Growing up in Philadelphia you learn at any early age: The Eagles are holy, Cheese Steaks are mother's milk, and Rocky is god. How cool it was as a kid to see Rocky in the movies or on TV -- and there he was! Running up the same art museum steps that we ran up last week! Running through the Italian Market! Wow, look, there's I-95!
Of course there's a lot more to Rocky than just the setting, but for a kid growing up in Rocky's own neighborhood, the flick always had a very special appeal. And it only got better as I grew older and learned a little bit about how movies were made. Several years and gradually worsening sequels later, it might be easy to forget what a fantastic movie the original Rocky is, but I guess that's why we re-watch the classics over and over. And if you happen to be a fan of sports movies, Rocky might not have been the first, but it sure as hell turned out to be one of the most influental ... even if most copycatters don't have the stones to stick with Rocky's fantastic ending.
You want simplicity in plot? Here you go: Rocky Balboa is a Philadelphia palooka, a tough-willed but aimless young pugilist who works as muscle for a sleazy street crook -- even if sweet ol' Rocky doesn't actually have the venom that's required for such a position. So what's the guy do? He decides to actually work at being a great boxer. Forget that he's a low-income nobody from a gigantic blue collar town. Who cares that nobody thinks he has a hooker's chance in hell of succeeding? So what if it all turns out to be a huge embarrassment for all involved? The guy has to try dammit, and try he does.
Five sequels later, he's still trying, dammit, but there's nothing as sweet as that first big battle.
Written by actor / second-time screenwriter Sylvester Stallone, Rocky should stand as the eternal retort when someone implies that Sly is a dummy. Say what you will about the guy's late-career movie choices, but I firmly believe that the guy who wrote Rocky is a pretty intelligent person. Plus the flick went on to be nominated for ten Oscars (winning three, including Best Picture) while earning untold millions for MGM and inspiring and inviting new fans all over the planet. Find me someone who doesn't love Rocky. (The first one, not necessarily the sequels, though I do have a soft spot for Rocky 2.)
In every way a quintessential '70s flick, Rocky is supported by John Avildsen's gritty-yet-strangely warm visual style, Bill Conti's stunningly rousing score acts as the absolute backbone of the piece, the performances (from Sly and the timid Talia Shire to the grizzled Burt Young and the lovably crotchety Burgess Meredith) are aces across the board... and the ending. A thing of unexpected beauty it must have been back in 1976, and it still moves me every time I see it. Frankly it turns a perfectly watchable underdog story into a thing of cinematic beauty.
And then came the sequels...
Video: I no longer own the single-disc Special Edition from a few years back, but I do believe we're working with the same transfer here. The mild grainies pop up in several of the darker sequences, but overall the movie looks pretty damn nice.
Audio: Dolby Surround 5.1, and I can't hear Conti's trumpets blare loudly enough. Good stuff. Also available are French and Spanish mono tracks. Optional subtitles are offered in English and Spanish.
When I heard there was a new 2-discer on the way, I passed my old edition off to a grateful pal. And damn if this new set isn't a small slice of Philadelphian heaven.
Disc 1 greets us with three separate audio commentaries: a solo track with Sly Stallone, another with legendary boxing trainer and veteran boxing commentator Bert Sugar, and another with a big batch of filmmakers: director John Avildsen, producers Irwin Winkler & Robert Chartoff, actors Burt Young, Talia Shire & Carl Weathers and Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown. If you're a bigtime fan of this particular flick, you'll probably want to down all the chat tracks eventually, and together they offer some rather eclectic perspectives on the movie. Stallone comes off as both intelligent and insightful; the boxing experts offer some really colorful takes on the film (and the sport); the filmmakers fill in all the blanks in between. (I do believe this commentary is the same as on the old SE, only with a few new participants "spliced in.")
Also on disc 1 is a 4.5-minute featurette called 3 Rounds with Lou Duva, in which the old-school boxing trainer shares his approach to the sport.
Moving over to disc 2 we find ... yo, good stuff! We start off with In the Ring, an exceedingly thorough three-part making-of documentary. Get comfy.
Part I (23:34) is a great look at the project's earliest stages, from Stallone's script on the producer's desk to the (flawless) casting to the preparations for production.
Part II (22:26) focuses exclusively on the contributions of Talia Shire and the late great Burgess Meredith.
Part III (29:41) covers the fantastic work by Burt Young, the underrated performance of Carl Weathers, and several random musings and memories about the production, the movie, and its impact. All three chapters feature new interview segments with Stallone, Shire, Young, Weathers, Chartoff, Winkler, and Avildsen.
Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown (17:26) is a really excellent look at what this groundbreaking camera technology did for Rocky -- and ultimately for movies in general. Make Up! The Art and Form with Michael Westmore (15:09) is a welcome and illuminating visit with the man who gave Rocky all his scars, bruises and blood streams. Staccato: A Composer's Notebook with Bill Conti (11:29) is yet another fantastic featurette (which obviously deals with the film's stunning musical score). The Ring of Truth (9:34) is a visit with Rocky art director James Spencer, and yet another solid little look at the film. Behind the Scenes with Director John Avildsen (12:24) is a collection of the filmmaker's on-set 8mm home movie footage, complete with introduction/commentary from the director. Pretty cool stuff.
Returning from the previous DVD release are Tribute to Burgess Meredith (7:43), Tribute to James Crabe, (3:34) and Video Commentary with Sylvester Stallone (28:53), but new to DVD is the 17-minute Sylvester Stallone on Dinah! (1976), which is just what it sounds like: Sly visiting Dinah Shore to hype his baby blockbuster.
Also included inside the case is a rather nifty little booklet, which is actually a pocket-sizes excerpt from a new book called Rocky: The Ultimate Guide. Neat.
A "guy movie" mega-classic that's really gotten better with age, Rocky finally (after numerous re-releases) has the DVD package it deserves. Maybe I'm a little biased because Rocky is a local hero in my neighborhood, but I think this could very well be one of the best DVDs of the year.