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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Comedy > Boxing > Rocky Anthology (One – Five; MGM/Fox/DVD-Video) + Rocky (1976/Blu-ray)

Rocky Anthology (One – Five/1976 – 90; MGM/Fox/DVD-Video) +

Rocky (1976/Blu-ray)




Rocky (1976)


Picture: C+     Sound: C+     Extras: C-     Film: A

Blu-ray (sold separately): Picture: B-     Sound: B-



Just like another 1970s masterpiece, John Carpenter's Halloween, it's sometimes hard to remember what a great film the original Rocky is because its reputation has been hurt by too many unnecessary sequels.  Nevertheless, it's still impossible to resist the charms of this gritty, moving and sometimes very funny underdog story every time you revisit it.


Prior to Rocky, its writer-star Sylvester Stallone was a little-known character actor who appeared in 1974-1975 feature films such as The Lords of Flatbush, Capone, Death Race 2000 & Farewell, My Lovely, and guest starred in a 1975 episode of Kojak.


The studio liked Stallone's screenplay, but wanted a much more established star like Ryan O'Neal or James Caan to star as Rocky Balboa, a struggling, past-his-prime boxer just one step away from skid row.  But Stallone was determined to play Rocky himself and refused to sell his screenplay unless he could star as the title character.  United Artists reluctantly agreed, and a new star was born.


Combining the lower-middle-class grittiness of an On the Waterfront with the sweetness of a Marty, the first Rocky is a story of redemption about four principal characters from the rough streets of Philadelphia who'd been beaten down by life.


Rocky is a small-time club fighter who makes peanuts boxing and barely makes enough collecting debts for the neighborhood loan shark (Joe Spinell) to pay for his run-down apartment.  Rocky has some talent -- he can throw a hard punch -- but he's pretty much resigned himself to being a third-rate pug.


Paulie (Burt Young) is Rocky's alcoholic friend who works at the meat factory, and lives with his painfully shy sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), who begins dating Rocky.


Mickey (Burgess Meredith) is a crusty 79-year-old former boxer turned trainer who runs the local gym where Rocky has trained for years.  Mickey has never been particularly nice to Rocky, who's more sensitive than he puts on.


When the scheduled challenger for a New Year's Day 1976 against reigning heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is forced to drop out, Creed is forced to find another opponent.  Looking for a gimmick to exploit, Creed picks Rocky as his new opponent mainly because of his catchy nickname, "The Italian Stallion."


Rocky's one in a million chance won't be about winning, but proving he can compete in the big leagues.


Directed by John G. Avildsen (Joe, Save the Tiger), the original Rocky struck a chord with audiences during the cynical post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era when bleak, unhappy endings in movies had become the norm.  But while Rocky was and is an excellent movie, it, along with George Lucas' Star Wars, which would open six months later, marked the beginning of the end of a great period of ultra-realistic '70s filmmaking.  Movies have gone way too far in the feel-good direction in the subsequent 30 years, but Rocky earns its big emotional finale by giving us a plethora of great, little moments along the way and providing characters we really come to love.


From Stallone's script to the perfect casting to the wonderful performances to Bill Conti's now-famous "Gonna Fly Now" theme song (a #1 hit in 1977), Rocky is one of those rare movies where all the key elements fall into place.  It still manages to inspire, and it's easy to see why this marvelous Cinderella story won the Academy Award for 1976's Best Picture.



Rocky II (1979)


Picture: B-   Sound: B-   Extras: C-   Film: B+



Before sequelitis would infect this series and the industry as a whole, Rocky II was a very good second chapter even though the result of the climactic Balboa vs. Creed rematch is pretty much a foregone conclusion. 


Written as well as directed by Stallone this time, Rocky II retains much of the humor that separated the first two films from the rest of the series.  Beginning right where the first left off, Rocky marries Adrian and promises never to fight again.  But when Rocky can't make a living any other way, he agrees to a rematch with heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, who wants to prove Rocky going the distance with him in their first match was nothing more than a fluke.


Other than a personal crisis that brings out Rocky's Catholic faith, this is a virtual repeat of the first film, but it still works.  However, this is where the series should have ended.



Rocky III (1982)


Picture: B-   Sound: B-   Extras: C-   Film: C+



The formula was starting to become tiresome by now, and can somebody please explain how Rocky suddenly became more articulate in this one despite more punches to the head? 


Here the now-wealthy Rocky has become complacent after winning the championship belt, and after 10 easy title defenses, gets whipped and loses the belt to a mean, determined challenger named Clubber Lang (Mr. T).  Mickey dies, and Rocky loses his confidence for a while.  But after being insulted by Clubber Lang, Apollo Creed comes over to Rocky's side and becomes his new trainer.  With Apollo's help, Rocky will regain the "eye of the tiger" and try to win back his title and self-respect.


This is where the series began to take itself too seriously and lost its charm.  Rocky, the lovable lug of the first two, suddenly seems more like the real Stallone than the character, and this one has a mechanical, synthetic feel the previous ones did not.   


I guess Mr. T seemed a lot more menacing back in 1982, and Survivor's (#1 for 6 weeks back in 1982) hit song, "Eye of the Tiger," helped sell a lot of tickets.



Rocky IV (1985)


Picture: B-   Sound: B-   Extras: C-   Film: C


Despite being more predictable and corny than ever, Rocky IV managed to become the highest grossing film in the series.  By this point, Stallone had morphed into a muscular action hero with a lot more in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger than actors like Brando, De Niro and Pacino, who he had been compared to just nine year earlier.


Again smartly tapping into Cold War tensions and Reagan-era pride as his Rambo: First Blood Part II did earlier that year, this time the antagonist is a huge Soviet boxer named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).  After killing Apollo Creed in the ring during an exhibition match, Rocky comes out of retirement to avenge the death of his foe turned friend.


With the Big Fight set to take place inside The Soviet Union, Rocky goes away to a remote cabin in cold, snowy Russia to train using primitive methods as Drago trains using state-of-the-art high-tech tools.


Punctuated by lots of MTV-style musical montages, IV does boast a pretty good soundtrack, but we've come a long way (in the wrong direction) from the modest, human story on the Philadelphia streets that was the original Rocky.


This one also shows signs of stardom having gone to Stallone's head and him becoming delusional.  When the Soviet fans as well as the Soviet government officials stand up and cheer Rocky at the end, you can't help but roll your eyes in disbelief.



Rocky V (1990)


Picture: B-   Sound: B-   Extras: C-   Film: C


After suffering "irreversible" brain damage in his fight with Drago at the end of IV, Rocky loses his fortune, moves back to the old neighborhood and neglects his son (Stallone's real-life son, Sage Stallone) while training an ultimately ungrateful young boxer named Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison).


Bringing back director John G. Avildsen for the first time since the first one, Rocky V is a manufactured attempt to capture the spirit of the original.  But what's intended as high drama is instead cloying and silly.


The climactic street fight where television cameras are filming and the entire neighborhood seems to show up within seconds is especially ridiculous, but by keeping Rocky out the ring and making him a trainer, V at least earns a few points for trying to be different.



All five films in this Fox/MGM DVD-Video box set are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with new digital transfers and English 5.1 Surround Sound.  The first Rocky is the only one additionally presented in DTS, while the Blu-ray is presented in DTS HD 5.1 lossless Master Audio.  Both DTS mixes show the limits of the fidelity of the film’s old soundtrack.  The first film also looks grainy and needs some work, something that can be said to less of an extent for the Blu-ray, whose 1080p MPEG-2 at 18 MBPS digital High Definition image has its issues and just earns its letter grade.  The sequels look a little better, but the later films (IV & V) should look better than they do here.


The first film was an optical monophonic release, the second an old analog Dolby A-type theatrical sound film, the third and fourth made available in 70mm blow-ups with a Dolby 4.1/6-track magnetic stereo mix and the fifth in 35mm only with Dolby’s improved Dolby SR (Spectral Recording) analog playback system.  Starting with the third, the sound is not up to what it should be, immediately apparent when hearing the Survivor hit to death.  The fourth film had a songtrack with Survivor’s (sporting a new lead singer) hit Burning Heart, a hoped for hit duet by Kenny Loggins & Gladys Knight called Double Or Nothing and the late, great, immortal James Brown with his huge comeback hit Living In America.  They should sound much better here too.  The fifth film had no hits or hit album, but the SR upgrade is awkward here.  Maybe the Blu-rays will get DTS upgrades.


The only extra contained with each film is the original theatrical trailer, as well as the Blu-ray edition at 25GB.  Keep in mind, however, that this box set does not contain the new 2006 2-disc special edition of the first one, which is loaded with extras.  Maybe we’ll see them on a later Blu-ray or DVD collection release.  The series is popular enough.



-   Chuck O'Leary and Nicholas Sheffo


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