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The Rocky Heavyweight Collection arrived tardy, so I intend on keeping this review as short and sweet as possible. I am, however, keen to revisit these films with relatively fresh eyes. While discussing the series, I have a basic go-to opinion, which is that I’m not overly fond of any of these films, but I realize that this opinion is based on old information. I haven’t seen a Rocky movie (in its entirety) in over a decade. If you do the math, that means I’ve never seen the final film in the series, Rocky Balboa.

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

Rocky (1976)

First things first, Rocky is a sappy, almost fetishistic underdog fantasy. When watched outside the proper context, it is very easy to dismiss. Even with the context of its place at the forefront of dark horse sports movies, it’s still difficult for me to fully embrace its deep, abiding sentiment. But I can still appreciate it for what it is – the best damn fetishistically sappy underdog fantasy that ever reached a mainstream audience. The film excels when distanced from the franchise’s almost mythological scope and sticking to the slice-of-life, character-driven moments (Rocky discovering his locker has been given to a better fighter is a wonderful shorthand for the character’s emotional situation). In fact, almost everything great about Rocky stands in opposition to the franchise’s reputation as bombastic entertainment. It’s almost painfully sweet, deeply intimate, and there is no archetypal villain to root against (there’s basically no ‘villain’ at all – just a series of obstacles meant to make us support our protagonist). I also appreciate John G. Avildsen’s raw visual style. Rocky’s Philadelphia is shot in the same gritty, ‘70s manner as Scorsese and Lumet’s New York – a direct contrast to the overblown romantic images of its ‘80s sequels.

Note: I have to admit here that my screener disc cuts to the end of the movie around the 90-minute mark, so I didn’t technically re-watch Rocky in its entirety for this review. I’d be curious to know if readers had the same issue with the final release.

Rocky is the only disc in the six-film set that has been remastered – everything else is ported from the 2009 releases. Because I am unfamiliar with those releases, I am ill-equipped to compare that version to this new 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. But my eyes do tell me this is a very nice visual approximation of an older film and that it is the most impressive disc in the set, aside from Rocky Balboa, which is a practically brand new film. The filmic properties of the image have not been eradicated with DNR, which can be an issue for the clarity of some of the darkest sequences. The brighter sequences walk a fine line between soft and hard details, which, again, appear accurate. The textures are crisp without looking over-sharpened and without any haloes. The colours are punched up a bit, including warmer skin tones, more saturated red highlights, and more a vivid blue, green, and lavender base palette. I suppose that the coolness of the transfer and the crushed quality of some of the blacks represents ‘over-production,’ but neither are particular invasive.

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t seem to have been updated from the previous release, at least not according to any of the specs I’m able to find. The original mono mix is included for comparison’s sake, but it is in the form of a profoundly compressed 1.0 Dolby Digital track. The 5.1 remix, which has been around since the very first DVD version, isn’t particularly aggressive in terms of its rearrangement of the original tracks. The occasional directional movement is tasteful and well-executed, but is still a little distracting, since the bulk dialogue and incidental effects are still largely centered. There are also some volume and clarity inconsistencies throughout, some of them occurring mid-sequence (the meat locker scene is a good example of this problem). Bill Conti’s addictive trumpet theme is delightfully brassy and his sappy piano motifs sit nice and warm beneath the rest of the mix, waiting to burst out into the stereo channels for their big crescendos.

Alongside the new transfer, this disc sports a nice collection of extras, which is an improvement on the 2009 Blu-ray’s utter lack of special features. The vast majority of these were originally seen on the 2007 collector’s edition DVD:
  • Three Audio Commentaries – The first with Stallone solo, the second with boxing trainer Lou Duva and boxing commentator Bert Sugar, and the third with director John G. Avildsen, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, actors Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Burt Young and steadicam inventor Garrett Brown.
  • 8mm Home Movies (8:10, HD, New) – Vintage, behind-the-scenes images set to cute narration from Avildsen and production manager Lloyd Kaufman (yes, that Lloyd Kaufman).
  • Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva (4:30, SD)
  • Interview with ‘Legend’ Bert Sugar (6:50, SD) – An interview with a celebrated sports writer.
  • The Opponents (16:10, SD) – An overview of Rocky’s antagonists throughout the entire franchise.
  • In The Ring (1:15:00, SD) – A three-part retrospective documentary.
  • Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown (17:30, SD)
  • Make Up! The Art and Form with Michael Westmore (15:20, SD)
  • Staccato: A Composer's Notebook with Bill Conti (11:40, SD)
  • The Ring of Truth (9:30, SD) – An interview with production designer James Spencer.
  • Behind the Scenes with Director John Avildsen (12:30, SD) – More of the 8mm footage, including discussion with the director on its use.
  • Tribute to Burgess Meredith (7:50, SD)
  • Tribute to Cinematographer James Crabe (3:40, SD)
  • A Video Commentary with Sylvester Stallone (28:50, SD) – Footage of the writer/actor discussing the film free-form.
  • Sylvester Stallone on Dinah! (17:20, SD) – Footage from Stallone’s appearance on a bygone talk show from 1976.
  • Stallone Meets Rocky (3:00, SD) – A weird video featurette with Sly talking to himself…
  • Trailer, teaser trailer, and three TV spots.

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

Rocky II (1979)

There were two franchises that defined Sylvester Stallone’s early career and skyrocketed him to superstardom – the Rocky series and the Rambo series. The irony is that the original Rocky and First Blood are not movies that lend themselves to the franchise treatment. First Blood is a slightly more extreme case, especially since it was based on a book where the main character kills himself (an alternate ending that was filmed and not used), but both films were structured for standalone status. In the case of Rocky, the series that Stallone himself acted as architect on, a sequel wasn’t out of the question, even though the story he wanted to tell was clearly told the first time around. This leaves Rocky II in the awkward situation of covering an inherently boring subject – Rocky’s inevitable and stereotypical fall from grace. Trapped with a downer subject, Stallone, who was acting as writer, director, and star for the second time (following Paradise Alley), was forced to revisit the original film’s story beats, giving the audience a version where Rocky gets to win (note: ‘do we get to win this time?’ is a sentence actually uttered in Rambo: First Blood Part II that acts as a conceptual basis for making an unnecessary sequel to First Blood). It’s a dull shadow of the original film and probably the second weakest film in the franchise. At least the performances are still good.

Rocky II has not been remastered (if anyone was curious, this is the exact same disc as the 2009 version with a different paint job), but still looks alright. It is another rough-looking movie in general, so the prevalent grain and other minor artefacts (usually white flecks) are expected. Details are sometimes fuzzy, especially softer edges, but the textures and patterns are better than SD quality. The colours are muted compared to the remastered Rocky disc, but not flat, dull, or badly separated. The brightest reds bleed out a hair and have some macro-blocking effects. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is also just fine, though the lack of compression isn’t as immediately obvious as the previous release. This time, the extra channels were culled from a stereo mix, so the alterations for 5.1 are a bit more natural and the dialogue/effects are more consistent. Conti’s music is more muffled here than on the Rocky track, but is not otherwise problematic. The original stereo tracks make it easy to spread the music out over the front speakers. MGM/Fox has included a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mix that I assume matches the film’s original stereo mix.

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

Rocky III (1982)

With Rocky II, Stallone established (seemingly by accident) that real-world competitive boxing was an ideal concept to build a mainstream-friendly movie series around – not to mention the fact that Martin Scorsese had already created the ultimate boxer drama when he made Raging Bull the year after Rocky II was released. So, Stallone took a different approach and turned Rocky III into a parody of the original movie, including a comic book caricature of Apollo Creed in James ‘Clubber’ Lang (played by Mr. T, a man so subtle that he only needs one letter in his name). The key to Rocky III’s success is that it never shows its hand and acknowledges it is a spoof – it plays every moment straight and sells every event as monumentally important. I can’t assume that the people involved knew they were making a parody, but the truth is really beside the point, because the final outcome is colourful and oddly endearing in a particularly ‘80s fashion. With all pretense of genuine human drama stripped away, the series can move the underdog fantasy into the stratosphere, turning the title character into a glistening god of the ring and allowing Stallone the chance to cut loose with pop art montages, excessive cross-fades, and flashy ‘80s fashion. He even builds a set-piece around the limited talents of one of the decade’s most excessive icons, Hulk Hogan. Rocky III is an idiotic movie, but an awfully entertaining idiotic movie and one that renders Rocky II entirely moot.

Rocky III (which also has not been re-mastered) is a more colourful film than the previous two entries in the series and acts as a stepping stone to the glitter of Rocky IV. Stallone and returning cinematographer Bill Butler increase the dreamy atmosphere by diffusing the harshest highlights and using a lot of soft focus, which, along with a lot of grain and occasional print damage artefacts, doesn’t do the detail levels any favours. Still, everything appears natural, aside from some of those vibrant colours, which are muddied during darker scenes and maybe a bit too yellow overall. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix and its Dolby Digital 2.0 basis are both more stylistically aggressive in terms of their sound design. From Paulie’s drunken trip through a noisy arcade to the tiger roars that punctuate the montages, Rocky III is a more lively aural experience. The well-centered dialogue tracks occasionally go through muffled phases and quieter scenes are inconsistently quiet, but all the big fight scenes are plenty loud and heavy with stereo/surround enhancements. Conti’s famous theme is amusingly set in the background as the movie’s two on-screen bands play to root Rocky on and replaced at the top of the film by Survivor’s goofy workout anthem, ‘Eye of the Tiger,’ which sounds fantastically overwrought in uncompressed sound (Conti’s theme gets a disco-remix during the final training montage).

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

Rocky IV (1985)

If Rocky II is the ill-advised remake of Rocky, then Rocky IV must be the ill-advised remake of Rocky III. Despite having the biggest pop culture impact since the original film, Rocky IV is absolutely an imitation of the third movie’s basic elements. I suppose the more common comparison is made to Rambo: First Blood Part II, which was released the same year as Rocky IV and helped propel Stallone into his place as the physical embodiment of the US’ Cold War superhero. These two films (alongside John Milius’ Red Dawn, from the year before) are a complete package, neo-con wet dream and are much more interesting as cultural landmarks than movies. First Blood Part II at least has the benefit of having a proper storyline between action set-pieces. Rocky IV feels like a thinly-connected series of musical montage vignettes (Stallone uses so much footage from the other films) leading up to two over-the-top boxing matches. Stallone attempts to reinstate the humble origins of the original series by contrasting Rocky’s lo-fi training against Soviet Übermensch Ivan Drago’s technologically-enhanced regiment, but loses the moral with the gleam of expensive cars, mansions, and beer-serving robots – not to mention its ill-advised affirmation that the only way to defeat power is with more power (one would hope that Rocky would defeat Drago with technique and skill, but he just does strength training). Most of the people that still praise Rocky IV appear to be enjoying it on an ironic or nostalgic level. I agree that it is amusing to look back and laugh at the fervent, frothy, anti-Soviet propaganda and I cannot ignore the draw of Dolph Lundgren’s star-making performance (even if he’s Swedish). Still, the glare of nostalgia can’t quite outshine the lack of content or that boring middle section.

Rocky IV is probably the most vibrant and flashy film in the series, but Stallone and Butler tend to match the look of Rocky III, at least in terms of diffused light (those press conferences are overloaded with sparkling camera flashes) and the use of soft focus. This transfer is stronger than that one, however – possibly the strongest of all the non-remastered discs in the set. The fine details and hard edges are sharper, the background patterns are more complex, and the contrast levels are stronger. The sweat-drenched bodies of the boxers shine with a waxy smoothness, but there’s enough film grain present to assume that no one got carried away with digital noise reduction. The saturated colours bleed into each other a bit, but aren’t ever dull or muddy, as they tend to appear on the other two discs. The flash of the imagery is matched by the flash of an even more aggressive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (once again, produced using a 2.0 Dolby track, which is included here). Outside of the increase in directional immersion and aggression during the boxing scenes, the quieter, dialogue-driven sequences also feature unvaried volume and clarity levels. Conti was replaced for this one Rocky flick by Vince DiCola, who took a more electronic approach to the score. The score and the montage pop music (the soundtrack must’ve sold a billion copies) once again benefits from the lack of compression.

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

Rocky V (1990)

Rocky IV was the most popular movie in the series since the original and represented a high point in Stallone’s career as a popular film star and filmmaker. The years following his 1985 triumph were a slow trickle into semi-obscurity. Over the Top was an uncharacteristic flop and Rambo III was a comparatively modest success, but it was probably the box office disappointment of Rocky V was probably the first nail in a coffin that would eventually be slammed shut by the likes of Oscar, Stop, Or My Mom will Shoot!, and Get Carter. But it wasn’t just a loss of interest in Stallone’s Cold War hero persona that kept Rocky V down – it was the fact that it was a drab, boring, and occasionally even depressing movie. From what I understand, fans don’t even really like this one. Stallone and returning director John G. Avildsen did their best to steer the franchise towards its roots. The story is more intimate – Rocky has acquired brain damage regresses him back to a broken state similar to where he was during the first movie – and the general look is ‘realistic.’ Stallone gets credit for trying to address the medical dangers of being continuously hit in the head, I suppose, and I appreciate the idea of making an antidote to the increasing hilarity of the previous films, but the results are flat. The only high points are the so-bad-they’re-good Don King & Mike Tyson parodies and young Sage Stallone’s effective performance.

Rocky V takes the series back to a duller, darker place. Even the footage from Rocky IV has been desaturated, seemingly to ensure maximum depression. The dim, almost noir-ish lighting is enough to wash-out details and soften edges at some points. The grain levels are the thickest in the collection and occasionally downright abrasive. The dingy palette is relatively natural, at least the warm hues, but separation is a bit muddy, especially in wide-angle shots. Despite the generally disappointing transfer, Rocky V has one of the stronger DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remixes, probably because it was culled from an already busy, early ‘90s era 2.0 track. The dialogue is well-centered with consistent volume levels and the stereo/surround enhancements are appropriately and naturally immersive. Conti returned to score and really pulled out all the stops with the big strings and horns of the opening title theme. The music has very little in common with the disco themes and electro-pop stuff found in the other sequels (though a bit of hip-hop has been tossed in to placate the early ‘90s audience).

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Watching these films in a row for the first time, I realize that, if you really boil these stories down to their essence, there are only really three Rocky movies: Rocky II and Rocky IV were both ‘bigger & better’ versions of the films that came before them. Rocky Balboa is a smaller & smarter version of Rocky V and bucks the trend by being significantly better than its predecessor. In fact, from this non-fan’s point of view, Rocky Balboa might be the best film in the entire series. The 16-year gap between Rocky V and Rocky Balboa was enough time to not only gather up enthusiasm for the character, it was also enough time for Stallone’s career downturn to run its course. This creates a fascinating and addictive meta-subtext to the film that has audiences rooting for an aging Rocky Balboa and an aging Sylvester Stallone. They’re both lovable, has-been underdogs that fell spectacularly from grace. Rocky Balboa is almost entirely driven by sentiment, but it rarely arcs around into the maudlin and, even when it does, it seems justified in its choices. This sweetness is in line with what made the original film good. Also important is Stallone’s effort to acknowledge the race relation issues of the other sequels. Aside from including a mixed race character as a new surrogate son and reintroducing his black trainer Duke (Tony Burton), the writer/director makes an effort to paint Rocky’s opponent, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), as a fully-formed human being and a protagonist in his own right. There’s a lot of sappy monologuing to sift through and it’s kind of exhausting to watch a perpetually nostalgic look back at a bunch of movies I just watched, but I found Rocky Balboa to be a worthy successor to the fetishistic underdog story to end them all.

Again, every disc but the first is a repainted version of previously-available discs. Rocky Balboa opens with the same old Sony Blu-ray promo from 2007. Despite the throwback nature of the story, Stallone and cinematographer Clark Mathis aim for an incredibly modern look, including harsh contrasts and hyper-saturated digital colour grading. The heavily stylized imagery also embraces film grain, which appears nice and tight, despite the aggressive frequency of tiny artefacts. The only artefacts that really recall the other Stallone-directed Rockys is the appearance of diffused highlights. Details are sharp when not blown-out or crushed by highlights and shadows, and edges are crisp with only occasional enhancement effects. It actually appears to be an early forerunner in the orange & tealization of modern film, but the two hues don’t entirely define the film’s vivid, unreal palette. It also includes some searing reds, vibrant yellows, and glowing greens. The heavy contrast extends to the palette and creates big blocks of colour that rarely bleed out or appear blocky. The final fight itself was shot using digital HD (probably 1080i) to recreate the look of a live, televised sporting event, including all the typical artefacts (on purpose). As an older disc, this one doesn’t feature a TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio track, it features an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track. It’s a busy mix without being distracting, including a lot of natural ambience and some bombastic crowd and punching noise during the climax. At the risk of alienating fans, I kind of hate the mournful piano versions of the original themes that Conti slides beneath the more dramatic and tender sequences here. The music blends well into the mix, but it is just so terrible.

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

The original release extras include:
  • Sylvester Stallone commentary
  • Seven deleted/extended scenes and an alternate ending (23:20, HD)
  • Bloopers (1:30, HD)
  • Skill vs. Will: The Making of Rocky Balboa (17:50, HD)
  • The Reality of the Ring: Filming Rocky’s Final Fight (15:40, HD)
  • Virtual Champion: Creating the Computer Fight (5:10, HD)
  • Trailers

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

 Rocky: The Heavyweight Collection

* Note: The above images are taken from the newly remastered Rocky Blu-ray (not the reissue discs) and have been resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but, due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Also note that the scores on the side of the page refer only to the Rocky disc.