Our reviews of Rocky (Blu-ray) DigiBook (published June 6th, 2011), Rocky: The Complete Saga (published December 17th, 2007), Rocky: The Undisputed Collection (Blu-Ray) (published November 18th, 2009), and Rocky: Two-Disc Collector's Edition (published January 22nd, 2007) are also available.
His whole life was a million-to-one shot!
Rocky is one of my favorite films, and hands-down Sylvester Stallone's best work. Though the fight scenes proved Sly to be an action star in the years ahead, his work is much more serious and dramatic than what was to come. The film works on several levels: an inspiring tale of the underdog, a warm and sympathetic love story, and a dramatic story of unrealized dreams and potential all wrapped into one. A low budget film without major backing, Rocky went on to garner ten Academy Award nominations, winning three: Best Director for Peter Avildsen, Editing, and Best Picture. Rocky has become an icon of our culture and society, and parts of it have been copied or borrowed from in many films to follow. Replacing an early (and pretty horrid) movie-only DVD from the early days of the format is a much-improved special edition.
Facts of the Case
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) is a simple-minded, undereducated creature of the streets; a 30-year-old Philadelphia club fighter who fights small bouts for $50 purses, and serves as the strong-arm collections man for local loan shark Tom Gazzo (Joe Spinell). Rocky lives in a dingy, one-room apartment with his pet turtles Cuff and Link and a poster of boxing idol Rocky Marciano on the wall. One of Rocky's buddies, Paulie (Burt Young), sets him up with his shy sister, dark-haired, bespectacled Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in the local pet shop. Neither Rocky nor Adrian are exactly socially adept, and the two seem destined for each other in an off-beat, sad way.
Offsetting the seedy world in which Rocky lives is the high-rise, high-powered life of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the heavyweight boxing champ, who suddenly has a problem. When his opponent for his next highly publicized fight is injured, the rest of the contenders bow out because they can't get ready in time for a bout in only five weeks. Rather than simply lose the fight and the money already sunk into its promotion, Apollo decides to give a local boxer a chance, and picks Rocky out of the book simply because of his moniker "The Italian Stallion." Suddenly Rocky has a shot for the heavyweight title.
Sylvester Stallone was a struggling actor with $106 in his bank account when he wrote the first draft of Rocky, after being inspired by watching a Muhammad Ali fight where a near unknown knocked him down. He wrote it in a furious 86-hour marathon, and started shopping the script around, with the stipulation that he be cast in the lead role. Studios were definitely interested in the screenplay, but wanted to cast a well-known actor such as James Caan or Robert Redford. Stallone stuck to his guns even as the price for the script rose above $300,000. Finally producers Chartoff and Winkler were able to convince United Artists to take on the film with Stallone, but with a lot less money than they might have otherwise gotten. Filmed for just about 1 million dollars, the 28-day shooting schedule left no time for the niceties of a big budget movie. Extensive rehearsals took the place of extra takes and coverage, but in the end this all worked to the good, with a naturalistic look to the film and real depth and chemistry between the characters.
Certainly this is a film about boxing, but it isn't just a boxing movie. It is more of a character study, especially of Rocky himself, which is a look at someone films don't normally notice. Seeing him progress with confidence in himself, while realizing his own limitations is one of the joys of the film, something that was lacking in the sequels. It is endearing and more powerful that Rocky doesn't have the goal of winning against the champ, but merely to stay the distance and be standing at the end. Rocky finds his redemption in merely being able to stand his ground and prove that he "isn't just another bum from the neighborhood."
Rocky is also a tender love story, which is an even bigger part of the film than the boxing. The scene in which Rocky convinces Adrian to come to his room, and the awkward kiss that follows is one of the most romantic love scenes in my experience. Seeing Adrian blossom and come out of her shell as the film progresses is a big part of the love story as well; as she finds acceptance with Rocky she is able to begin to accept herself.
Though the film succeeds wonderfully both as character study and love story, this is still a boxing movie. There are only two fights in the film; at the beginning and the end, but the middle act is taken up with the extensive training Rocky undergoes, culminating with that classic moment as he sprints up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. I found it remarkable just how little of the running time is taken up by the final fight, since it remains one of my favorite boxing scenes of all time. Extensive practice and choreography, along with the early Steadicam work and Avildsen's direction make for a nearly flawless scene that really captures the gladiatorial nature of the sport.
I've been waiting a long time for this DVD. Rocky was released very early in the beginning of the format, and looked pretty bad with its non-anamorphic, artifact-ridden transfer. Certainly this new anamorphic one is better than before, but is not without its flaws. Print wear and defects from the source materials are the biggest culprits here, with a fair amount of nicks and blemishes still remaining. Grain is kept largely under control, however, and is much better than the original transfer. Colors are generally bold, but blacks aren't very deep and shadow detail isn't very fine. Fortunately the major artifacting is gone and so is the overly evident edge enhancement of the first disc. It doesn't rate much more than adequate now, but it is far better than the first try. Considering the fame and acclaim the film has gotten, I'm surprised more wasn't done, but I'm still happy with what we get.
This is the same Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack from the original DVD release, but at least the sound was pretty well done the first time. Certainly it isn't a whiz-bang type of track, but dialogue is carried well, the sound is expanded across the front soundstage, and there is some use of rear surrounds during the fight scenes. The musical score comes off much fuller than before. For purists, this time around MGM also included the original mono track. The 5.1 track is still preferable to me; it sounds fuller without sounding gimmicky as some remixes are prone to do.
The real draw of the new disc has to be the special features. Leading the way is the commentary track, with director John Avildsen, stars Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Burt Young, Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, and producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. Burt Young narrates, mainly to introduce the participants. It is obvious that most were recorded separately, but these type of tracks tend to make for a better flow and avoids the silent gaps we DVD reviewers hate. Stallone does his commentary separately in a 28-minute interview. It is obvious how profoundly Rocky affected him, and certainly his career. Three featurettes come up next, beginning with the 12-minute "Behind the Scenes with Director John Avildsen." Most of this is 8mm footage shot by Avildsen to plan out the fight scenes, and to look at some early make-up tests. This was the best of the three, but I was also moved by the eight-minute "Tribute to Burgess Meredith" and three-minute "Tribute to James Crabe," who was the cinematographer of the film. Two trailers, three TV spots, production notes in the leaflet, and an Easter egg complete the extra content.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I am satisfied, albeit with reservations, about the new DVD. I felt like the transfer could have been batter, particularly with cleaning up the nicks and blemishes. I was dismayed that there are no English subtitles. The new content definitely adds value to this DVD release, particularly at the $19.95 retail price. The transfer is certainly better than the old one, and is anamorphic. The positives outweigh the negatives.
As for the film itself, parts of it belie its low budget origins. Some of the fight scenes still show obvious misses that have the sound effect of a solid hit. Some of the Steadicam work isn't up to what we've come to expect, but the technology was in its infancy. These are minor glitches in an excellent film, and could have all been solved with a bit more money and time.
Many have argued that Rocky didn't deserve its Oscars, especially with films like Taxi Driver and Network in competition. I won't try to second guess the Academy this time, but I will say that Rocky was far more deserving than Gladiator was last year.
I am unapologetically a fan of the first Rocky. It's a great film for the whole family, except for very small children. At this price point I give it my enthusiastic recommendation for purchase.
I should mention that this disc is also offered as part of the Rocky Box Set, including all five films. Unfortunately Rocky 2 and Rocky 4 are both the exact same non-anamorphic substandard releases done earlier, and even the new anamorphic discs of 3 and 5 are movie only editions. For now I'd only recommend buying this first disc, and hopefully better versions of the sequels will come later.
MGM is fined for not paying better attention to the dirt and blemishes on their source print, especially for one of the crown jewels of their catalog. The only crime the makers of Rocky are guilty of is trying to take the series through too many sequels, but that isn't before the court this time.
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