By now, the tale has been often told: an underdog languishes for a seeming eternity, before seeing his shot and taking it—against all odds, he succeeds. It's the story of Rocky Balboa, the Philadelphia stumblebum wasting his life away as a loan shark's muscle whose unfulfilled dream of being a world-class boxer unexpectedly comes true. As most people know, it's also the story of Sylvester Stallone, an actor who couldn't get fired who wrote a red-hot script called Rocky and refused to sell it for hundreds of thousands of dollars, insisting instead that he play the lead for scale. Stallone's gamble paid off, unlocking a career of movie stardom and multiple opportunities to write and direct his own films.
For everything else that's come down the road, nothing has been better to Stallone than his baby, Rocky. Rocky: The Undisputed Collection brings together all six films in the saga on high-definition Blu-ray. What follows is a brief rundown of the films and then a review of the seven-disc set's technical specs and bonus features.
Rocky (1976): The first film—directed by John G. Avildsen (who won the Oscar for his trouble)—sets the standard all others will follow. Beside the indelible character of Rocky, we meet his grizzled coach Mickey Goldmill (the beloved Burgess Meredith), undisputed World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky's neighborhood friend Paulie (Burt Young), and Paulie's younger sister, beautiful but painfully shy pet-shop worker Adrian Peninno (Talia Shire). Adrian keeps her light under a bushel, but Rocky escorts her out into the open in a sweet romance that gives the film an extra helping of heart. It's all here: the famous Bill Conti fanfare, the "Gonna Fly Now" training montage, the inevitable "David and Goliath" climax. The movie's primal populism tapped the zeitgeist and went all the way to the top of the box office charts and the Oscars, winning Best Picture. Of course, where there's money and success, there is franchising, and the sequels didn't take long to follow.
Rocky II (1979) Written and directed by Stallone. The sequel doesn't much try to fix what ain't broke. All of the major players return as Rocky resists and then relents and prepares for a rematch with Apollo Creed. New melodrama emerges around Adrian, now Rocky's bride. Rocky struggles with the oddness of his newfound fame and the possibility of returning to a life outside of boxing, which would be spent working in the decidedly less glamorous confines of a Philadelphia meat-packing plant. But the line on Rocky II is that, despite its attempts to stir up new dramas, it has a tired and repetitive feel. The subsequent sequels would have to layer on new gimmickry—and new opponents—to stir up interest.
Rocky III (1982) Written and directed by Stallone. Rocky III finds our hero defending himself from a series of challengers, culminating in a matchup with James "Clubber" Lang (Mr. T). Again, Meredith, Shire, Weathers, and Burgess all return to play their roles in the latest melodrama about "one last match" for Rocky, against the advice of his coach. Things go tragically wrong when Rocky faces Lang—as they must at first, the better for Rocky to be an underdog working his way up to another rematch. Mr. T achieves catch-phrase nirvana when he growls, "I pity the fool." Rocky fans are sure to choke back tears watching this one, which forever changes Rocky's life in his search for the "Eye of the Tiger" (feel free to sing along).
Rocky IV (1985) Written and directed by Stallone. None of the Rocky sequels has more memorable imagery than this Cold War extravaganza that "lifts" Rocky from underdog fable to patriotic propaganda. There's no mincing words here: Rocky IV is a live-action cartoon. Though its aggressive campiness makes it the odd movie out in the series, it's a favorite for many fans, especially those who were kids upon its release. Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) storms the U.S. with wife Ludmilla (the equally tough Brigitte Nielsen) in tow. Drago is of a piece with scary technology and steroidal pumping-up that suggest the Russians play dirty, an irony given dogged rumors that Stallone used steroids and his arrest, two years ago, in possession of synthetic human growth hormone. Anyway, Rocky IV amusingly pits red, white and blue imagery against blazing Soviet red and yellow for a movie that's totally eighties (did I mention the robot?). Weathers, Young, and Shire all make return appearances.
Rocky V (1990) This time around, a down-and-out Rocky runs a gym and agrees to become the manager of an up-and-coming young boxer named Tommy Gunn (real life boxer Tommy Morrison). Gage Stallone plays Rocky's jealous son Robert, and Shire, Young, and Meredith return in their familiar roles. Naturally, it wouldn't be a Rocky movie if the Italian Stallion didn't come out of retirement to teach his ungrateful protégé a lesson. There's a conscious attempt here to go back to basics, including the paradigm of Stallone as screenwriter and John G. Avildsen as director. Despite the acknowledgment of Rocky's advancing years and a new generation ready to take his place, Rocky V fails where the last sequel would largely succeed. Rocky's foils are just too bland and, in acting terms, amateurish to pump adrenaline into this outing.
Rocky Balboa (2006): Many will fold their arms and laugh inappropriately at Rocky's age-sixty exploits, which include a frankly lazy plot, runaway nostalgia, and armfuls of bad dialogue, but darn it, Rocky Balboa ain't a half-bad movie. The promised final chapter goes back to the well of Rocky as a man of the people, shucking the jive with the neighborhood folks. Though Rocky's lifelong love Adrian has passed away, her brother Paulie (Burt Young) sticks by Rocky's side even as the big lug insists on haunting the couple's decrepit old haunts. "You're livin' backwards, Rocko!" Paulie eventually bellows. When ESPN runs a "Then vs. Now" feature, the Italian Stallion finds himself unexpectedly invited to return to the ring to face Mason "The Line" Dixon (former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver). Deciding he's still got "stuff in the basement," Rocky agrees, though Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia of Heroes)—a.k.a. Rocky Jr.—isn't so sure it's a good idea. In every significant way, Rocky Balboa is the emotional equivalent of a TV reunion movie that sets out to prove its inane father-son exchange. Rocky Jr.: "It's a different world now." Rocky: "Only the clothes are different." (Click for the complete review of Rocky Balboa.)
In 2007, Rocky—The Complete Saga hit DVD. Blu-ray has thus far seen single-disc releases of Rocky and Rocky Balboa; now MGM's seven-disc Blu-ray set Rocky: The Undisputed Collection presents all six films in the series in high-definition, along with nearly all of the previously released extras and one new one. The only significant omissions are the Rocky commentaries: one with Sylvester Stallone, another with legendary boxing trainer and veteran boxing commentator Bert Sugar, and another with director John Avildsen, producers Irwin Winkler & Robert Chartoff, Burt Young, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown. Since all of these folks are represented extensively in video extras, it's unlikely many will feel cheated by the omission of the three commentaries.
A/V quality is excellent all around. Rocky and Rocky Balboa sport the same transfers seen in their earlier Blu releases. The latter is the sort of typically sharp, downright fantastic Sony transfer that we demand of a new film, while the original film retains its '70s shabby chic with a picture that's well above any other home video rendering (and also representative of the somewhat soft source material). Rocky II, Rocky III, and Rocky IV show a subtle but steady climb in sharpness and detail, while Rocky V is a tad darker and softer in keeping with its lower-budget, grittier look. The key point here is that all of the new hi-def transfers make the films look better than ever for home theaters, so fans will not be disappointed. The audio options also impress, with Rocky presented both in its original mono and a somewhat more dynamic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, viewer's choice. Rocky II through Rocky IV also feature DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes that make the absolute most of the source material, and Rocky Balboa packs a serious punch with an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix.
The lone new bonus feature here is the Feeling Strong Now! Game (HD), a trivia-based, fight-themed challenge that allows the Rocky-informed to be their hero and KO opponents with their knowledge.
The rest of the bonus features come from the original Rocky: Collector's Edition DVD release and the original Rocky Balboa Blu-ray release. The Rocky archives begin with the self-explanatory "Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva" (4:44, SD) and "Interview with a Legend - Bert Sugar: Author/Commentator and Historian" (6:56, SD,
"The Opponents" (16:23, SD) is the feature for those looking for some insight into the sequels, as it works its way through Rocky's various competitors. Interviewees include producer Robert Chartoff, Carl Weathers, Dolph Lundgren, and Tommy Morrison.
The centerpiece extra is the feature-length In the Ring: Three-Part Making-Of Documentary (1:15:52, SD), featuring extensive interviews with Sylvester Stallone, producer Irwin Winkler, Chartoff, Weathers, Talia Shire, director John Avildsen, Burt Young, along with illustrative film clips and Avildsen's 8mm home movies.
"Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown" (17:25, SD), "Make Up! The Art and Form with Michael Westmore" (15:08, SD) and "Staccato: A Composer's Notebook with Bill Conti" (11:26, SD) profile key behind-the-scenes players in Rocky's success, while "The Ring of Truth" (9:48, SD) is a similar chat with art director James Spencer.
In "Behind the Scenes with John Avildsen" (12:36, SD), the director shares his 8mm fighting and makeup tests.
"Tribute to Burgess Meredith" (7:56, SD) is a wonderful set of reminiscences from Stallone, Young, Weathers, and Meredith's friend Lee Grant.
"Tribute to James Crabe" (3:46, SD) is a remembrance, by Avildsen, of his cinematographer.
"Video Commentary by Sylvester Stallone" (28:56, SD) is an excellent, detailed interview with Stallone that's a compact substitute for the missing commentary.
"Sylvester Stallone on Dinah! (1976)" (17:16, SD) is a fascinating vintage bit of show-biz hustling on Dinah Shore's show, with Stallone opposite a seemingly attention-hungry Joey Bishop.
Last among the original Rocky extras are a gallery of Theatrical Trailers (SD & HD) for each film in the series and another gallery of Rocky TV Spots (SD).
The Rocky Balboa extras kick off with an excellent commentary by Sylvester Stallone, who makes a warm and surprisingly humble host as he shares the story behind Rocky's umpteenth return and his own emotional experience making the presumably last film.
"Deleted Scenes & Alternate Ending" (23:19, HD) includes seven trims and the alternate ending.
"Boxing's Bloopers" (1:31, HD) is a brief gag reel.
The pleasing featurette "Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa" (17:47, HD) finds Stallone happily shooting the film and meeting his thrilled public in Philadelphia. Behind-the-scenes footage is engrossing, and Stallone, producer Kevin King, Antonio Tarver, producer Charles Winkler, Young, producer David Winkler, Milo Ventimiglia, co-producer Guy reidel, Geraldine Hughes, producer Billy Chartoff, Philadelphia mayor John F. Street, and production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone participate in interviews.
"Reality in the Ring: Filming Rocky's Final Fight" (15:38, HD) details what it promises, with Stallone, boxing technical advisor Rob Sale, Reidel, Charles Winkler, Tarver, King, Billy Chartoff, David Winkler, and director of photography Clark Mathis.
Lastly, "Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight" (5:08, HD) shows Stallone and Tarver getting their mo(tion) cap(tur)ed.
This exhaustive set should be the final word for Rocky fans, with outstanding hi-def presentations and nearly all of the Rocky bonus features out there.
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