“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. Now the first 4 films are out together on UHD Blu-ray in 4K.
“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 who 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.
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. With that said, there are some issues you should be aware of. The Rocky 2.0 audio mix is supposed to be a two-track original mono mix, but it’s not. It’s mixed down from the 5.1. Not a problem for me, but purists won’t be happy. All of the audio on Rocky II is pitched low, and I did find that distracting. The foreign languages on Rocky III have pitch issues, but the English tracks are fine. Finally, on the theatrical version of Rocky IV there is a sudden aspect ratio jump. It’s quick, but you will notice it. The scene doesn’t exist in the director’s cut, so it’s not an issue on that presentation.
“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.
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 offm 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 who 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.
There is a new Director’s cut of this film that Stallone revisited over COVID. There are re-edits, particularly with the fights. It’s only two minutes longer, but you’ll find plenty of style changes throughout, from new color correction to a montage now in black & white. It’s a more interesting film, to be sure, and it’s worth a look here.
Each film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The original film looks the best here. The grain remains intact, and colors and details will jump out at you. I’ve seen the films many times, and I saw details I never noticed before, like Rocky’s knife hat holder. The makeup f/x are really something now. The HDR/Dolby Vision improvements help to bring alive those dark corners of South Philly, and the detail is amazing. The image gets shinier in the later films, but you lose some of that gritty organic look of the first film. The third exhibits some soft focus and digital shimmering on a few of the long shots. Close-ups are still sharp and on target. The fight detail is what really stands out on all of these films. You can really see the work of Michael Westmore, who went on to do the makeup on Star Trek from Next Generation through Deep Space Nine, creating all of those aliens. Black levels are really nice throughout,t and there is some outstanding shadow definition.
The Dolby DigitalHD 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 on an extra Blu-ray, but they’re pretty much ported over from earlier Blu-ray releases with the exception of a feature on the new cut of Rocky IV.
The Making Of Rocky vs. Drago – Keep Pushing: (58:23) Stallone guides us through the new edit of the film. It’s all casual conversations with his old friend director John Herzfield, who is filming the feature. They have a pretty intimate conversation at times, and it brings out the most relaxed and candid Sly Stallone you’ve ever seen. It’s a sweet feature even if you don’t care about the re-edit.
This is an undisputed champion collection. The collection is not without its flaws. The issues listed above are the result of the studio rushing the collection to land with Creed III at the box office. They are not incredibly serious but should not have happened. I suspect when the other two films are ready, we’ll get a more improved 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.”