One of the most iconic screen roles of all time, "Rocky" launched Sylvester Stallone's career. Directed by John G. Avildsen and produced in 1976, the original film was done on a relatively minor budget ($1.1M) and went on to become one of the year's biggest hits, earning over $100M and managing to snag a series of Oscars.
The film starred Stallone as Rocky Balboa, a small time loan collector working in Philly who's selected by Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) to fight when Creed's opponent is injured before the upcoming prize fight. Trained by Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) and assisted by Paulie (Burt Young), underdog Rocky works his way up towards the fight, not expecting to win against the legendary prize fighter. Meanwhile, he starts a romance with Paulie's sister, Adrian (Talia Shire). While the character is certainly a film icon, other aspects of the film also remain famed, especially the Philly Museum of Art, whose steps Rocky bounds up during his training. There was eventually a Rocky statue placed at the steps.
While the original film follows the underdog sports film formula, the script by Stallone manages to offer enjoyable character development and a number of genuinely powerful moments. While Stallone's acting has been more uneven in recent years, this early performance is an undeniably moving and bold effort from the actor. He's joined by excellent supporting efforts from Meredith and Shire.
The second film continued where the story of the first film left off, with Rocky nearly winning against Creed. Afterwards, he declares his retirement from boxing and marries Adrian. While his success is thrilling initially, his options gradually fade, leaving him back where he started. Beaten but not down for the count, Rocky picks himself up off the mat and pushes for another fight against Creed. Stallone, Meredith and others offer fine performances, but the picture often seems like a retread of the prior film.
The third film in the series once again opens with a continuation of the finale of the prior film. However, this time around, we're told of Rocky's years of success in the ring afterwards. While Rocky enjoys being the champ, newcomer James Lang (Mr. T) is working his way up the ranks, eager to take on Rocky and nab the title for himself. While Rocky isn't ready to take on the younger fighter, he does so anyway and, distracted and unfit for the bout, he takes a surprise loss to Lang. The remainder watches Rocky pick himself up (once again) and try to work his way back to the top, with the help of Creed and "Eye of the Tiger".
The fourth film in the series saw the franchise start to wear out its welcome a bit. The film sees the introduction of Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who is managed by General Koloff (Michael Pataki). Unfortunately, Drago takes on the retired Creed and the match turns tragic after Creed is severely injured. Wanting revenge for the loss of his friend, Rocky decides to take on Drago on his home turf, heading to Russia for a Christmas Day fight, much to the dismay of Adrian. Once again, we get a series of montages as Rocky prepares to take on the intimidating Drago. The film offers another solid performance from writer/director Stallone and Lundgren makes a solid villain, but the series starts to feel as if it's mined all the possibilities from the character at this point.
Film number five made its debut in 1990, a remarkable fourteen years after the first film hit theaters. The film saw director John G. Avildsen return to the helm and Stallone changes gears. As with the rest of the sequels, the movie opens where the film before it left off. After the fight with Drago, Rocky finds out that the fight has caused him serious physical damage, and that the years in the ring have taken their toll. While financial issues draw him back towards the ring against the wishes of Adrian and others, he eventually finds himself back in the gym, training young boxers, such as Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), who ends up turning against the former champ and challenging him to a fight. The film does offer a welcome change to the formula, but the pacing is a little draggy at times.
While some questioned the idea of bringing back the character after 16 years, 2006's "Rocky Balboa" surprised many by racking up a rather solid showing at the box office, leading one to believe that fans were eager for another round with the character they had been fond of for so many years. This time around, Rocky once again finds himself being pulled back into the ring after he's challenged to an exhibition bout with current champ Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver). He also finds himself befriending a woman from his past - Marie (Geraldine Hughes) - who also has a son. The film (not surprisingly) relies on formula, but there are some things that work quite well, such as the chemistry between Hughes and Stallone. Stallone also delivers an excellent performance, as he clearly seems pleased to be back in the comfortable old shoes of the character that made him famous. While the necessity of the film still seems a little iffy, "Rocky Balboa" does a fine job revisiting this classic character - if this is it for "Rocky", it's a fine way to close the franchise.
VIDEO: The different films were produced over the span of many years, and as a result, understandably are presented with varying image quality. The films are all presented in 1.85:1 (1080p) by MGM and the results - while not perfect - should please fans. The original film (MPEG-2/1080p) once again looks just fine on this transfer that appears to be the same as the one used for the prior release of the film. Sharpness and detail are inconsistent, with some scenes looking mildly soft. However, the presentation does offer improved clarity and detail over prior DVD releases. Some wear and tear are visible, with minor specks, marks and other slight debris spotted in some scenes. On a positive note, no edge enhancement or pixelation is seen. Colors looked on the cool and steely side, but appeared accurately presented.
The second film (1080p/AVC) looks a touch better, as while some moments of softness are still visible, detail looked more consistent and most stretches of the film at least looked crisp. Some slight instances of debris were still spotted, but the picture otherwise appeared clean and only a few minor instances of edge enhancement are seen. Colors look spot-on once again, appearing subdued as intended.
The third film (1080p/AVC) has a few iffy moments here-and-there, as stretches can seem noticeably softer than the rest. However, much of the rest of the film looks fine, considering the era. Light dirt and slight edge enhancement is seen in a few scenes, but the rest of the picture fares better. The fourth film (1080p/AVC) really starts to shine, with sharpness and detail looking stronger (if still not remarkable) across the board. Colors look a bit more cleanly presented and the picture suffers from less in the way of visible wear.
The fifth film and especially "Rocky Balboa" (1080p/AVC) look quite good. The most recent of the bunch, "Rocky Balboa" looks terrific, as the image appeared consistently sharp and well-defined, with no visible edge enhancement or other faults.
SOUND: Films 1-5 are presented with DTS-HD 5.1 audio, while the most recent film is given a PCM 5.1 soundtrack. The audio for the films becomes progressively more active and modern, although even "Rocky Balboa" still has a fairly limited amount of surround use, only really heard during the fight scenes. Still, audio quality is impressively punchy and dynamic on "Rocky Balboa", and even the older films sound a little fresher than one might expect.
EXTRAS: The "Rocky Balboa" disc carries over the extras from the previous release, including a thoughtful and informative commentary from Stallone, deleted scenes, bloopers, "Skill Vs. Will" featurette, "Reality in the Ring" featurette and "Virtual Champion" featurette.
There is also an added bonus disc that carries over previously seen extras, as well as one new one ("Feeling Strong Now" interactive trivia game.) The best extra remains "In the Ring", a superb "making of" documentary that runs a little over an hour and contains interviews with Stallone and many of the other actors and crew members who worked on the films. The documentary goes over a lot of ground, tackling the success of the first film, characters, production issues, score and much more.
"Steadicam: Then and Now With Garrett Brown" is a 17-minute look into the use of the then-new Steadicam, as well as how the camera was used during the film. "Make-Up: The Art and Form With Michael Westmore" is a 15-minute doc focusing on the film's practical make-up FX. " A Composer’s Notebook with Bill Conti" is an 11-minute interview with the composer, who discusses his quite memorable work on the film. "Opponents" is a 15-minute look into some of Rocky's fiercest villains.
"Interview with a Legend – Bert Sugar: Author/Commentator and Historian" runs a few minutes and provides some rich insights, as does "Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva", which has the legendary trainer sharing his thoughts on the sport. "Video Commentary with Sylvester Stallone" runs a little under 30-minutes and sees Stallone sharing some terrifically entertaining behind-the-scenes stories and rare nuggets of info about "Rocky". While views on Stallone may vary, he certainly offers a marvelous discussion of the character that made him famous.
We also get the short "The Ring of Truth" featurette, as well as tributes to Burgess Meredith and James Crabe. A dated (but entertaining) appearance by Stallone on "Dinah!" is also offered, as is a short "making of" documentary and both trailers and TV spots. Unfortunately, the commentary tracks previously offered with the "Rocky" DVD are not offered here.
Final Thoughts: A legendary series of films (featuring one of film's most iconic characters) is given fine treatment with this new Blu-Ray set. The set delivers fine audio/video quality and carries over many previously released extras. At $49.99 (as of 11/17/09) on Amazon.com, the set is a great deal for 6 films. Recommended.