Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on November 24th, 2009
“You got everything money can buy, except what it can’t. It’s pride. Pride is what got you here. Losing is what brung you back. But, people like you, they need to be tested. They need a challenge.”
There have been a ton of boxing films. They’ve been popular going back to the Silent Era. Most of them have many of the same themes. But there was always something about Rocky that stood out above all of the rest. That “something” can’t really be described or defined. As the Supreme Court once said about the definition of obscenity: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” That’s all you can say about Rocky. Some might call it heart. That’s about as good a word for it as anything else. Rocky himself would call it “stuff in the basement”. It almost demeans it to put a word on it at all. Whatever you call it, you don’t necessarily see it in Rocky … you feel it.
“There’s always somebody out there. Always! When the time comes and you find something standing in front of you that ain’t running, that ain’t backing up, and hitting on you. You’re too damn tired to breathe. You find that situation on you. That’s good because that’s baptism under fire. You get through that, you find the only kind of respect that matters in this damn world… self respect.”
Sylvester Stallone, Sly to his friends and fans, took the entire world by surprise in 1976. To look at the young man, you wouldn’t expect much in the intelligence department. Like his counterpart, Sly isn’t the most articulate guy you’re going to run into. He doesn’t seem to have much mastery over the Queen’s language. That is until you see what he’s done. There are still people surprised today to learn that Rocky wasn’t just Sly’s creation as an actor playing a part. Sly created the character and his world on paper, too. He wrote the script for pretty much the entire franchise. He also directed a few of the six films. Looks are deceiving, and Sly proves it both on and off the screen.
As a kid growing up near Philadelphia, 1976 was an exciting time. The country was in the middle of Bicentennial fever, and Philly was at the heart of it just as it had been 200 years before. You could almost feel the spirits of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams walking the streets of the city debating the cause of freedom. In those days there was a lot of talk about the underdog. A small colony with no real experience governing themselves is about to go up against the most powerful military in the world. If Vegas odds makers had been around then, I’m sure they would have posted some pretty long odds against the little Philadelphia delegation and its citizen militia. So, it is in Philadelphia, where a bell once signaled the start of the first round of a fight for independence, that the story would be retold in the modern setting of a boxing match.
Beyond the well crafted script Stallone found an incredible supporting cast to help him bring his vision to life. Highest among these has to be veteran actor Burgess Meredith as Mickey. Mickey brings out everything that Rocky stands for. Here’s a character that never got the chance to prove what he could do and lived an entire life of regrets and what ifs. Rocky has the chance to redeem them both. To do so he has to rise above his feelings of slight from Mickey and see the fire burning underneath. Burt Young is the only actor except for Stallone himself to appear in all six films. He plays Rocky’s best friend, but a friend who is bitter at life and is always complaining. You get the sense that he’d sell his mother out for a dollar and an ounce of perceived respect. But you get the idea that Paulie has something else within him. Contrary to his actions and words, you know that he would be fiercely loyal if called upon in the end. Finally, The Godfather Saga’s Talia Shire plays Rocky’s girl Adrian, giving us one of those film lines that will live on forever, “Yo, Adrian.” Ask anyone for a Stallone imitation and that’s likely what you’re gonna get. She isn’t great in the films, and most of her appearances seem to be to act worried while Rocky gets pounded in the ring. She’s not a gorgeous woman, and I think that’s kind of the point. I can’t shake the Connie image, and it seems to me that you could substitute Michael for Rocky in most of her lines and she’s the same character. She’s the weak link in a very strong chain.
All six films are gathered here, some for the first time in high definition and Blu-ray. The results are mixed. After all, Rocky’s world is a gritty and dark place where the image isn’t supposed to look all that good. The films take us to some of the lesser known areas of South Philadelphia. These are the kinds of places you don’t see on the brochures or the tourist commercials. But, they are as real as it gets. This was the first film to use a Steadicam. You aren’t getting these discs for a shiny picture. You will get them because they are all collected in one place in the best condition they’ve ever appeared in.
“You’re gonna eat lightnin’ and you’re gonna crap thunder!”
Sly Stallone plays our hero, Rocky Balboa, a down-on-his-luck boxer and collector for a small-time gangster. He’s a nobody, but through the right set of circumstances, he gets a shot at the heavyweight boxing world championship title. Calling it a long shot would be an understatement, and Rocky has to battle against his own self-doubt before he even takes a swing at Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the current champ. In his corner is Mick (Burgess Meredith), a crusty old trainer, and Rocky’s girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire), whose heart he wins on the way.
And who could forget good old Paulie (Burt Young), Rocky’s friend and Adrian’s brother, who pesters them throughout the film. He’s a frightened, angry, and greedy little man, but like the whole movie, he too has a heart. It may be familiarity speaking, but I can’t imagine anyone else playing any of these roles. It’s a great cast, including even Sylvester Stallone, whose career skyrocketed along with the success of this film.
Each time I catch myself scoffing at Sly or one of his many bad movies, such as Judge Dredd or Oscar, I force myself to remember Rocky. He wrote it, won the right to star in it, and helped make it the Best Picture winner of 1976, not to mention earning nine other Academy nominations, and wins for Best Director and Best Film Editing. The film cost about $1.1 million to make, was shot in just 28 days, and earned more than $400 million. It was a true blockbuster, and one of the first.
You can’t talk about Rocky without discussing the music of Bill Conti. His Gonna Fly Now theme is one of the most recognizable original film songs ever, and it truly captured the heart and soul of Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion. It’s a wonder Conti didn’t win the Oscar he was nominated for with this song.
Say what you will about the later movies in the Rocky series, but the original stands apart as a superb film. Just like Rocky, after going the distance against Apollo Creed, this film has earned and deserves our respect. (Tom Buller)
Rocky II (1979):
“He’s all wrong for us, baby. I saw you beat that man like I never saw no man get beat before, and the man kept coming after you. Now we don’t need no man like that in our lives.”
Picking up exactly where the first film left off we see the impact of the split decision fight on the lives of both boxers. Creed can’t shake the ridicule that the fight was fixed or that he barely got away with a win. Rocky is trying to turn the event into a life for himself. He gets pushed into doing endorsements, but his lack of articulation and reading skills keeps him from getting any kind of a payday. It all leads up to the expected rematch between the two.
The film was inevitable as soon as the first one took the box office by storm. It took three years, but Stallone came out punching with his follow-up film. He not only wrote, but directed this one. All of the cast returns. You get a lot of the same themes as Rocky trains to beat the champ this time. One of the most memorable scenes has Rocky chasing around a chicken as part of his training. Minnesota Viking John Randall would later get some attention in television commercials dressing a chicken in a Packers uniform with the number 4 and chase it around a yard. Now that number 4 wears a purple Jersey, playing for Randall’s old team. Man, have things changed. The scene where Rocky is running along the riverfront with a hundred kids running with him is one of the most memorable images in the franchise. Where did that one kid get a Steelers jersey? The finale in the Spectrum brought back a lot of memories for me. In high school I spent many nights there watching concerts in the 70’s as well as 76ers and Flyers games. For a while the Rocky statue was there at the top of those steps like it is at the Art Museum in the films. Again, the Bill Conti score just brings these montage moments to life.
Rocky III (1982):
“He ain’t gonna kiss ya. He’s gonna kill ya.”
Rocky has been the champ for a while now. He’s been winning his fights, but Mickey has been setting up soft bouts for the champ. Up and comer Clubber Lang (T) feels like the Champ has been ducking him. He confronts him at a statue dedication and insults Adrian. Now Rocky decides to go after the huge boxer. With Mickey gone, Apollo Creed decides to help Rocky train for the rematch.
This film might be most notable for introducing Mr. T and his trademark “I pity the fool” catch phrase. Mr. T. plays the opponent here, and in my opinion is the best of the bunch. The boxing scenes here are some of the most intense, but someone in the Foley department wasn’t on target. Many of the punch sounds do not line up with how they’re thrown on the screen. By now Shire’s Adrian has become pretty redundant. She’s relegated to looking worried most of the time. This is also the first time that the Survivor hit Eye Of The Tiger is added to the musical score for a Rocky film.
Rocky IV (1985):
“No, maybe I can’t win. Maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything he’s got. But to beat me, he’s going to have to kill me. And to kill me, he’s gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me. And to do that, he’s got to be willing to die himself. I don’t know if he’s ready to do that. I don’t know.”
The Soviet Union has announced to the world that they have developed the most scientific methods to train a fighter. Ivan Drago (Lundgren) is a massive man with three times the strength in his blows as the best fighters before him. He’s brought to America to challenge their best and prove the Soviet superiority in athletic development. The show tour gets under Apollo Creed’s skin, and he decides to come out of retirement to take on the brute. He asks for Rocky’s help to train to beat the behemoth. Unfortunately, Creed is no match, and Drago kills him in the ring. Of course, now Rocky takes the situation personally and agrees to train and take on the opponent in Moscow.
It’s hard to imagine now that there are a lot of people alive today that are too young to remember the days of the Cold War. Unfortunately, it’s important to really understand that context to get this film. It also is the only movie in the franchise that is truly dated. It just doesn’t work all that well anymore. It doesn’t help that the Bill Conti score was almost completely abandoned, replaced by too many 80’s power ballads and synth pop. They just don’t have the same heart, and this is by far the weakest of these films. There are way too many montages here, and even the actors are way over the top in this one. The film introduces us to Dolph Lundgren, who is pretty impressive physically but is not a rounded character at all. Rocky might as well have been fighting a machine. Finally, the movie completely throws away its credibility with a final scene that plays out like Rocky singlehandedly ended the Cold War.
Perhaps Sly’s attentions were elsewhere and he might have been tired of the franchise. Between III and IV Sly had found a new character that would have a series of films. The first two Rambo films would be released in that time. But, John Rambo never had the depth and heart that Rocky Balboa had.
Rocky V (1990)
“And nature is smarter than people think. Little by little we lose our friends, we lose everything. We keep losin’ and losin’ till we say you know, ‘Oh what the hell am I livin’ around here for? I got not reason to go on.’ But with you kid, boy, I got a reason to go on. And I’m gonna stay alive and I will watch you make good”
When Rocky returns from Russia, he’s pretty much worn out and decides to retire. A crooked accountant that Paulie has hired stole their millions, and now the family must move back into Pauly’s old house in the old rundown neighborhood. He knows he can’t fight now, but Rocky’s dreams get reborn when he meets Tommy Gunn (Morrison). The boy wants a shot, and Rocky sees the same hunger he once had. He decides to train and manage the young boxer. He takes him into his home and treats him more like a son than his own boy, who becomes resentful. But Tommy ends up betraying Rocky. They end up having a street brawl where Rocky takes him to school one last time.
Credit Stallone and company for trying to find a new approach for the Rocky character. Here he wants to be like Mickey and help bring another young fighter up. You get the best of the films when it comes to Rocky’s family life, but it never has the energy of most of the earlier films. His on screen son is played by his real life son Sage Stallone. It’s a bit quirky because it looks like Rocky’s kid aged about 5 years while he was in Russia for 6 months. He must have been exposed to some cosmic radiation. Tommy Morrison is always awkward as Tommy Gunn, and he doesn’t have that realism that had become so much a trademark for these movies. It all ends up feeling all too forced, and this one ranks at the bottom with only the fourth film worse.
Rocky Balboa (2006)
“So, what we’ll be calling on is good ol’ fashion blunt force trauma. Horsepower. Heavy-duty, cast-iron, piledriving punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors. Every time you hit him with a shot, it’s gotta feel like he tried kissing the express train. Yeah! Let’s start building some hurtin’ bombs!”
After many years since he was champ, Rocky has learned to live without boxing. Adrian is gone now, and he owns a restaurant that caters mostly to his old fans. He spends most of his time going table to table and telling stories about his glory days. One day ESPN sets up a computer game match up between Rocky and the current champ, Mason Dixon (Tarver). The simulation proposes the question, what would happen if the two met in their prime. Cyber Rocky beats the current champ. Now the press is badgering the champ about the game. He gets fed up and calls Rocky out. So, out of retirement comes the 50 year old former champ to take on the young man.
Stallone had always said that he never felt like the film series ended the way he wanted it to end. Age was playing a part in any decision to bring the character back. What he came up with was a pretty good sendoff for the movie franchise. This movie certainly returns the series back to the heart it had lacked in the previous two attempts. It went back to the idea of Rocky as an underdog trying to come to terms with who he is now. He has a demon inside that he believes will be put to rest with this one last fight. Conti returns with the score and the franchise finally comes full circle. It’s not likely we’ll see Rocky Balboa again, and with this final movie I think that’s the right call. Everything is right back to where it should be. It’s been a hell of a ride, hasn’t it?
Each film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Most sport an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. All are fully 1080p. Obviously, the newer films have the best overall shine to them, but there is nothing wrong with the gritty world of the earlier films. There is some print damage there, but it all falls within acceptable ranges. Sometimes DNR raises its ugly head, but not as badly as most. Colors are ultra realistic. Black levels are fair to excellent. Detail is where these images mostly shine. There was some phenomenal cinematography in a couple of these films, and that is very much accented here. You might not want these particularly for high definition image quality, and these won’t be show-off pieces either. They do stand up remarkably well, however.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 track is the audio presentation of choice here. There are really no aggressive surrounds here, and there don’t need to be. There are only two things you should be thinking about here. One, can I hear the dialog. Yes, you can. How does Bill Conti’s score sound. The answer there is dynamic and thrilling. Any other questions?
Bonus features can be found in two places. The first five films contain no extras. You will find extras on the Rocky Balboa disc which are identical to the previous Blu-ray release and on a 7th Bonus Blu-ray. That’s where I’ll concentrate my descriptions. All of the following appear on that disc. Unfortunately, they are in standard definition:
Three Rounds With Legendary Trainer Lou Duva: (4:44) SD Duva is an old trainer and he gives us his take on how boxing has changed, how he got into the business, what a trainer does, and his take on the Rocky films.
Interview With A Legend – Bert Sugar: (6:56) SD Sugar is a sports writer. He talks about the first boxing match he ever saw and offers up some philosophizing about boxing and Rocky. He loves both. He doesn’t appear to be very respectful of Philadelphia, it seems.
The Opponents: (16:23) SD A rogue’s gallery of the Rocky movies bad guys. Each of the opponents is profiled and some of the actors talk about the roles. You get an idea of the attempted themes of the films and how these characters fit in.
In The Ring – Three Part Making Of Documentary: (1:15:52) SD This is mostly a look back more than a making of feature. Cast and crew talk about the various issues in making the first film. They talk about the story, the cast, and the themes of that first film. It’s a wonderful retrospective. For royalty issues the piece is split into three parts that you can access individually or use the play all feature as I did.
Steadicam Then And Now With Garrett Brown: (17:25) SD Brown actually invented the Steadicam for this first film. He shows us the equipment and the design process.
The Ring Of Truth: (9:48) SD Set design is the focus of this one.
Behind The Scenes With John Avidsen: (12:36) SD Watch some 8mm footage that was used for tests during the first film. The pieces are silent, but Avidsen offers us set-up for them.
Tribute To Burgess Meredith: (7:56) HD This is a fitting tribute with a few cast members and mostly Stallone talking about working with the acting legend.
Tribute To James Crabe: (3:46) HD Crabe was the director of photography on the first film.
This is an undisputed champion collection. The Rocky films have certainly left their mark. It was as much an underdog story for Stallone himself as it was for Rocky Balboa. Do they stretch credulity at times? Of course they do. But these were, for the most part, smart films that provided a realistic enough insight into boxing that it’s easy to forgive the fairy tale aspects of it all. About the only thing bad I can say about this set is, “Took you long enough to get here”.