It's called "Rocky IV," and the obvious question is, "For what?"

The series by now has acquired an almost Kabuki-like flavor -- a semiannual ritual of masochism in which Rocky Balboa, although the champ, is recast as the underdog, preferably by "a wreckin' machine" (as Burgess Meredith used to say); delivers an emotional and mostly unintelligible monologue on the general topic, "What does it mean to be a man?"; and, after a climactic battle beyond the limits of a man or even a Timex, emerges victorious (oops! did I give it away?).

In "Rocky IV" (which makes "Rocky III" seem like a masterpiece), Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Olympic boxing champion, arrives in the States with his Valkyrie wife (Brigitte Nielsen); his handlers tout the superior virtues of the Soviets' scientific training, which has turned Drago into, well, a wreckin' machine. Meanwhile, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), former adversaries and now bosom chums, have lapsed into comfortable middle age, which makes Apollo uncomfortable -- he misses the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. So he challenges Drago to an exhibition match which, since this is an MGM/UA movie, occurs at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

The prefight frivolity is full of showgirls, spangles, an Uncle Sam costume (for Apollo), the soul singer James Brown and even sportscaster Warner Wolf, all of which, it seems, is supposed to epitomize American decadence. And sure enough, Drago, for whom a smile would be a holiday indulgence, beats Apollo badly, so badly that (after some twitching) he dies in the ring.

"I cyannot bih diffitted," Drago announces. Evidently, the other "Rocky" movies never opened in Russia, because if they had, he'd know that, yes, he could be defeated, if there was just a man out there with enough heart, who can say fervently, despite the marbles in his mouth, "I just gotta do what I gotta do" and "I'm a fighter -- all we can do is just go with what we are" and "You gotta go one more round when yuh feel like yuh can't," and that man is . . .

Merv Griffin???!!!!

Well no, but it might as well be, for "Rocky IV" hasn't got the slightest relation to reality, from the fact that Stallone's fine aquiline nose, if he were really a fighter, would look by now like a squashed plantain, to the ludicrous training montages. Drago's training consists of little sparring and no heavy bag, but much straining against a number of computerized Nautilus machines, the clean and jerk (!), and illegal steroid injections (oooooh, those Russians -- they're such cheaters). Rocky, on the other hand, journeys to the Siberian wilderness, where he chops wood, lifts boulders, scales mountains, drags dog sleds, hangs from a hayloft for his sit-ups, and does no sparring at all. It's Angelo Dundee as Fred Flintstone.

Say what you like about the original "Rocky," at least it was about something -- a sweet pug up against the system, and in love with a dowd. "Rocky IV" appears to be an epic about Sylvester Stallone's penchant for self-abuse. All the air has gone out of Rocky, something Stallone, who also wrote and directed, seems to realize -- he won't leave his movie alone. It's riddled with hapless gimmickry: zooms, slow motion, double images, freeze frames, embarrassing MTV-style montages, a noisy, aggressive sound track, and flashback after flashback to the movies that have gone before, in order to remind you why you're there, as if to insist, "See, this used be a good idea." And Stallone's biceps are considerably broader than his attention span -- the movie's been edited for an audience poised to change the channel, which, lamentably, it cannot.

"Rocky's face -- absolutely like stone!" says the TV announcer in the Moscow arena, which presumably is supposed to alert you to the fact that all those other times you thought Stallone's face was absolutely like stone, he was actually up to something. There's a relentless phoniness to Stallone's man-of-the-people act, the grunts out of his gut, the liberally sprinkled "like" and "y'know" and "dis" and "dat" -- now that he's a multimillionaire, it just won't play anymore.

In the end, when Rocky says, "Dis house, duh cars, all the stuff we've got -- they're not everything," all you think is -- no, there can be still more cars, bigger houses.

And perhaps there will be, although it's hard to see what Stallone could come up with next -- maybe "Rocky Meets Rambo," done with split screen, in which the two heroes form an elite paramilitary group to battle an invasion from outer space. It's up to the moviegoing public and, as P.T. Barnum said, there's a sucker born every minute. It just never occurred to him to bring the sideshow center stage.

Rocky IV, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains violence.