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. A few years back, MGM released The Rocky Anthology, which compiled the first five films in the series into one handy-dandy boxed set. Now that the sixth entry in the series, Rocky Balboa, has done well both theatrically and on DVD, MGM has seen fit to go back to the Rocky well one last time with another boxed set release, Rocky - The Complete Saga. The only difference between this boxed set and the last one? It includes Rocky Balboa. That's it.
Here's a look at the six discs that make up this collection:
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 continually 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 structure goes 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 long. 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 in terms of 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 directing, writing, and acting duties in this third film that teams Rocky up with (at the time) the wildly popular Mr. T and Hulk Hogan. Despite the fact that the whole thing feels really, really, really dated, it's 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 their 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 scrap 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, 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 fighting 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.
The final chapter in the Rocky saga 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 toward 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 he 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 movie, 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. It's possible that 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 it's easy to 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.
When Stallone's career petered out in the nineties and he wound up releasing Eye See You as a straight to video release, it looked like he'd wind up in the same league as B-action heroes like Van Damme and Seagal. When it was announced that he was going to get in the ring one last time with Rocky Balboa in 2006, many were left wondering if he still had the chops to pull it off. He hadn't exactly set Hollywood in fire in the last few years and let's face it, the once big time box office superstar had lately given us reason to doubt him. Amazingly enough, however, Stallone proved the naysayers wrong as the film proved to both a commercial and critical success.
When the film begins, Rocky hasn't had a fight in some time. Adrian has died from cancer and Rocky has been spending his days running restaurant and enjoying his retirement and spending time with his son (Milo Ventimiglia) and his friend Paulie (Burt Young). When sports channel EPSN airs a computerized simulation of a match between himself and current heavyweight champion Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), all of a sudden people are talking about him again. When Mason Dixon loses the fictitious fight, he challenges Rocky to come out of retirement and take him out. Surprisingly enough, Rocky agrees.
Rocky knows that in order to have a chance against a younger, faster and stronger man he's going to have to train hard and practice until he can't practice anymore. He knows he's got one last shot and seeing as he's been itching to get back into boxing again, this could be the way he establishes his legacy.
Is Rocky Balboa corny? Preachy? A little too unrealistic and a little too optimistic? It sure is... and then some, but that doesn't change the fact that Stallone (who not only starred in the film but who also wrote and directed the project) pretty much nailed this one. What makes the picture interesting is how Rocky's life has, in some ways, become a parallel to Stallone's actual career. The actor and the character were in pretty much the same spot with this picture and so it's really no surprise to see Stallone deliver what is arguably his finest performance every. He really needed this one to succeed and he worked quite hard to ensure that it did.
The film isn't hurt at all by a solid supporting cast. Burt Young is his generally reliable gruff self while Milo Ventimiglia makes for a believable son. Antonio Carver is great as the young boxer who really wants to put Rocky in his place and solidify his spot as the champion and he plays the part with just the right amount of machismo and arrogance to pull it off.
It wouldn't be hard to argue that this picture is, in a sense, a retread of the first Rocky film from 1976 and in a way that is true. On the other side of the coin, however, is that this really brings the saga of Stallone's most famous creation to an honorable and realistic end. If the series had stopped with Rocky V then it would have remained, in the eyes of many, a bit of a joke. With Rocky Balboa Stallone gives Rocky a proper and dignified burial and manages to tell a solid and genuinely heartfelt story in the process.
The first five films carry over the new, high definition anamorphic widescreen transfers in their original aspect ratios of 1.85.1 that were created for The Rocky Anthology - there's no noticeable difference between the transfers in that boxed set and the transfers in this boxed set. 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. 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.
For those people who dig on fullframe, 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.
Rocky Balboa (also in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen) being a considerably newer film than the other five in the set, obviously looks better than the rest do. The colors are a little more pronounced and there's less noticeable film grain or debris on the picture. Some very minor edge enhancement does pop up here and there but it's never over powering or particularly distracting.
Each of the six films gets a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix in English. The first film only gets a DTS 5.1 remix as well and the original English mono mix is also included only on that disc. There are Spanish mono tracks on parts I through V, a French Surround mix on parts I through VI/Rocky Balboa, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles on all six films, and English closed captioning options on all six 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. 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, once again, NOT included the original mixes for each of the first four sequels is disheartening though, and slightly disappointing for purists.
As with the video, Rocky Balboa once again sounds a little better than the earlier movies in the set. The surrounds are more active and bass response is tighter. The score makes full use of the surrounds and the sound effects and ambient crowd noise is really nicely done during the fight scenes while dialogue remains clean and clear during the quieter moments in the picture.
Each of the first five films comes with its respective theatrical trailer in addition to trailers for the Rocky Legends video game and promo spots for other MGM DVDs.
Rocky Balboa carries over all of the supplements from the previous DVD release beginning with an audio commentary from writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone. It's interesting to hear Sly compare this film to the others in the series and to listen to him explain why he brought Rocky out or retirement for one last film. He talks about a few ideas that he wanted to bring to the picture that he wasn't able to and he talks about shooting, casting and writing the picture from the ground up. Seeing as he pretty much worked this film from start to finish, it stands to reason that this would be a fairly interesting commentary and it is, Stallone has a lot to say about the
film and about his work on it.
Up next is Skill Vs. Will: The Making Of Rocky Balboa (17:45). Stallone, producers Kevin King, David Winkler and Charles Winkler, and actors Antonio Tarver and Milo Ventimiglia all show up on camera to talk about what it was like bringing Rocky back to the big screen. Along the way we see some behind the scenes footage, clips from the feature, interview sound bits and storyboard illustrations, all of which serve to put the material in context. While a fair bit of this is pretty self congratulatory and promotional in nature, there's just as much here, if not more, that actually does have some substance meaning that ultimately this is worth sitting through if you want to learn more about the making of the movie.
Reality In The Ring: Filming Rocky's Final Fight (15:36) is, as you'd guess from the title, a look at how the big final fight at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas was shot. Stallone describes this process as a draining experience, while co-producer Guy Weidel talks about the importance of the emotional impact that needed to be carried with this particular scene. Again, we see a mix of clips, interview footage and behind the scenes footage here, the most interesting of which is the footage where we see Stallone and Antonio Tarver in the ring together trying to get the fight down perfectly. We also see Stallone training for the film and for the fight in particular.
Virtual Champion: Creating The Computer Fight (5:07) shows us how motion capture technology was used to create the computerized fight that sets the events of Rocky Balboa into motion. Stallone narrates some interesting behind the scenes footage and explains how and why this process was used for this part of the picture and the importance of getting it right. We also see how plaster moulds were used as well as how digital face and body scanning was used to create the computerized replicas of the two boxers.
Sony has also supplied a selection of seven Deleted Scenes that includes an alternate ending as well. You can check these out individually or through a 'play all' option. The alternate ending is pretty interesting to see, though most of the deleted stuff is fairly minor and was likely trimmed to keep the running time down and keep the pacing tight.
Rounding out the extras are a Boxing's Bloopers reel (1:31 worth of the cast flubbing their lines), animated menus and chapter stops. In true Sony style, there are previews for a few other Sony DVDs included, but not trailer for the feature itself.
If you already own the previous releases of these films and the single disc release of Rocky Balboa then there's really no reason to own this boxed set. That said, if you don't already own the various incarnations of the earlier films or the latest entry in the saga, this is a nice addition to anyone's collection. The first film remains a classic and the latest holds its own very well even if the films in between are of varying quality. More extras on the first five pictures would have been very welcome indeed but at least the movies look and sound quite good. Rocky: The Complete Saga 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.