Over a span of 30 years, there have been six films about the underdog boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) with audiences cheering him through the ups and downs in his career, his wins and losses, and even the rough spots in his personal life. Once again, all six films have been put together for a Blu-ray collection, and so, the way I figure it, the best way to go about giving you the low-down on it is to go through it film by film, so without further ado, let’s dive right in to what can easily be called the most famous boxing film ever made.
The original Rocky starts off with the titular boxer as a hired thug who gets himself a fight every now and again. He’s on the down and out, even sinking so far as to lose his locker space that he’s had for six years to someone with promise. Things aren’t all bad though. He’s started seeing a young girl, Adrian (Talia Shire), who works at a pet shop. She’s incredibly shy, but over the course of their date, he eventually brings her out of her shell. Meanwhile, the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), is trying to find a new opponent after his current one suffers an injury. Since all of the ranked opponents are unavailable, he sets his sights on giving a complete unknown a chance at the title, leading him to select Rocky. Rocky accepts, and so begins a rigorous training regimen that will help get him back in shape for his big fight with the champ.
I first saw “Rocky” several years ago, and to be completely honest, I didn’t think much of it. My early recollection of it was that it was a pretty dull film without much in the way of story to offer, so I never saw it a second time until this past week, more than ten years after that first viewing. I had hopes that I must’ve missed something that first time. I mean, this was the film that won three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, beating out “Network,” which is one of the best films ever made, so there must be something to it. However, on this second viewing, I found that not much had changed.
For starters, the film is overly-simplistic with its underdog story, and by that, I mean that there’s simply not much in the way of substance here. It certainly doesn’t help that it takes half the film to finally get started with the main plot (Rocky getting the fight and beginning training). Before that, not much happens that has any bearing on the plot, leading to a very languid pacing. Even when the plot finally starts up, the pacing continues until we finally come to the best part of the film: the big fight. It’s well shot and does provide some excitement, but it doesn’t begin to make up for what we’ve had to sit through to get there. After this second viewing, I’m now more surprised than ever that it was able to overcome not only “Network,” but also superior films such as “Taxi Driver” and “All the President’s Men” to take Best Picture. It’s undeniable that it has its fans though. I guess some people just love an underdog.
“Rocky II” finds our hero recovering from his bout with Apollo Creed and continuing his relationship with Adrian. It’s not long before he pops the question and officially makes her Mrs. Balboa. Now that he’s married, he wants to buy her everything with the earnings from the fight, including a car, a house, jewelry, and clothes, but pretty soon, the money starts running out, leaving him desperate to find another source of income. Meanwhile, Apollo is sore about not having officially “beaten” Rocky. He may have won by decision, but there are those that say the match was a straight draw between the two. This leads Apollo to demand a rematch despite Rocky’s claim to have retired from the ring. What’s more, he made a promise to Adrian that he wouldn’t fight anymore. However, with Rocky’s desire to provide for his wife (and a baby on the way), he decides to hop back in the ring to face the World Heavyweight Champion once more.
This second film pretty much follows the same structure of the first with very few differences. The first half once again concentrates on his relationship with Adrian while a fight begins to brew in the background. About halfway through, Rocky is informed of the fight, accepts it, and begins to train. However, this time, the film does a little better with the emotional attachment and character development, particularly in the second half when a certain event has Rocky missing a good deal of his training. The main issue with the first half is that Stallone (who wrote and directed, in addition to playing the lead) wants to elicit sympathy from the audience at Rocky’s situation, but he has the character foolishly throwing money around like it’s nothing, which isn’t the best way to go about getting it. We know Rocky isn’t the smartest of cinematic characters and that he wants to spoil his new bride, but this merely leaves the audience shaking their head in disbelief. Once again, the best part of the film is the last 20 minutes or so, which gives us a pretty exciting fight, though the ending of it was a little cheesy. Overall, I’d say “Rocky II” is a little better than the first, but not by a whole lot.
The third film finds Rocky at the top of his game. After winning the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World from Apollo Creed, he starts living the high life with his wife Adrian. A string of victories to defend his new title has left Rocky thinking that it’s perhaps time to retire, but a new opponent, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), has been making waves, continually issuing challenges to the champ. Rocky eventually accepts, but claims it will be his last fight before hanging up his gloves for good. On the night of the fight, tragedy strikes as Rocky’s trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), falls ill, leaving Rocky in a worried state as he faces Lang. In just two rounds, Rocky is knocked out, losing his title in the process. However, instead of retiring as planned, he decides to let Apollo train him for a rematch, and so, as usual, Rocky begins a tough training regimen in hopes of reclaiming his title in what he swears will be his final fight, win or lose.
“Rocky III” seems to have been made for those who thought that the first two film were a little on the slow side, with Stallone (once again pulling double duty as writer and director) filling it with a lot more action. Early on, there’s a silly fight between him and Hulk Hogan that’s somewhat amusing, but it doesn’t really serve any purpose other than killing time before his big bout with Clubber Lang. The problem is that, by trying to fill the film with more action, it leaves less room for character development, so while the film may have better pacing, there’s just not much below the surface. It’s that delicate balance that Stallone had done a decent job with in the second film, but here, he leans a little too far in one direction. Now I’m not saying that this is a bad film. I’d actually say that it ranks right below the second film. You do get a lot more fights, which have been the highlights of the first two, but you can’t help the feeling that Clubber Lang is nothing but a stand-in opponent, played very energetically, but also on just one note, by Mr. T. If you’re the type that finds the fights to be the best part of the movie and you don’t really care about any of that other stuff like character and plot development, then this is the one you’ll probably like most, but if you’re like me and you want the best of both worlds, then you’re probably only going to be partially satisfied with the results.
“Rocky IV” once again has Rocky returning to his normal life with his wife and kid. When a Russian boxing champion, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), comes to the states looking for someone to fight, Apollo Creed decides to come out of retirement to face him, with Rocky helping out as his ringside man. The fight is a complete disaster, resulting in Apollo’s death, leading Rocky to challenge Ivan himself. It’s decided that the bout will take place in Russia on Christmas Day, with Rocky traveling there in advance to do his training. So begins yet another epic training sequence that will have him preparing for his toughest fight yet.
With the first two “Rocky” films being near clones of each other structurally, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the third and fourth films are also nearly exact copies of each other. Once again, the film wastes very little time getting us to the first bout between Creed and Drago, and once again, we find Rocky facing the death of someone close to him. As has become standard practice at this point, we find the champ training long and hard for the big fight at the end of the film, all of it coming down to a very predictable end. Up to this point in the franchise, it had felt like Stallone was at least putting a little effort into each of his scripts, but this time around, it feels like he whittled it down to the most generic story possible, using the beats of the previous film as a reference. Just like before, we have an opponent who feels like nothing more than a stand-in, except this time around, he says very little, especially in comparison to Mr. T’s loquacious Clubber Lang. Even Stallone knew that he had very little story this time around, proven not only by a much shorter runtime (it doesn’t even run 90 minutes without the credits), but also by his inclusion of a James Brown dance number before the first fight, a completely unneeded montage of footage from the first three film and some from this very film, and another long drawn-out training montage featuring both contenders. Overall, “Rocky IV” just feels very lazy and puts the franchise right back down where it started.
“Rocky V” begins with Rocky’s return from Russia, where he is immediately bombarded by George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a promoter who wants the champ to fight his up and coming boxer, Union Cane (Tony Burton). Despite some recent financial woes, Rocky decides to remain retired this time, and so he passes on the fight, but takes a new interest when a young boxer, Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), asks him to be his manager. With Rocky training him, Tommy quickly climbs the ranks, with a chance at the title coming closer and closer. However, Tommy gets anxious for his shot, causing him to dump Rocky and join up with Duke. He wins the title in an easy match, but he still remains under Rocky’s long shadow, and the only way to get out is by challenging the former champ himself.
There are many that consider this to be the low point of the “Rocky” franchise, and it’s not that hard to see why. It’s a shame too because there’s a great idea at the heart of it. That being that Rocky wants to pass his boxing knowledge onto the next generation just as Mickey once did with him. The major enemies here become the major plot distractions that Stallone drops in throughout. First, there are completely random money problems that Rocky faces when he gets home, causing him to go broke and move back to his old neighborhood. What’s strange about it is that it never becomes a major part of the story. In fact, it never seems to matter at all in the scheme of things except to set up the second major plot distraction. This involves Rocky’s son, Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone), feeling distanced from his father as he trains Tommy and having to put up with bullies at his new school. These parts of the film merely end up slowing it down, making you have to wait for it to get back to the main storyline. It’s clear that Stallone wanted to get some kind of character development into the film, but having Rocky be a dunce of a father and trying to have the film focus too much on his kid just wasn’t the right way to do it. As I said, there’s a great idea here, but because of Stallone’s lack of focus on it, “Rocky V” becomes a very forgettable entry in the series.
This brings us to the final film of the franchise, the inexplicably-titled “Rocky Balboa” (was there something wrong with “Rocky VI?”) Taking place several years after the last film, Adrian has passed away from cancer and Rocky now owns a restaurant where he regales his guests with tales of his famous boxing matches. He tries to see his son Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) when he can, but the young man hardly seems to have any time for his father. Meanwhile, a new Heavyweight Champion of the World, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), has arisen. After a computer-simulated bout between Rocky and the new champ shows that the former would win, Mason’s managers decide to set up an exhibition fight between the two in Las Vegas. As should come as no surprise at this point, Rocky begins an exhausting training regimen to prepare himself for what will most likely be his final fight.
“Rocky Balboa” returns to the structure that Stallone had gotten so used to in the first two films by attempting to focus more on the characters first before throwing us headfirst into the usual training/bout. Just like before, it’s a commendable attempt, and Stallone’s heart is certainly in the right place, but the first half of the film ends up being detrimentally slow because he once again focuses on the wrong places. There are some good scenes in which Rocky tries to connect with his son like in the good old days, but for the most part, the first hour of the film is taken up with him reminiscing about days gone by and spending a lot of time with a young woman, Marie (Geraldine Hughes), that he knew as a kid. After the usual lengthy training sequence, we do eventually come to the main attraction (Rocky vs. Dixon), but it’s such a silly set-up that if you’re not shaking your head in disbelief from the start, there’s very little chance that you’ll be caring about the fight anyway after having had to slog through so much to get there. Stallone may have had the best of intentions, but overall the film can’t help feeling like just another completely unnecessary sequel.
All six films of the “Rocky” franchise come to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of beautiful quality. Each and every film looks fantastic, particularly the original, which has been given a new master. Most of these films are pretty old by now, but the studios have done a great job making them look just about as good as when they were first released. Each film also has a flawless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, except for “Rocky Balboa,” which has a 5.1 PCM track. All six tracks sound great, which, again, is impressive given the age of most of the films. I think it’s easy to say that this is the best that any of the films have every looked or sounded for a home release.
The following extras are included on disc one (“Rocky”):
- Commentary with Writer/Actor Sylvester Stallone
- Commentary with Boxing Legends Trainer Lou Dula and Commentator Bert Sugar
- Commentary with Director John G. Avildsen, Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, Actors Talia Shire, Carl Weather, and Burt Young, and Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown
- 8mm Home Movies of Rocky (1975) – Narrated by Director John G. Avildsen and Production Manager Lloyd Kaufman
- In the Ring: A Three-Part Making of Documentary
- Behind the Scenes Featurettes: Makeup, Music, Directing, and Camera Work
- Boxing Featurettes: Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva, The Opponents, and The Ring of Truth
- Tributes: Burgess Meredith and James Crabe
- Interview with a Legend: Bert Sugar
- Video Commentary with Sylvester Stallone
- Sylvester Stallone on Dinah! (1976)
- Theatrical Trailers and TV Spot
The following special features are included on disc six (“Rocky Balboa”):
- Commentary with Sylvester Stallone
- Deleted Scenes & Alternate Ending
- Boxing’s Bloopers
- Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa
- Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky’s Final Fight
- Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight
They really did a great job with these special features, including multiple in-depth behind the scenes looks at the making of the original film and several interviews with just about everyone who was involved, from the actors (Stallone, Shire, Young, Weathers) to the crew (Avildsen, Allen, Chartoff, Kaufman, and more). There are also a number of really good extras that take a look at the making of the final film, including a commentary from Stallone and the filming of the climactic fight scene. My one major complaint here is that almost all of these special features have to do with just the first and sixth films, which I suppose they felt were the most important. You do get some interviews with Dolph Lundgren (Ivan Drago of “Rocky IV”) and Tommy Morrison (Tommy Gunn of “Rocky V”), in addition to a quick examination of Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, but other than that, the extras focus on just the first and last films. What’s included here is great, but I would have loved to see further extras for the other films as well.
While there are several great extras here to engage the most avid of “Rocky” fans, the films themselves hold this release back far too much. The original film has a reputation for being a great sports flick, but after having seen it twice now with several years between viewings, I still don’t see the major appeal. In fact, two and three were a little better, and yet even they weren’t particularly recommendable. Afterwards, the films just felt completely unnecessary, falling into the same routine over and over to the point where it was very hard to become engaged with the stories anymore. What we end up with with the “Rocky: Heavyweight Collection” is a great release of a set of mostly mediocre films, and for that, it can’t quite get a recommendation.
Now available on Blu-ray.
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