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ROCKY: HEAVYWEIGHT COLLECTION
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Mr. T, Dolph Lundgren, Tommy Morrison, Antonio Tarver
Directors:  John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone
Audio:  DTS HD 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  532 Minutes
Release Date:  February 11, 2014  

"All I want to do is go the distance..."

Rocky ****

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 a decade past the age 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.

Rocky II ***1/2

When Stallone first brought his brawling sensation into movie houses and the hearts of fans everywhere, it seemed almost natural…nay, inevitable that the Italian Stallion would come back for another round.  Rocky was an Oscar-winning, crowd pleasing monster of a success, and crowds wanted more.  Specifically, they wanted to see the Rock accomplish what he couldn’t quite do the first go around…namely, topple the mighty Apollo Creed for that elusive heavyweight title.

Rocky II begins with a brief recap of that legendary battle.  Apollo declares there won’t be a rematch.  But the fighters have barely made it to the hospital before Creed starts succumbing to the taunts and notions of those who thought he either carried Rocky for their fight or just downright blew it.  A rematch is the only way Creed can prove to the world that he’s still the one true undefeated champion.

But Rocky, who suffered eye damage as a result of the fight, is ready to retire, go back to normal life, and marry his beloved Adrian.  With the purse he made from the match, he does pretty good for awhile.  But money doesn’t last forever.  After failing to parlay his fifteen minutes of fame into a lucrative career, Rocky and Adrian are finding making ends meet the biggest struggle of all.

In the meantime, the angry Creed begins an all out humiliation campaign to bring the Stallion back.  Afraid of having her husband killed or permanently disabled, the now-pregnant Adrian refuses to support Rocky’s desire to go back into the ring.  His longsuffering manager Mickey is ready to make Rocky into a more dangerous fighting machine than ever.  But soon, complications with Adrian’s pregnancy derail Rocky’s ability to get his heart into the fight.  What will become of them?

Well, I’m sure most fans know the answer.  The final match surpasses anything we’ve seen before, and boasts for my money the greatest ending ever to a sports movie.  In fact, I think one of the reasons I love the early Rocky films so much is that we don’t see boxing like that for real anymore.  In the old days, boxers would pummel each other into bloody goo.  Today, one fighter can’t get his hands up, and the ref calls the bout.  Much better for the health of the athletes, to be sure, but man, watch some of those old brawls on ESPN Classic and you get a feel for what’s missing today.

Stallone again wrote the screenplay, and this time stepped into the director’s chair as well as the boxing ring.  His first foray into directing Rocky was a supreme success…he handled the material with an astute eye, blending the drama, comedy and action into a winner of a picture.  Maybe the exact power of the first film could never be duplicated.  But he came DAMNED close with the second one.

Rocky III ***

By the third installment, Rocky was settling in comfortably to life as the champ.  The fans cheered, the money rolled in, the endorsements kept coming, and all was good in the land of Balboa.  But when you have it all, there's always someone waiting to take it all away.

That someone is the brutal boxer Clubber Lang (Mr. T, in his debut role), a vicious and remorseless opponent who left a wake of battered, broken and bruised bodies on his way up in the rankings.  And while the city of Philadelphia is celebrating its hometown hero and Rocky is getting ready to hang up his gloves for good, Clubber is calling him out in very public and humiliating ways.

It should be no problem for Rocky, right?  Well, all was not as it seemed.  Mickey, who had trained the Italian Stallion and brought him to the greatest title in the world, had taken on a role of protector, carefully selecting Rocky's opponents not only to help him stay champ, but to keep him from getting seriously hurt in the ring.  Rocky was really in no shape to go toe to toe with the younger, bigger and strong Lang, and on the night Clubber clobbers him and takes his title, Rocky loses not only his belt, but his manager and friend as the ill Mickey passes away.

It wasn't how Rocky envisioned ending his storybook career, but ended it seemed, until the arrival of an unexpected blast from the past turns everything around.  Apollo Creed seeks out his one-time nemesis, and offers his help.  Why?  Because when Creed lost to Rocky, he found in his opponent a fearless, unstoppable battler, hungry and having nothing to lose.  Now, with Creed's help, Rocky will go back to the beginning to find that eye of the tiger and that heart of a champion that helped him shake up the world.

In many ways, Rocky III was a turning point in the series.  For a lot of fans, myself included, it was really the last great hurrah for the character (at least until the very recent and unpredictably good finale).  The only thing that could match Rocky's amazing rise to the top in the first couple of films was seeing him learning how to get it all back.  But the loss of Mickey, while dramatic and potent, also robbed the future movies of its conscience.

Rocky was far from over, but his better days were starting to get behind him.

Rocky IV **

I suppose it was inevitable in the waning days of Ronald Reagan winning the Cold War for Rocky to have his shot at patriotic glory.  And just like critics gave Reagan no chance at taking down the most oppressive and enslaving empire on the face of the planet, Rocky came face to face with his most unstoppable and unforgiving foe to date.  We now know, of course, how it turned out for both of them.

That opponent would be Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the new pride of the Soviet Union...a machine-like giant who had been trained with all the top equipment and instructors to be not a boxer, but a human wrecking ball with enough punching power to turn human bones to dust.  Claiming a new world superiority in the the sport, the Russians set out to prove it by bringing Drago face to face with former heavyweight champion Apollo Creed in an exhibition match.

Only for Drago and the Soviets, it's not a show.  With a few devastating blows, the beloved American champ is not only felled, but killed, as a helpless Rocky watches from the corner.

Now, Rocky will have to lace up the gloves once again...not for title, but for his friend, and for his country.  With the Soviets in complete control of the match, Rocky will have to leave the love and comfort of home for the hard, cruel winters of Russia, the hostility of the Communist regime, and the animosity of the people.  There, he will face the deadly Drago, as once again, East would meet West in a battle for superiority.  Only this time, Rocky has more than his reputation at stake...his life is on the line as well.

This movie earns points for not attempting to blur ideology with loose liberal colorings...the good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, which made victory not only possible for Rocky, but for America as well.  But the larger scope of United States against the Soviet Union, of freedom against oppression, dominates to the point that the characters get kind of lost in the mix. 

The death of Apollo should be thought of as one of the series' most emotional moments, but even that gets kind of rushed through for the sake of the international showdown.  We're used to cheering Rocky, and it's fun to cheer America as well, but face it...as a nation, we've never considered ourselves underdogs against anybody.  It ends the way we knew it would, but the placating of our national pride and dramatic satisfaction don't necessary equate.

Still, there's no arguing that Rocky was the perfect man to defend our honor on the world stage, to be sure...what else was there for him?

Rocky V *1/2

For most lovers of the franchise, the answer should have been retirement.  In Rocky V, he gets it, but not on his own terms.  Returning from his brutal brawl with Drago, Rocky finds his world turned upside down in a couple of ways.  One, he learns the upsetting news that the blows to the head he'd taken throughout his career have caught up with him, leaving him with irreversible brain damage.  And two, thanks to some bad financial decisions made by his brother-in-law Paulie, the mighty champion and his family are now bankrupt.

Forced to sell the house, cars, and everything down to the gloves he wore in his first title fight with Apollo, it's back to the mean streets of Philly for the former and slowing champ, his stalwart wife Adrian, and his growing son (Sage Stallone, Sly's real-life offpsring).  Unable to earn his living in the ring, opportunity comes in the form of a young and hungry fighter named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison).  Though Rocky has tried to put boxing behind him, despite the continual pressure from a Don King-like promoter George Washington Duke, who cares more about the payoff than Rocky's health, Gunn persuades Rocky to train him.

Rocky takes Tommy under his wing, both as a fighter and as a young man, paying a bit more attention to the boxer that reminds him of his own youth than to his increasingly troubled own son.  Rocky's tutelage proves to be the spark that sends Tommy Gunn up the ladder of success, only to become a champion who turns on his mentor and joins with Duke to shame the injured Rocky out of retirement to suffer his final defeat at the hands of his own student.

It sounds decent on paper, but it's weak and very unsatisfying.  Did we really spend all these years with Rocky just to see him down and repeatedly kicked?  Losing everything he fought for and becoming a shell of his former self?  Reduced to fighting for his last scrap of dignity in the streets?

It was a terrible way to end a storied career and franchise, and this film is universally considered the worst of the lot.  Stallone may have envisioned it as a return to roots, bringing Rocky back into poverty and Philadelphia, and even bringing back original director John G. Avildsen, but sometimes, it's just way too late to try and eke out a fresh start, and for fans, watching an out-of-gas Rocky idling on fumes was not the way we wanted to remember the underdog who shook up the world. 

Rocky Balboa ***1/2

But like Rocky, there was no quit in Stallone, and like Rocky, Stallone may have faced his biggest underdog challenge to date when he chose to resurrect his classic creation one last time.  Stallone strapping on the gloves as he crossed the 60 year mark?  It was an idea ripe for ridicule, unceremonious venom, and possibly the stake that would forever drive the heart out of a once glorious cinema sensation.

Yet Stallone had the last laugh.  Though critics were waiting to deride, and many fans, myself included, were quietly uncomfortable and wincing at the very notion, Rocky Balboa surprised us all by going the distance and being the very embodiment of art imitating life.  If Stallone was too old to bring back Rocky, Rocky was too old to BE brought back.  And that makes the point of the film:  age is just one of many obstacles life throws at us.  We each deal with it as we do all others; each according to his gifts.

Rocky Balboa is an emotionally riveting return to form for Stallone, the character, and the franchise, and Stallone’s script and surehanded direction provides the perfect bookend along with the first movie.  This is a film that isn’t afraid to look to the future through the past, and each nostalgic glance backwards is a heartwarming reminder of all that Rocky and ourselves have been through in 30 years.  Characters we haven’t seen in forever are here, including the Rock’s one time nemesis Spider Rico, and even Little Marie, who isn’t so little anymore.

Stallone puts an aging Rocky in uncharted waters by robbing him of one thing he’s had for decades, and that’s the stability and inspiration of his wife, Adrian.  As the movie opens, we learn his dutiful life mate has passed on.  Rocky mourns year after year by making the rounds in Philadelphia where they had their special moments, along with his brother-in-law Paulie, aging also but less interested in living in the past than Rocky.

His fighting days are long past, and now Rocky runs a small restaurant, where the locals who still consider him a celebrity drop in for food and stories of his glory days.  The current champion is a young fighter named Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), a man whose professional career has seemed easy.  He’s never lost, never had to go the distance, but is accused of fighting purposely inferior athletes to pad his record.  Needless to say, he isn’t as beloved as Rocky.

Rocky is also dealing with his son Robert Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), all grown up, and trying to make his life out of the shadow of his father.  He also encounters Little Marie, a grown single mother with a teenage son.  Each encounter points to Rocky’s past and to his uncertain future.

That future is soon shaken up when a sports show creates a simulated computer fight between Mason Dixon and Rocky in his prime.  In it, Rocky wins.  It means nothing, but it gets restless boxing fans stirred up.  And for Mason, who’s losing his marketability as champ, it means a strange opportunity as presented by his managers:  a charity exhibition between the aging Rocky and the hotheaded young talent.

It’s crazy, but well-timed, because Rocky has been trying to get his boxing license reinstated.  He wants to do some small club fighting because something inside is still troubling him.  Maybe it’s the prospect of aging and fading away, or maybe it’s the lack of Adrian in his life.  But when a chance comes Rocky’s way, he always makes the most of it, even when nobody believes in him, including his own son. 

Rocky Balboa really isn’t so much about one last fight as it is the ongoing fight.  Nor is it so much about defying your age as it is facing it with dignity.  And it isn’t a question of whether a 60 year old man can step into the ring again realistically or not, but about what we choose to do every day of our lives, no matter what stage we’re in. 

This film has most of the heart of the first chapter, with Stallone as writer, director and actor in top form and lucky enough to have the character of Rocky speak everything he probably wanted to say himself.  Like his character, nobody gave Stallone a fighter’s chance in the world at realizing his dream at his age.  And like Rocky, Stallone proved naysayers wrong with grit, determination, and yes, heart.

Video ***

As you might expect, as each movie progresses, for the most part, there are improvements in overall quality.  I'm not sure we'll ever get a really spectacular looking version of Rocky on home video, but this Blu-ray is definitely the best incarnation yet.  And before this set, I had yet to see an anamophically enhanced version of Rocky II, so that disc marked a noted improvement just for that.

Rocky III still exhibits a share of noticeable grain and film texture, particularly in darker scenes.  But Rocky IV cleaned up quite nicely, going against the normal issues for 80s movies on disc.  The colors are better, the images clearer, and the graininess is much, much less.  There is a slight retraction in quality for Rocky V, which might be owing to director Avildsen going for a grittier look, but it comes across as more muted and yes, more grainy.  By the time of Rocky Balboa, particularly in the Vegas settings, you'll be really appreciating what bringing this franchise to Blu-ray really meant.

Audio ***1/2

DTS HD brings a more expansive listening experience than before.  As each film progresses, the dynamic range and overall use of the surrounds and subwoofer improves, but all the way through, dialogue is clean and well-delivered against the action.  Bill Conti's classic scores sounds more deep and vibrant than ever, and each of the final fights open up a wider range of enveloping surround than you remember.

Features ***

Most of the individual discs are featureless, apart from Rocky Balboa, which offers a solid commentary from Stallone sharing his experience at bringing back his most famous character one last time, a making-of featurette, deleted scenes with an alternate ending, bloopers, a look at the filming of the final fight, and how the virtual boxing sequence was created.

But the Heavyweight Collection also includes a bonus disc of extras for the series.  There is a new 3 part making-of documentary called "In The Ring", behind-the-scenes featurettes on makeup, music, directing and camerawork, boxing featurettes on legendary trainer Lou Duva, the opponents Rocky faced, and "The Ring of Truth", and a pair of tributes to the late Burgess Meredith and James Crabe.

There is an interview with boxing expert Bert Sugar, an on-camera interview with Stallone looking back at some three decades of Rocky, his 1976 appearance on Dinah!, and a collection of trailers and TV spots.

There are some newly discovered 8mm home movies of the making of Rocky, narrated by John G. Avildsen and production manager Lloyd Kaufman.  And the original features on the Rocky disc are here, including Stallone on the "Dinah" show, and his video thoughts on the movie.

There is a new Blu-ray game "Feeling Strong Now", which tests your knowledge of Rocky and boxing trivia, as it pits you against each of Rocky's opponents.  You get to show off your knowledge and your glove skills as you map out Rocky's strategy in the ring.  I won it...and I wish you got something cool for succeeding, but you don't. 

Summary:

Rocky is still the undisputed champion of the underdog movies, and the Heavyweight Collection brings this storied franchise in complete form home to your high definition system.  With a bonus disc of extras and most of the movies remaining bona fide fan favorites, this collection is as close to a knockout as you could hope for.

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