Plot: What’s it about?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that anyone reading this review is at least marginally familiar with the films and their respective storylines. Depending on your point of view, this could be a lazy tactic designed to shorten an already bulky review or a much more concise and effective way to preach to the choir. Either way, I’m going to dive right in with the critiques and skip the foreplay. You newbies out there will simply have to locate a plot synopsis somewhere else. And if it’s really concerning you, I can think of one or two less mindless franchises for you to wrap your analytical brains around. And so, without further ado, here’s my itemized take on the entire series. Agree or disagree, but know first that I relish in having a slightly different perspective on these films than your average critic.
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.
On a personal note to the critics and fans who detested this movie, check this out: Rocky does NOT end up exactly where he started in this film. He loses everything only to find that he never really needed any of it to give his life validation. He’s right back where he was in the first film – but now he’s okay with being there. He’s the person he wanted to be from the very beginning, and he realizes that he never really needed to be anything more than who he was. He didn’t need wealth or success to be the man he now knows he was to begin with. How’s that for a series coming full circle? “Rocky VI”? FOUL! Please, folks, give this one another chance. The film deserves it. In my opinion, it’s the second best in the series after the original. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve got a voice now and I’ve been waiting to set the story straight on this flick ever since I landed this gig.
Video: How does it look?
MGM has finally seen fit to remedy one of the most colossal blunders in DVD history. The original Rocky Collection featured a completely inconsistent lineup of video and audio presentations on all five films, with only parts I and III containing the same specs. There was also a subtitle problem on “Rocky IV” and, to make matters worse, both parts II and IV were simply repackaged affairs from DVD’s early years that were of fairly substandard quality. I’ve always enjoyed this film series and this problem has always bothered me. Fortunately, this box features every film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (imagine that). The image quality on this new collection simply destroys the previously-released versions (with the exception of parts III and V, both of which already had terrific-looking transfers). The original film looks so much better than the first DVD release, in fact, that even though I only intended to watch a few seconds of a particular scene for comparison purposes, I ended up watching about 20 minutes of the film just to keep looking at it. The grain that so plagued the previous disc has been substantially reduced and, while this film uses a fairly muted palette, the colors when present simply jump off the screen in a way they never have before. Contrast has also been improved slightly, giving a more natural look to the previous disc’s comparatively dark presentation. “Rocky II” is also much improved over the initial release with the added benefit of 16:9 enhancement. The image is crisp and clean and renders the previous disc all but unwatchable. Colors aren’t quite as striking as in the first film, but the improvement overall is quite noticeable even for the less than discerning viewer. “Rocky IV” undergoes a similar transformation, though grain is a bit more predominant than I would have liked. The subtitle problem has been fixed and this is definitely the best this film has ever looked. Oddly, though, I still find this transfer to be, as before, the least natural or satisfying in the bunch (ironically, the same goes for the movie itself). I’m not quite sure of the reason for this. The image, while a vast improvement over the first release, is just a bit too digital-looking to have the film-like attributes of better efforts. This is nothing to worry about per se, as anyone used to the original disc will be as happy as Clubber wearing a championship belt. As noted before, “Rocky III” and “Rocky V” appear to be the same transfers as their earlier counterparts. This is not a bad thing, however, as both films look very good and on par with the rest of the set. In short, those of you pissed off over the inconsistency of the last set can finally stop griping and start worrying about more important things.
Audio: How does it sound?
Ah, to hear them ALL in 5.1! Okay, so these tracks aren’t mind-blowing. And they really aren’t meant to be. These are, with the aforementioned exception of part IV, character-driven films. That being said, I am quite pleased with these surround mixes which, while subdued, do give the entire series a much better sense of cohesion than previously experienced. That being the case, I’ve chosen to rate the audio for the entire set on this element rather than trying to unfairly compare these audio presentations to today’s flashy action films. As such, these mixes are quite pleasing and never harsh or overbearing. Such a balance is to be commended. Far too often, 5.1 remixes of films that were never intended for them come off as gimmicky and distracting, and it’s nice to see that, when done right, they can enhance the original recording without doing it a disservice. An optional DTS track is included on “Rocky”, though improvements over the Dolby Digital track are negligible at best. But then, I suppose there’s only so much you can do with a mono source without additional tinkering, and if “Jaws” was any example of that kind of remix, I’ll stick with a negligible improvement any day. The 5.1 option is nothing to update your previous box for in and of itself, but they do support the new transfers quite well, and together it’s a winning combination that’s sure to please.
Supplements: What are the extras?
You knew it was too good to be true. You’re going to have to hang on to your old copy of “Rocky” if you want any extras to speak of, because all you’re going to get with this set are trailers for the five films (and an extra teaser for the first film). That’s it – no featurettes, deleted scenes, or commentaries in sight. Hell, they even stripped these discs of the inserts that were included that last time around. This is the only disappointing aspect to the set, but it’s a big one, so you’re going to want to upgrade these for presentation alone or give it a pass. In my opinion, though, it’s worth the tradeoff. An A&E Biography on Stallone called “The Rocky Road to the Top” is, in fact, included on a sixth bonus disc, but only a limited number of these box sets include the disc. Look for a silver sticker on the front of the box that notes the inclusion of the bonus disc. Copies without the sticker will not include this supplement. Also, a word of advice for those of you who already have the original box set and are planning to purchase this one as well: try replacing the new amaray covers and inserts with the old ones and just use the new box and cardboard sheath. The old cases actually even look better with this box than the new ones, and the text on the back is identical for the most part. You’ll have incorrect specs for the flicks, but you’ll also have inserts and spines that look better (trust me).
Overall – I’m glad to see that MGM is at last acknowledging its previous misdeeds by correcting some of its most notable atrocities. “The Rocky Anthology” is a big step up from the last offering of these films, and I’m proud to have it on my shelf. The lack of extras aside, this is a great release of what I consider to be an unfairly maligned series. It’s not often that you find a film series that stays character-oriented through at least four of its five installments, and with all the talk about filmmaking going downhill these days, it’s a shame that these movies don’t get the respect that they should for staying true to their material. Sure, they’re over the top and they can be pretty unrealistic at times, but then that’s what sequels have to do to be effective: up the ante. I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.