the habit of picking a few people out of the crowd to be extras in scenes because he felt they were the real people who would be in Rocky's life."

Says Charles Winkler: "The movie works because the absurdity of a man in his 50s getting into the ring for a boxing match is what the movie is about. It doesn't shy away from the fact that Rocky is older; it tackles it head-on. Both Sly and Rocky are guys who are middle-aged and who feel they still have something to offer. That's a universal theme, and that's why I believe the film works so well."