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ROCKY: SPECIAL EDITION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers
Director:  John G. Avildsen
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM/UA
Features:  See Review
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  April 24, 2001  

"Rocky, do you believe America is the land of opportunity?"

"Yeah."

"Apollo Creed does.  And he's gonna prove it to the whole world by giving an unknown a shot at the title!"

Film ****

The underdog-makes-good formula has been used so many times in motion pictures that its practically a genre unto itself, but one title will always stand out as the true champion:  Rocky.

On the surface, this Oscar winner for Best Picture seems to be a simple tale about a two-bit club fighter who makes good when given the chance of a lifetime.  Certainly, everyone who's seen the picture remembers the climactic battle between Rocky (Stallone) and Apollo Creed (Weathers).

But having seen the film more times than I can count, I've made the pleasant discovery that it ages well on a very personal level.  When I was a kid, I loved the fighter in Rocky.  Now that I'm the same age as Rocky's character was in the film, I notice a lot more in him.

I understand much more clearly that it's not the story of a bum who gets a break.  That's not something people identify with any more than you can make a hero out of someone who wins the lottery.  No one can choose the cards fate plays them.

It's the story of man who finds it in himself to be something better than he or anyone else believed he could be.  It's the story about his relationship with a timid wallflower of a girl, Adrian (Shire) and an aged, bitter fighter Mickey (Meredith) who all learn to bring out the best in one another.

The one-in-a-million shot Creed offers him for the heavyweight title is the catalyst, not the heart, of the story.  Anyone given the same chance could have climbed into the ring, given it a go, and walked away with the nice compensatory purse and fifteen minutes of fame.  What happens for Rocky before that pivotal moment is that he brings out Adrian's voice and helps her find herself, while her faith in him makes him believe that maybe he's capable of more in life than what he'd settled for.  “She's got gaps, I got gaps, together, we fill gaps,” he explains to her brother Paulie (Young).

Likewise, Rocky and Mickey help each other overcome years of pain, frustration and failures.  Mickey knows boxing, but never had a shot.  Rocky has the shot, but not the knowledge.  This strange mixture of a friendship brings out the best in both men, and has won the hearts of audiences for decades.

Rocky knows he's nothing special.  He's just one of hundreds of fighters who shuffled through the doors of his run down Philadelphia gym and never made it.  He's a guy with the muscle, but not the heart for, the collection duties that keep a meager pittance of cash in his pocket.  When offered the fight with Creed, he initially turns it down because “it wouldn't be such a good fight”.  The irony is, no one in the Creed camp believes in Rocky.  They just want their philanthropic gesture to be the ultimate spectator event.  So it's not the opportunity that Rocky had no control over that brings out the best in him.

The finale is truly memorable, not just for one of the best fight scenes ever captured on celluloid, but because it accents the real heart of the movie.  At the end, the fight was not as important as what Rocky and Adrian brought out in one another.  The shouts of “Yo, Adrian!” has become Hollywood vernacular, but it's easy to overlook that while these two are declaring their love for one another, the announcement that Rocky has lost the fight is being completely submerged in the background. 

Of course, the story of the making of Rocky is almost as impressive as the underdog tale its protagonist lived.  A struggling young actor named Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay, and shopped it around with the bold project attachment that he and he alone play the lead.  Studio after studio turned him down because of that…imagine how different his life might have been had he given in!  Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff eventually agreed, paying Stallone a bare minimal actor's salary and nada for his script.  Most studios weren't enthused about the idea:  boxing stories rarely appealed to female audiences, and they saw nothing in Stallone to make them believe the feminine half of the population would support the picture.  The romantic leads were unglamorous, the location of Philadelphia brutal and unappealing to the eye, and, of course, the main character loses the big fight.  In other words, no box office potential.

Of course, the movie would go on to become one of the most popular in cinema history, earning Academy Award nominations for its stars and winning for Picture and Director.  Stallone would become a household name, though it's hysterical to listen to the original teaser on this disc which compares him to Nicholson, DeNiro and Brando…Stallone??  But few could argue with the next assertion:  he IS Rocky.

Rocky would soon evolve into a franchise, starting with Rocky II, which captured a lot of the same spirit as the original for these main characters, but with the ending the audiences were clamoring for.  It's hard not to think of the entire Rocky collection of films when watching the first one, but it's good to try.  It's good to remember that this was a story where Rocky might not have ever had another moment in the spotlight like he did that one fateful night in Philadelphia on our country's bicentennial…and he would have been okay with it.  Rocky became a champion not as a boxer, but as a human being, as did Adrian, and as did Mickey.  Three lonely, pained souls brought it out in one another, and no sequel was necessary to believe their lives would continue to be extraordinary, even in simple ways.

Video ***

Bravo to MGM for their new DVD presentation of Rocky.  If you have the previously issued edition, it's time to retire it.  Not only do we have an anamorphic widescreen presentation, but the benefit of dual layering without a full frame version on side two.  Compression artifacts are gone; this is a much cleaner image without distortions, undue softness, or distractions.  The grain inherent in the darker scenes?  Gone.  The color bleeding in some of the more vibrant locations?  Adios.  The print still suffers from telltale aging signs, but seems to grow cleaner as the film rolls along.  This is a much more deserving transfer for one of America's most popular films…fans can rejoice.

Audio ***

Though not much in the way of channel discretion, the new 5.1 mix offers a fuller and more well rounded listening experience than the original mono.  Front and rear stages open up for more ambience, especially during the fight scenes, and Bill Conti's famed score sounds crisper, cleaner, and more dynamic than ever.  Purists can enjoy the mono track if they prefer, but I'm betting most will opt for the new and better listening experience this DVD offers.

Features ****

What a treat this department is for Rocky fans.  For starters, you get a terrific commentary track, featuring the participation of director John G. Avildsen, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, actors Talia Shire, Burt Young and Carl Weathers, and even the inventor of the steadicam, who throws in his thoughts on the filming process.  There are a lot of good memories here, and the enthusiasm for the project still shows through in their words and thoughts.  There is a half-hour video commentary by Stallone, one on one with the camera, which is pleasant and thoughtful.  There are three featurettes:  a behind-the-scenes with Avildsen, plus two tributes to Burgess Meredith and director of photography James Crabe.  There are trailers, TV spots, ad materials, and an informative booklet.  Outstanding!

Summary:

Rocky is still the undisputed champion of the underdog movies, and this new anniversary edition DVD from MGM is a knockout.  Need I say more?  This is a must-own.