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"Rocky": (The Undisputed Collection)-{Blu-ray}
Reviewer:
Taylor Carlson
Studio: MGM
Genre:
Drama
Release Date:
11/3/09
Special Features:

“Feeling Strong Now!” Trivia Game, Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva featurette, Interview with a Legend – Bret Sugar (Author/Commentator and Historian), “The Opponents”, In The Ring: Three-Part Making-Of Documentary, Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown

Review:

The Rocky films were released from 1976-2006. The first and fifth films are directed by John G. Avildsen, the others by Sylvester Stallone. The films’ casts include Sylvester Stallone, Tony Burton, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Talia Shire, Mr. T, Dolph Lundgren, Tommy Morrison, Richard Gant, Hulk Hogan and Antonio Tarver. The musical score for the films is composed by Bill Conti, except for the fourth film, which is composed by Vince DiCola. Other music from the films includes contributions from Frank Stallone, Survivor, Robert Tepper, Elton John, Kenny Loggins, and Three 6 Mafia. ***

The Rocky series is one of the most popular American film series of all time. Sylvester Stallone’s classic dimwitted boxer with a heart of gold has reigned supreme as one of the greatest movie characters of all time, having been in 6 films over a 30-year period. This set brings together all 6 films, plus a bonus disc with new special features. ***

Rocky, the first film in the series, was released in 1976. Rocky Balboa lives for boxing – but never had a chance to make it anywhere. His income from fights, even if he wins, is so low he has to moonlight as a loan shark to make extra cash on the side. But things take a change for the better when Apollo Creed, the reigning boxing champion, issues a challenge to an up-and-coming fighter – who happens to be Rocky. As he attempts to win the heart of a shy, sheltered girl working at the local pet shop, veteran gym owner Mickey begins training Rocky for what could be his one shot at glory. ***

The first Rocky is by far the best. This is back when the series was still on a smaller scale and on a fairly low budget. The cast and crew does the best they can with what they had available to them, and the results show in every frame. The film has a gritty sense of realism that was lost in later entries, and that is where the film truly stands out. The cast is great, including Talia Shire as Adrian in her shy and timid period and Burt Young as Paulie, Adrian’s overly-aggressive brother and Rocky’s good buddy. Other superb performances come from Carl Weathers as the flamboyant boxing champion Apollo Creed and veteran actor Burgess Meredith (you may remember him best as the Penguin from the 1960s Batman TV series) as Mickey Goldmill, Rocky’s elderly trainer. The film doesn’t go over-the-top or create a glamorous, fictional world – and that’s what makes this the best movie in the series. ***

Rocky II first hit theaters in 1979. The sequel picks up right where the first film left off. Rocky finally married Adrian, the pet shop employee he was romancing in the first film. With a child on the way, Rocky tries to back away from the world of boxing and find a steady “normal” job. But things don’t work out the way he expects, and he quickly discovers boxing is the only way for him. Rocky accepts a rematch from Apollo Creed (who has been lambasted with hate mail following the Rocky fight from before, thinking it was all a publicity stunt), and begins training with Mickey again for the rematch of the century. ***

While I wouldn’t quite put Rocky II up there on the same plane as the original (which was a quintessential classic), it’s still a damn good movie. The real strength of the second film is that it is the most dramatic one of the bunch. It goes deeper into Rocky’s relationship with Adrian as well as his personal life and struggles. Most of the cast from the first movie return, and it works well as a companion piece of sorts to the original. This is before the series spiraled out of control and went in an over-the-top direction, and it stays very true to the feel of the first movie. Again, not quite as good as the original, but few movies are. ***

Rocky III was released in 1982. Following the events of the second film, Rocky has become boxing champion. He successfully defends the title, but things suddenly take a turn for the worst, in more ways than one. He loses the title to the vicious Clubber Lang, and his long-time trainer passes away. Lonely and distraught following these twin tragedies, Rocky gets some help from an unlikely ally – his old rival Apollo Creed. Creed takes Rocky out to the West Coast to retrain him from scratch, in an effort to help his rediscover his confidence and fighting ability – and to eventually regain the title. ***

Rocky III tends to get a mixed reaction but it’s one of my personal favorites. This time around Apollo Creed goes from villain to mentor, and the relationship between him and Rocky becomes one of the more interesting dynamics of the series. It’s also interesting to see the relationship between Rocky and his family, including always-supportive wife Adrian and the cynical Paulie, whose inner emotional turmoil from living under Rocky’s shadow really begins to come full circle here. This time around it’s clear that Rocky isn’t just fighting any old opponent, but one that he himself actually fears – and Clubber Lang is played brilliantly by Mr. T (and his classic catchphrase of “I pity the fool” comes from his appearance in this film.) Some will argue that this film takes the series further away from its roots, but I find it to be a damn good film nonetheless. ***

Rocky IV came out in 1985. The Soviet Union has entered the world of boxing, represented by its most elite fighter, the muscular and powerful Ivan Drago. During what was meant to be an exhibition match, Drago proves himself so powerful an opponent he literally kills an opponent (a long-time friend of Rocky’s, no less) in the ring! Rocky wants to avenge his friend, and defend the honor of his country – so he takes a plane to Russia to train for the fight against the strongest opponent he has ever faced. ***

This is the place where I am really torn apart from everyone else. This is often praised as one of the best films in the series… and after many repeat viewings I can’t quite find out why. The movie essentially rips off III’s plot and does it to a lesser extent. Drago feels like a cartoonish villain, and the Cold War elements make this one feel the most dated of all. This is the one Rocky movie that truly goes over-the-top (Drago KILLS his opponent? Give me a break here…) While I like the synth score from Vince DiCola, it does further add to the datedness of the film. It IS a Rocky film through and through, and there are some great moments, but ultimately it’s a piece of Cold War cheese that can’t compete with the other Rocky films. ***

Rocky V followed in 1990. Rocky has returned home from the Soviet Union, having defended the honor of his country – but the joy is short-lived. A sleazy financial advisor has squandered all of the Balboa fortune on real estate “flipping” gone awry, and Rocky has been diagnosed with brain damage from his fight with Ivan Drago that leaves him unable to fight. Rocky finds a new way in boxing by agreeing to manage an up-and-coming young fighter named Tommy Gunn – but despite an initially-positive relationship, Gunn quickly runs off with a greedy promoter for the promise of money and title fights. As if things weren’t already bad enough, Rocky’s son falls in with a bad crowd at school when his father’s influence becomes less prominent in his life. Now it’s up to Rocky to regain his family, and bring the man he once trained to justice. ***

And here we have the other place where I am torn from other Rocky viewers. People rip this film to shreds all the time, yet universally praise the cheesy-as-hell IV. It should be the other way around. Director Avildsen returns for the first time since the first film, and his involvement does a lot more good for the series than bad. It’s good to see the series return to its roots, and to see Rocky in a slightly reimagined role as the mentor figure/manager. As Rocky gets more and more into training his new student he begins to lose touch with the relationships with his family, which further adds to the drama – and drama was something this series had been sorely lacking. What is everyone’s problem with this movie? The only issue I have with the movie is that some of the cast clearly are not experienced actors – but that hardly derails what is otherwise a very good film – far better than everyone gives it credit for being. ***

Rocky Balboa, the last of the films, was released in 2006. By now Rocky’s loving wife has passed away and his son has a big-time corporate job, trying to escape from his father’s lingering shadow. While Rocky has long since retired from boxing, he now runs a successful restaurant where he charms visitors with stories of his old fights. But when a “virtual match” pits Rocky in his prime against one of the toughest boxers in the leagues and Rocky is declared the winner, it’s back to the place Rocky himself is the most at home – the ring. But will be still be able to put up a good fight in his old age against a younger, more fit opponent? ***

I really had my doubts about this film – Rocky’s wife and other classic characters out of the picture, an aging Rocky going back into the ring against an opponent half his age he shouldn’t be fighting to begin with… you get the idea. Surprisingly, Rocky Balboa proves itself a solid film! The father/son relationship dynamic comes back into the picture, and that was a good idea – the relationship between Rocky and his son stands as one of the movie’s stronger points. Antonio Tarver is solid as Mason “The Line” Dixon, the young boxer Rocky finds himself pitted against – and unlike Apollo Creed from Rocky’s past, this guy is loathed by the public, which makes him all the more interesting to watch. Rocky remains a three-dimensional character throughout and the movie never at any point feels like a “cash-in” sequel. Many critics hailed this one as “the best since the original”, and while I think that might be a bit excessive a compliment, I won’t argue that it’s a very good film, and a worthy entry in the franchise. ***

Despite hits and misses here and there, the Rocky series stands strong. Revisiting the series over 30 years after the original debuted, it’s still a terrific series even if there a few parts of the series that feel dated. With plenty of great drama and entertaining boxing action, it’s a great series that has stood the test of time. And with the release of The Undisputed Collection on Blu-Ray, what better time to revisit the series? ---

Image and Sound:

As a whole, the films look and sound excellent. The first two films have very grainy transfers due to the film stock used, but the level of detail is considerably stronger than versions of these movies on other formats. The first film’s transfer is in slightly better shape, Rocky II has some noticeable print damage here and there. The next 3 films are noticeably less grainy and while the image on these ones looks a bit flat in places, the level of detail over my old standard DVDs is astonishing. Rocky Balboa is identical to its stand-alone counterpart released earlier on, and as the most recent movie here it is naturally the best-looking of the bunch. The audio tracks are a nice step up from the standard-def versions as well, though the earlier films never quite rise above their low-budget origins. Still, they sound better than any other versions of the movies to date.

Special Features:

Box sets of the Rocky series have been infamous for a lack of bonus material. Both the first DVD release of Rocky and the 30th Anniversary edition had exclusive bonus features that were never on any subsequent set. While MGM doesn’t quite right all past wrongs with this set (some commentaries from the 30th Anniversary disc are still missing), there is at least a disc with bonus material, new and old alike. Yes, we finally get a Rocky box set with extras. ***

One of the new bonus features is a trivia game, something this series has been LONG overdue for on a home video release. If you’ve watched the films as many times as I have, though, you’ll probably get almost every question right. A number of other interesting interviews and featurettes delve into the creation of the films, with comments from cast and crew alike. Anyone who was a fan of the series is going to want to check this stuff out. All the features from the 30th anniversary edition of the first Rocky and the features from the stand-alone Rocky Balboa disc seem to be included as well (can’t say for sure since I didn’t actually own any of these in the past though.) Ultimately, it’s a good collection of extras – and it’s about damn time we got a Rocky box with bonus features!

Final Words:

At long last, the complete Rocky series is available on Blu-Ray. And while these transfers aren’t exactly a revelation, Blu-Ray owners should be more than pleased with what is offered here. The films are entertaining as ever (even though some have their dated moments), and as such this collection comes highly recommended!

 

 
 
 
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