While these days it is pretty easy to associate Sylvester Stallone with meathead action roles thanks to the ridiculous turns the Rambo films made in the eighties and some of his subsequent meathead action movie roles that followed in their success, the glory of Rocky can never be tarnished. The first film in the series took home three Academy Awards in 1977, and Stallone himself was nominated for the Best Actor and Best Screenplay awards. What started out as a fairly low budget story about the little boxer who could turned into a pop culture icon, and Stallone is the man who deserves most of the credit for that. Rocky is his character, he's played the man in all five films to date, he wrote all five of the films, and he is associated with the character even more often than he is with John Rambo or, God forbid, Judge Dredd.
Shot in under a month for just over a million dollars and written in three days, (it went on to gross over two hundred and twenty five million dollars worldwide), this is the one that started it all. For those who've lived in a cave for the last three decades or so, Rocky is the titular boxer played by Stallone who lives in Philadelphia who really wants to make it to the big time but so far has fallen pretty flat.
Boxing isn't paying his bills, so Rocky makes his living by collecting on debts for a loan shark named Gazzo (played perfectly byManiac star Joe Spinell). Sadly, Gazzo sees Rocky the same way that the boxing community does – he just doesn't have what it takes to get the job done. One of the few people who believe in Rocky is his trainer, Mickey (the late, great Burgess Meredith), who is sure he's got the physical means to become the next big thing and thinks he just needs to find his drive and motivation. Soon, Rocky meets a timid woman named Adrian (Talia Shire) who works at the pet store he frequents to buy dog food for his canine companion. She's nervous and shy but soon falls for the big lug's charms and the pair soon fall in love with one another.
When the reigning heavy weight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers of Action Jackson), decides to open up the ring to give an unknown a shot at the title, Rocky jumps at the chance and Apollo agrees to the match. A fight promoter named Jergens (Thayer David), who initially figured this would be a sure fire win for Creed – it was initially thought of as a publicity stunt rather than a legitimate match, gets the word out and the media picks up on it, making this quite the event. Rocky and Mickey start training as hard as they can for the fight, so that Rocky can he give it his best shot.
Rocky stands up amazingly well compared to a lot of other 'inspirational' movies. Stallone's performance is probably the best of his career, and his script is equal parts love story and fight film, which gives the movie the right balance of romance, drama, and excitement. While many of the films more dramatic moments have been mocked ad naseum in parodies, cartoons, knock offs and all other manner of media and pop culture, it's still really easy to let yourself get absorbed in the film and really feel for Rocky and Adrian as they stick together through the hard times to try and make the best of what is likely the only shot Rocky is ever going to get at a title. Okay, so maybe the storyline is a little on the corny side but the direction from John Avildsen is solid enough to keep the film going at a good pace, and its complimented by some great editing which earned Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad an Oscar.
Two years after the amazing success of the first film, in 1979 Stallone not only wrote and starred in this inevitable sequel, but he directed it as well (the second film he had gotten behind the camera for at this point in his career).
Though Rocky didn't earn the title after the events of the first film, he did get a big fat payday out of the ordeal. He uses this cash to buy himself a nice house and treat his lady-friend Adrian right. He and Adrian soon tie the knot, and Rocky takes a shot at acting for a TV commercial or two. This doesn't go so well, and soon he's out working at his brother in law's meat packing factory. Adrian soon finds out she's pregnant, and Rocky soon finds out he's laid off – things aren't looking so good for our heroes and they're in an even worse spot now than they were at the beginning of the first film – but at least they have each other.
Rocky's old pal Mickey helps the young couple out, giving Rocky a job at the gym where he works. Despite the fact that Rocky isn't too keen on getting back in the ring, figuring he doesn't have what it takes, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers again) desperately wants a rematch to prove once and for all that the match wasn't faked as many are now claiming. Rocky has to give this some thought, as he's always wanted to be a boxer and this would be another shot at the big time, but Adrian doesn't want him to get back into the ring and the eye injury he sustained in the first match with Creed could get worse if it sustains further damage.
Ultimately, Rocky decides to square off with Creed again, as he figures they could really use the money with a baby on the way. Adrian is very upset and not supportive of this decision at all, and after their son (who they name Rocky Junior!) is born, she falls into a coma. Rocky stops his training to be at his wife's side, and just in time she wakes up to tell him to go for it. He does, and gets back in the gym to prepare for a second clash of the titans – and this time Rocky isn't going to go down for the count no matter what.
As far as sequels go, Rocky II isn't half bad. It is more or less a rehash of the first movie as far as plot dynamics go but with Rocky having more responsibility and the added family dynamic, his decisions end up being slightly more complicated to make than in the first movie. It was great to see much of the original supporting cast (including a sleazy cameo from Spinell!) return to the roles that they handled so well in the first film, and Stallone once again gives a great performance in one of the few roles you can really say he was born to play.
Still more or less a novice director here, Stallone does let things ride on a little bit too long and the film's biggest downfall is that it feels about fifteen minutes too protracted. Had the film been cut down just ever so slightly to tighten up the pacing a little bit, this sequel could have been pretty damn close to the original for entertainment value and tight storytelling. As it stands, it's still a lot better than average and a worthy follow up to a great film.
Stallone once again handles direction, writing, and acting duties in this third film that teams Rocky up with (at the time) the wildly popular Mr. T and Hulk Hogan that, despite the fact that it feels really, really, really dated, is entertaining as Hell despite its obvious shortcomings. The focus this time out is not on drama or on the romantic relationship between Adrian and Rocky, but on action – pure and simple.
After kicking the crap out of Apollo Creed in the last film, Rocky and Apollo strike up a pretty good friendship out of the mutual respect that they have for one another. Rocky is living high on the hog as the current world champion, enjoying the good life that his success has brought to he and his wife and new son, Rocky Jr..
Soon though, things go horribly wrong for Rocky – a new kid on the block named Clubber Lang (Mr. T) challenges Rocky for the title and bests him pretty quickly. This defeat throws Rocky's world into disarray, and once again we find him doubting himself, thinking he doesn't have what it takes to win the title back from Clubber – he thinks it's time to step out of the ring for good and retire – and he just might be right. Apollo says otherwise though, and when Carl Weathers speaks, you listen. To add insult to injury for our poor Italian Stallion, Lang is kinda-sorta responsible for the death of Rocky's coach and good pal, Mickey because of a scap that he and Rocky got into behind the scenes of their match. With Mickey gone, Creed takes his place and trains Rocky for the rematch he now desperately needs – not only to win back the title, but also his dignity and his self worth.
By this point in the series, Stallone was more or less going by the numbers. Once again the film follows the same basic formula that worked so well in the first two movies, only this time the tiring premise is helped out immensely by the 'Mr. T Factor.' Having Rocky square off with T was a great idea and watching the two of them in the ring is a lot of fun, even if it is incredibly goofy at the very same time. This film is also single handedly responsible for making Survivor's Eye Of The Tiger a radio staple and retro night favorite to this very day. Despite the unintentional camp appeal in the film, it does contain one of the most entertaining matches in the entire five film series – Rocky versus Thunderlips (WWF superstar Hulk Hogan, star of such masterpieces as Suburban Commando and Mr. Nanny.
Again, written by, directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone, Rocky IV just wouldn't let the franchise die a happy death and everyone's favorite loveable lunkhead of a boxer is back in the ring for a fourth, and slightly tiring, entry in one of the most recognizable film franchises of all time.
A Russian boxer named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren of Universal Soldier) kills Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky feels responsible for Apollo's death, as he could have thrown the towel in a few minutes earlier and possibly saved his friend's life. Rocky decides the best thing to do is to avenge Apollo's death by taking on and beating Drago himself.
Rocky takes a rocket to Russia despite the pleas of his wide Adrian to stay home and not be so rash. Once he gets to Russia he takes up with Apollo's former manager and trainer, Duke (Tony Burton) to help him get ready for the fight. Drago trains with the help of Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielson) and some very high tech equipment while Rocky prefers to practice the old fashioned way, both men getting ready to win honor for their country and stomp their opponent into the cold Russian ground.
Full of all sorts of faux patriotism and U.S.A-A.O.K style rants, Rocky IV is just plain weird in its portrayal of the East versus the West. Considering it was made in 1985 and the U.S.S.R. was still considered hostile territory, I suppose the patriotism is probably well intentioned but seeing it now that the political climate has changed it just feels rather strange. That aside, the Russians are an interesting twist in the Rocky mythos, and here he's fitting for honor and for revenge rather than because he's got a big shot at the title. Lundgren is great in this more or less silent role, playing a very opposing figure who really does give Rocky a good run for his money. At times he is almost frightening in stature and he does add an element of severe menace to the film that makes for some tense scenes and a few great moments in the ring.
While the franchise had more or less run its course by this point, Rocky IV still manages to be an entertaining movie and it gets enough right that even though we all know how it's going to end, it is still worth a look.
Worth noting is that earlier DVD releases of this film did not have subtitles for the scenes with Russian dialogue - thankfully, this has been corrected on this release.
The final chapter in the Rocky sage finds him back on American soil after a grueling match against Russian super-boxer Ivan Drago. Things aren't shaping up so well for the champ though, as his wealth has been mismanaged by a shifty accountant and the Balboa family is now looking at some serious financial woes that they're going to have to deal with. To top it all off, a few too many shots to the head have left Rocky with some impending brain damage.
When the I.R.S. comes looking for their share of Rocky's pie, he's forced to liquidate his assets and take his family back to the old neighborhood in Philly where he grew up. Though Rocky and Adrian are used to the area, Rocky Jr. (played by Stallone's son, Sage) hasn't ever known anything except the good life that he and his family once had. Adjusting to a lower income proves to be a big hardship for the kid, and the family is caused even more stress by this new revelation.
Rocky looks towards getting back in the ring to make some fast money for the family, but once again Adrian is not cool at all with this idea, so Rocky finds an alternate solution in an up and coming boxer named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). Tommy has been a Balboa fan all his life and really looks up to him as a hero. Rocky agrees to help train Tommy but this causes even more stress between him and his son who begins to feel neglected by his father when he needs him the most.
As Rocky Jr. starts to fall in with a bad crowd, Tommy starts to make some real headway with his training and wins a few matches, which quickly goes straight to his head. Tommy soon feels that Rocky is holding him back and not allowing him to move up the professional boxing ladder as fast as he could be, so he ditches him in favor of another trainer. Rocky and Rocky Jr. soon start to mend their soured relationship, and Tommy, still looking for respect, decides to challenge Rocky to a one on one old school street fight whether he likes it or not.
Directed by John Avildsen, who helmed the first film, Rocky V just isn't all that good a film. It looks decent, has pretty solid production values, and contains a decent fight scene or two but the family dynamic that worked so well in the first two movies here feels forced and overly sugary. I suppose the Balboas are going through the same kind of growing pains that many families would be given the circumstances but the dialogue isn't overly natural sounding and the back story with Tommy Gunn and Rocky seems like nothing but an excuse to have Stallone square off against a younger fighter and nothing more. While I appreciate the idea behind it – Stallone having to bring his character in line with how an aging boxer would have to deal with the curve ball life his thrown him – it just doesn't work, ending the series not on a terrible note, but on a rather predictable and uninspired one.
All five films are given new, high definition anamorphic widescreen transfers in their original aspect ratios of 1.85.1. Rocky III, Rocky IV and Rocky V also have alternate fullframe versions available on their respective discs as well. The colors look very nice, there's not much in the way of print damage to complain about on any of the films and aside from a very natural looking coat of grain present on the five films, the image on each disc is quite clean looking with a nice, high level of detail present from start to finish. Seeing as the previous edition of the first film was rather gritty looking, there is a noticeable improvement here for that film in particular, at least in regards to the overall quality of the image. This doesn't come without a price though, as for some reason there is some slight picture information missing on the top and bottom of the screen. While this only occurs in the first movie as far as I could tell, the fact that it happens at all is rather unusual. It's minor cropping, but it is there.
That issue aside, the first film looks a lot better here than it has on previous editions and the sequels look pretty solid as well. There is some mild edge enhancement (most noticeable on the fourth film for some odd reason), but there aren't any problems with compression artifacts at all on any of the movies. Skin tones look dead on, and the colors are nicely defined, never bleeding into each other and always looking very distinct.
Why fullframe versions are included for the later three films and not for the first two is a good question, but I wouldn't bother watching these widescreen films in fullframe versions anyway so I could quite honestly care less about that – though I know there are people who do still prefer fullframe. For those people, the three discs that do provide fullframe options do so on the other side of the DVD, and image quality on those versions is just as good as it is on the widescreen versions.
Each of the five films gets a new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix in English, and the first film even gets a DTS 5.1 remix as well and the original English mono mix is also on the disc. There are Spanish mono tracks on parts II through V, a French Surround mix on parts II through V, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles on all five films, and English closed captioning options on all five films.
With the specifications out of the way, how do the movies sound? Well, there's really not much difference at all between the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and the DTS 5.1 mix on the first film. Neither one of the mixes really does a whole lot with the rear channels, not surprising considering that the film was shot in mono (thankfully the original mix is here as well). Rears are used to fill in the back spaces of the soundscape during a few of the matches and some of the more action oriented scenes but that's about it. The DTS predictably does provide slightly heavier bass but even that track sounds a little dulled.
For the rest of the films, there is only the English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, no DTS options, no original English audio mixes. Clarity is fine on these tracks in that dialogue is always easy to understand and the levels are balanced well. Again, the bass sounded a little less impressive than maybe it should have (it's there and it is heavy enough, it just doesn't sound quite natural), just like on the first movie's disc, but overall these are satisfactory mixes, even if they aren't groundbreaking. MGM's decision to NOT included the original mixes for each of the four sequels is disheartening though, and slightly disappointing for purists I'm sure.
Each film comes with its respective theatrical trailer. None of the other supplements from previous releases have been carried over from previous releases (though to the best of my knowledge, the sequels have never been released with anything on the discs as far as supplements go except for trailers anyway). The packaging for this boxed set did claim that the A&E Biography for Stallone was included in this set, but mine didn't come with that despite the fact that the review copy sent to me appears to be a sealed full retail copy, leading me to wonder if that disc is going to be packaged separately from the boxed set in the same way that some of the Best Buy bonus discs have been in the past.
While there is still room for improvement and some inconsistencies in the presentation of the films, The Rocky Anthology looks and sounds pretty good. The earlier films hold up better than the later entries but even those ones do have their entertainment value. While surely there could have been more supplements supplied for this release, especially for the first film, the movie look and sound pretty good and the set comes recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.