Rocky: Heavyweight Collection (Blu-ray)

February 20, 2014 22 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton and Dan Pulliam

Plot: What’s it about?

If you’re any sort of movie-lover then odds are you’ve seen or at least heard of the Rocky films. Of course the original won Best Picture in 1976 and spawned five more sequels that would span the next three decades. Pretty impressive. The series also introduced us to a little-known actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone.  Stallone managed to carve out a very nice living for himself as a result of these films. Looking back at the movies, the themes are all the same. It’s all about the underdog. The little guy who won’t quit and is outmanned and outmatched. Simply put, it’s the epitome of the human spirit and the drive to go the distance, even when all the odds are against you.  The Rocky franchise embodies that like few others do.  Having seen all of the films multiple times, I’ll admit that they’re not all of the same caliber as the original. We meet cartoonish opponents like Clubber Lang (Mr. T), Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lungren). Still, they represent the obstacles that Rocky must overcome.  Enough of my babbling, here are some synopsis of the films in the collection.

Rocky – I’ve had people laugh in my face when I’ve told them that the original “Rocky” won the Best Picture Oscar in 1976. Why this film (and this series) has engendered such genuinely unwarranted distaste over the years is something I’ve never quite understood. I’ve found that the majority of people I talk to about “Rocky” immediately think of either boxing or cheesy Rambo flicks. What’s ironic about that stereotype is that the film rarely spends time actually showing us that sport or, to a large degree, even alluding to it in any direct way. And the cheese level isn’t anywhere near that of that other Stallone series. This is a film about Rocky Balboa’s break out of mediocrity to be sure, but I think that a larger point has somehow gotten lost in looking back on the movie as the impetus of a guilty pleasure, pop-culture phenomenon. “Rocky” is about a man finding validity within himself and knowing that his life has meaning. And that meaning is found in the most personal sense, not in the tangible, fleeting variety. I’ve always viewed the first Rocky film through this lens, and it enriches the film more than I can explain here in a few brief comments. Take the film out of its historical context if that’s what you must do to enjoy it on its own terms, but I implore even the most cynical among you to give it the chance it so rightfully deserves. I recently read a review for the original Rocky box set in which the reviewer speculated that the first film may very well have garnered classic status for itself had it not been for the seemingly never-ending successive trips to the well. I wholeheartedly agree, and another glance at this inspirational picture has only served to strengthen that opinion.

Rocky II – As sequels go, “Rocky II” is something of an oddity. It somehow manages to forego the decent into silliness and action over substance that plagues most genre films of this type once they’re free of the obligatory exposition and actually extends the personal story of the characters instead. This serves the film greatly and elevates it above the vast majority of dumbed-down second entries. About the only thing in this film that doesn’t hold true for me is the ever-so-slight changing of Rocky himself into a more dimwitted character as compared to the first film. In the first, Rocky wasn’t exactly educated, but he had a lot of sense nonetheless. In “Rocky II”, he seems at times to be a caricature of his previous incarnation, letting wealth go to his head to a ludicrous degree and blowing most of his earnings frivolously within the first few months. This might make sense psychologically, but dramatically, it makes Rocky a bit less sympathetic than before. On the other hand, there are a lot of positives to be found here as well. The focus on Rocky’s relationship with both his wife and his manager works extremely well and moves the story of the first film ahead in a way that’s both true to the spirit of the first film and refreshingly realistic. It never feels like the unnecessary continuation of a story that needed no epilogue, and I have always felt that most of this film’s strength lies, as with the first, in its personal relationships and heart. The inevitable climactic fight isn’t as well choreographed as the first (Rocky doesn’t really come to life until the last few rounds), but it sure is a crowd-pleaser. And so is “Rocky II”.

Rocky III – The third entry in the Rocky series can be identified by the all-too-evident “Top Gun” formula that it simply radiates from its every frame. Step 1: A close friend of the protagonist dies in conjunction with a traumatic event in his life. Step 2: He loses his confidence and must get it back before facing the same situation again and emerging victorious. Now before I start getting corrections on this, I am well aware that this film was made before “Top Gun”. I just associate this formula so tightly with the latter film that it has since become all but synonymous with this kind of predictability. For me, what’s surprising about “Rocky III” isn’t its story so much as how its style and delivery inexplicably overcome how cliched the story can be. That this entry got away with being as entertaining as it did is proof positive that you don’t need a plot that’s as character-driven as, say, “Rocky II” to make a terrific sequel. Sure, there’s a bit more holes in the substance this time around, but then this is an open-ended entry (which is to say that it’s just another in a series and doesn’t even attempt to resolve the larger story arc of the first three films), and for what it is, it’s not at all disappointing. I mean, just how much more satisfying can a “boxing movie” be (and again, I think the stereotype is misplaced) than having Mr. T and Stallone duke it out not once but twice in 100 minutes? Speaking of Mr. T, I have got to give him credit for creating what is by far the most entertaining Rocky opponent in the series. “What’s your prediction for the fight”? “Prediction”? “Yes, prediction”. “Pain”. Now honestly…need I say more?

Rocky IV – This is the film that I personally believe drove this otherwise pristine franchise into the dirt. This is 90 power-packed minutes of Stallone flexing his muscles to avenge the death of a friend (shocker) by fighting none other than the great Dolph “I must break you” Lundgren. Now, this guy is from communist Russia during the cold war era, so naturally he’s evil on two legs. He can also hit hard enough to decapitate a man with a single punch, a dubious – and major – scientific snafu that’s the bane of this entire series. Rocky Balboa has a head that’s “made of iron”, of course, so he’s in no real danger (just in case you were worried). This entry is, in actuality, little more than one feel-good, getting into shape montage after another (set to some of the most shameless 80’s tie-in tracks ever graced on a Stallone flick). But one thing about this film is glaringly different than the previous installments: there is absolutely no character development. Nothing changes at the end of this film (unless, of course, you seriously want to swallow that positively toxic “can’t we all just get along” pill that contaminates the last five minutes of a climax that already had its fair share of cheddar-jack), and it disappoints me a great deal that the series felt the need to go here. It’s a silly, trite, and all-too-cliched story without any of the redeeming qualities that saved “Rocky III” from being stupid and forgettable. While I’m not sure “Rocky IV” fully deserves that label, either, it’s a lot closer to being a throwaway movie than a classic – or even a worthy entry in my humble opinion. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is still fun. The difference is that this time you regret enjoying yourself.

Rocky V – If I see another online reviewer trash this movie, I swear I’m taking up boxing just to vent my anger. Never will I understand the intensity and longevity of the backlash against this film. Far and away better than “Rocky IV” ever dreamed of being, “Rocky V” brings us something we haven’t seen since the very first film: Rocky himself. In the second, as I’ve said, he was a bit too slow on the uptake. In the third, he was too “civilized”, as Mickey put it. In the fourth, he’d been his civil incarnation for so long, that he just wasn’t the old Rocky anymore. Blame it on the brain damage, but here in “Rocky V” he’s finally himself again and, personally, I’ll take this version of the character over any of the others. Rocky is once again a sympathetic character (part of the draw of this character – for me, at least – was that he was the ultimate underdog). I loved this film, and I think it’s reputation as a downer and, more specifically, as the weakest entry in the series is completely ridiculous and untrue. I’ve heard critics and fans alike who complain on the one hand about Rocky losing all of his wealth and winding up exactly where he started, but then wish they had used the original draft of the screenplay which had our hero dying at the end of the film. Well, folks, you can’t have it both ways. You either want a depressing flick or you don’t. I personally would have hated to see Rocky Balboa go down at the hands of his own protege because of brain damage brought on by his last worthy opponent. I also loved the Mickey flashbacks. Just try not to get a charge when you hear “get up, you son of a bitch…’cause Mickey loves you”. I dare you.

Rocky Balboa – Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has aged, his glory days as the heavyweight champion of the world are long behind him. His wife, Adrian (Talia Shire in archive footage) has passed and he tries to relive their relationship once a year on their anniversary. He’s the owner of Adrian’s, an Italian restaurant on the South side of Philadelphia. He tells old boxing stories, poses for pictures and clearly doesn’t have a bad life. His relationship with his son (Milo Ventimiglia from TV’s “Heroes”) is on the rocks as he feels somewhat embarrassed by his father’s success and is trying to make a name for himself. We then meet Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) the current heavyweight champion of the world who’s so good – he’s never really had any true competition. ESPN does a computer animation of who would beat who in a fight and they predict that in his prime, Rocky would win. This gets Mason thinking and he arranges an exhibition match between the two. This works out, of course, because Rocky has just recently re-applied to get his boxing license back. Before he knows it, the two are in Las Vegas and Rocky has one last chance to prove he’s the best that ever was.

Video: How’s it look?

The rating system for the site isn’t really meant to handle collections like this, but with the only movie in the collection having gone a recent restoration (a new 4K transfer was created), the video score will reflect that of Rocky and not the other films.  Those familiar with Rocky will know that the original was about as low budget as it got.  Colors are now improved, there’s been a bit of DNR, but nothing that distracts from the overall grain and grit of the film. There’s a more sleek look to this film that it had before, but as I mentioned – the movie still plays true to its more gritty roots. This new 1.85:1 AVC HD image is certainly the best the film has looked on disc and it’s probably the reason many will use to buy this set.

Audio: How’s it sound?

All of the films, except Rocky Balboa, contain a DTS HD Master Audio sound mix. Rocky Balboa, one of the earlier Blu-ray releases, features a PCM 5.1 track as well as a  Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Part of me thinks that if they really took their time with this set, they’d have given the most recent entry a new DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack. Guess not.  That said, the original sounds a bit better than before, but it’s hard to make something out of nothing.  Vocals are a tad bit on the sharp side and surround effects, while “there” do sound a bit harsh as well.  Bill Conti’s wonderful score resonates through the speakers, though most of the action seems to take place in the front stage.

Supplements: What are the extras?

I wasn’t able to see any new features exclusive to this set aside from the re-master of Rocky. Having said that, the only movies that feature any sort of supplements at all are the alpha and the omega of the series.  Here’s what to expect with this six disc set.

Rocky

  • Audio Commentaries – Three total. The first is with Director John G. Avildsen, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, actors Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Burt Young, and camera operator Garrett Brown. They make a very chatty and informative track that leads the viewer down the path of the film. The second track is what I call the “boxing” one for obvious reasons: Bert Sugar and Lou Duva comment on the film and while not nearly as informative as the group track, there are some more technical (boxing-related of course) that were intriguing.  Sylvester Stallone provides comments for the third track solo.  It was his screenplay and Stallone ended up directing four of the six Rocky films – I’d say he’s qualified to comment on the film.
  • 8mm Home Movies – As the name suggests, John Avildsen and production manager Lloyd Kaufman give some commentary on some of the rather “vintage” shots from the set of the movie.
  • In the Ring – This is a three part documentary that focuses on all aspects of the film, what it took to bring it to the screen and pays homage to all of the stars of the film.
  • Three Rounds with Lou Duva – Certainly not the most articulate person, he does share his particular insight on the world of boxing.
  • The Opponents – This segment focuses on three of Rocky’s most feared opponents and has some interviews with the actors that played them (Dolph Lungren, Tommy Morrison and Carl Weathers). Morrison tested positive for HIV in 1996 and died in September 2013.
  • The Ring of Truth – Bill Cassidy, Production Designer for the film, discusses some of the various locales used in the movie.
  • Interview with a Legend: Bert Sugar – The noted boxer discusses his love for the film and what it means to him.
  • Steadicam: Then and Now – Garret Brown,  inventor of the steadicam, discusses its use and how he managed to convince Director John G. Avildsen to use it on the film.
  • Makeup: The Art and Form – Michael Westmore, makeup artist, discusses in great detail the makeup and its use in the film.
  • Staccato: Composer’s Notebook – Composer Bill Conti discusses some of the various inspirations for music and the now infamous “Gonna Fly Now” song.
  • Behind the Scenes with John Avildsen – We’re treated to some more 8mm footage and this time we see some rehearsal between actors Carl Weathers and Sylvester Stallone.
  • Tributes – Burgess Meredith, who played “Mickey” in the film and James Crabe from Rocky II are remembered.
  • Video Commentary – Stallone comments on selected bits from the film (around 30 minutes in all) and offers some various insight into the film, its history and critical acclaim.
  • Dinah! Clip – Talk show host Dinah Shore introduces Sylvester Stallone on her show in this vintage clip.
  • Stallone Meets Rocky – As the name might suggest, the actor meets his character.
  • Trailers/TV Spots – The original theatrical trailer and some TV spots are shown.

Rocky Balboa

  •  Audio Commentary – Stallone, as director of this sixth film in the franchise, offers up some comments for the movie. It had been just over 15 years since the last Rocky movie and we can sense Stallone’s fondness for the film as well as his most beloved character.
  • Deleted Scenes – Eight in all are included as well as an alternate ending.
  • Skill Vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa – Essentially every big name that was associated with this movie, from the executives to the cast and crew all comment on the film and the shoot in Philadelphia.
  • Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky’s Final Fight – We get a bit of insight on the final fight of Rocky Balboa, the real Pay per View event that took place in Las Vegas and get some insight into the event.
  • Virtual Champion – Even though this took place in 2006, the technology seems rather ancient. Still, we get a look at how the virtual match was done.
  • Blooper Reel – Pretty self-explanatory.

Disc Scores

VIDEO
AUDIO
EXTRAS
OVERALL