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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006 06:40 am

Sly's comeback

We might not need another Rocky, but Stallone does

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It's deja vu all over again.

Do we really need another Rocky movie? Apparently Sylvester Stallone does, as a means of resuscitating his dying career. There are three methods of regaining public attention: One is to try a gimmick, such as switching to politics. Californians probably voted for Arnold Schwarzenegger just to stop him from making more movies. Stallone is following method No 2 by falling back on something familiar. His greatest successes were the two R’s, Rocky and Rambo, and he’s had far more hits inside the ring than on the screen.

The history of cinema is littered with comebacks. Fatty Arbuckle failed in his attempt to revive his career after his acquittal for the bottle-rape death of an actress in his home. He returned with the apologetic name William B. Goodrich, but not even Buster Keaton could help him overcome the stigma. After the failure of Bringing Up Baby (1938), Katharine Hepburn was branded box-office poison. Her solution was to purchase the rights to the play The Philadelphia Story, and the movie became a major hit in 1940. Ironically, Bringing Up Baby is the superior film, proving that box office was never an indicator of quality.

The third method, as used by Hepburn, is to score a role in a significant film. Burt Reynolds went from the top of the heap to the dump after a series of awful duds in the ’80s. It took his role as the porn director in Boogie Nights (1997) to end his drought. Reynolds proved a revelation to anyone who was convinced that he couldn’t play anything other than himself. He failed to capitalize on the acclaim, unlike John Travolta, who parlayed his comeback into a substantial second career. Travolta’s initial major splash with Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978) quickly dissipated, with only a few isolated hits. He came roaring back as the slow-witted hitman in Pulp Fiction (1994). Quentin Tarantino’s trendsetting crime thriller is plagued by flaws, but Travolta’s scenes with Uma Thurman are the high points.

Marlon Brando wins out with the granddaddy of all comebacks. His reputation was so low, Paramount refused to cast him in The Godfather (1972). Francis Coppola tricked the executives with a screen test featuring an unrecognizable Brando, and the result is a classic film with one of the cinema’s great iconic characters. Can Stallone pull it off? No need to worry. He’s already threatened to bring back Rambo.

New on DVD this Tuesday (Jan. 2): Snakes on a Plane and The Covenant.

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