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Blu-ray Review: Rocky – The Undisputed Collection

It may be foolhardy to do so, but there is plenty to dispute in Rocky – The Undisputed Collection, the new Blu-ray boxed set of all six Rocky movies.   That lovable, sometimes punchy, lug from Philadelphia; the Italian Stallion; Philadelphia's Favorite Son went through a heck of a lot over the course of the movies, but the movies, as with Rocky's life, are something of a bumpy road.

The initial Rocky is a masterpiece.  It won the Best Picture Oscar and put Stallone, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay and insisted that he star in the movie (he was also nominated for an Oscar for the role) on the map.  The tale is a pretty simple underdog story, nothing that hasn't been done before, but one which still manages to pull all the right heartstrings.  Stallone stars as the titular Rocky, a down-and-out fighter from Philadelphia, a guy who has never made it and though he boxes, earns a living as the enforcer for a small-time loan shark.  Rocky ends up with a "dream shot," a relatively random chance to fight the current heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Through the years – and the next five films – Rocky would fight Creed twice more, Clubber Lang (Mr. T), Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Tommy "The Machine" Gunn (Tommy Morrison), and Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver), in addition to participating in several smaller bouts.  Each movie carefully crafts Rocky's reasons for fighting and in each film Rocky has to convince a family member, usually his wife, Adrian (Talia Shire, Oscar-nominated for the original), that it's the right thing to do – that fighting is something that Rocky needs, or the country needs, or that just has to be done.

Outside of his opponents, the series certainly features some great supporting characters.  The aforementioned Creed, who appeared in four of the films and Adrian, who was in five, are certainly among them.  Also crucially important to the films, and played beautifully, are Rocky's brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young, Oscar-nominated for the original) and Rocky's trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith, again, Oscar-nominated for the original).  Rocky is always at the films' center, but without the supporting characters, Rocky would never have progressed.  In the better films, the characters grow with Rocky, learning about themselves and becoming better people.  In the worse ones, they remain shadows of their former selves.  Watching the original film, it is easy to believe that so many of the actors were nominated for awards, but if one were to only watch Rocky IV, the pictures they would get of Paulie and Adrian are not merely incomplete, they would be absurdist cartoon versions of this once three-dimensional, very human people.

As for the movies, though they may deal with the sport of boxing a really the story of this average man thrown into extraordinary circumstances.  Rocky is a guy who may not have had the easiest life, but who makes the most of every opportunity.  Rocky isn't the smartest guy, he isn't the most eloquent, but he still is the man whom we would all like to be, not because he's a boxer and the two-time heavyweight champion, but because he's a guy who always, no matter what, fights for what he thinks is right.

Within that basic outline though, the stories take on various forms.  The first two tales are ones where Rocky has nothing and is just trying to scratch out a living, by the third he's rich and famous and looking to get back to top form, and by the fourth (and by far the silliest) installment in the series, Rocky is fighting for America against the Soviet Union.  From there, the final two movies are both supposed to serve as something of a conclusion to the series.  Rocky V actually returns John Avildsen, who directed the original (the others were all directed by Stallone) back to the helm, and shows Rocky trying to cope with being retired and losing his money.  Rocky Balboa gives the ex-champ one last time to fight and help save boxing, exorcise his demons and to find a way to not go softly into that good night.

When the films focus on the small stories – the downtrodden Rocky; the Rocky just trying to first get a family, then keep his family – they are at their best.  Essentially, the films work when Rocky is an underdog, not when he is a superhero.  It may be fun to watch Rocky slug it out with the superhuman Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, but outside of atrociously overdone fights, the film has no power behind it, it has lost all that is essentially Rocky.

The fifth film actually acts as a mea culpa to Rocky IV, with Rocky no longer being allowed to fight in the ring and retiring… again.  It's the story of how Rocky tries to keep boxing as pure as he remembers it by training a young up-and-comer who is, unfortunately seduced by the dark side of the sport.  The film might actually have worked as a satisfying conclusion to the series except for the incredibly poor acting on Tommy Morrison's part – it's almost impossible to not cringe every time he speaks – and the franchise's dogged insistence on having a fight scene in every film.  As Rocky can't box in the ring anymore, the climactic fight is a street brawl between Tommy and Rocky.  For a series that has choreographed some brilliant boxing matches, it is an embarrassingly low point for the franchise.  Whereas Rocky IV is purposefully over-the-top and silly, Rocky V attempts to scale back, to return the characters to their roots, but the story concocted to get them there is unsatisfying in the extreme.

The final film, Rocky Balboa, actually does manage to provide a good ending to the films and Rocky's story.  Though certainly less believable than the already not-terribly-believable original, the final film does actually manage to create almost the same emotional pull and to get the audience back in Rocky's corner.

As for the technical aspects of the Blu-ray release, perhaps a sporting analogy would be best.  In terms of the video presentation, Rocky – The Undisputed Collection is like a weak forehand jab thrown by a featherweight who has just spent 15 rounds going toe-to-toe with Rocky himself.  Yes, the original film is over 30 years old, but from the original through the fifth incarnation, the colors are weak (though they do improve over the course of the series), the image itself actually wavers from time to time, the prints are dirty, and there is enough digital noise in some scenes so that one can't tell the difference the noise and clouds.  Does it look better than the DVDs included in the set that came out a few years ago?  Yes, but the films – even the bad ones – deserve better treatment than they've been given here.  The sound is better than the visuals, without the snap, crackle, and pop that one might assume would come with the video quality.  Bill Conti's fantastic music, as well as the classic "Eye of the Tiger" sound just as awe-inspiring as they ought.  On the downside, it is a little saddening that there is no sound to accompany the punches that land in the first Creed-Balboa fight, but that probably has more to do with the budget the film was made on.

Through the years, Rocky and its sequels have seen more than one DVD release, some quite good and which include several different special features.  It therefore makes it somewhat difficult to assess what, precisely, is new in terms of special features for The Undisputed Collection.  It certainly appears as though the Rocky Balboa disc contains all the extras (including an Easter Egg) that were on that film's original Blu-ray release and no more.  The vast majority of the rest of the extras (behind-the-scenes discussions and making-of pieces) are the same ones that appeared on the two-disc Rocky Collector's Edition and/or the 25th Anniversary release.  There was, at one point, a commentary track that accompanied the original film, it has not be included in this release (though there is one for Rocky Balboa).  The only item here labeled as a "Blu-ray exclusive" is a trivia game that tests just how well one knows the Rocky facts and which is moderately amusing.

Seeing the relatively poor quality of the video and the hodge-podge of old special features included on Rocky – The Undisputed Collection, one can't help but get the feeling that they're being set up.  As much fun as it is to sit there and watch the movies (and even the bad ones, save perhaps Rocky V can be fun), one can almost feel the rope-a-dope coming.  There is a sense that the audience is being suckered in, expending all its energy (money) on this release only to have brand-new beautifully remastered with utterly-fantastic all-new special features and commentary tracks released in another year or two.  At that point, after the disappointing way that some of these films look, we'll all just have to have the versions we thought we were getting this time out.  Maybe that one will be called Rocky – The Two-Time Champ Collection.  Until it is known if that is in the works, it may be wise to hold off on purchasing this set, particularly if one already owns the films on DVD.

About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.

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