THE SCREENING ROOM
By Bill KallayThere was a time, young people, when actor/writer/director Sylvester Stallone ruled the world. He came out of nowhere to bring "Rocky" (1976) to the screen. Like the film, his was a hard fought story of battling against the odds and winning. He won the hearts of millions and the film won Best Picture of the year. This guy, Stallone, engrained himself upon the world. His popularity grew and so did his ego. He'd make a series of clunkers like "Staying Alive" and audiences still loved him. It wasn't until "Cobra" when people seemed to tire of Stallone. Audiences got tired of the poor acting and the endless sequels. Sure, Stallone had hot babes and a house in Malibu now, but what was he giving audiences anymore? He lost sense of what caused audiences to embrace him. Stallone fell from grace. In a sense, watching this Blu-ray collection of the "Rocky" films mirrors Sly's rise and fall, and redemption.
The "Rocky: The Undisputed Collection" is now available on Blu-ray.
I can honestly say I never sat down to watch most of the "Rocky" films. I'd never seen one in the theater, and the only three I saw were on VHS tape in the '80s, "Rocky II" and "Rocky III" and "Rocky IV." I thought they were thinly plotted, repetitive and very predictable. For me, Stallone wasn't much of an actor. He played up the "Rocky" voice and mannerisms not only in those films, but in nearly every film he made. He was the big "palooka." It was an act I just didn't care for. I couldn't, for years, see why Stallone was so damned popular.
Thank goodness for the beautiful picture and sound of Blu-ray, because I could now sit down and see what all the fuss was about.
I can see why audiences in 1976 loved Rocky Balboa, the chump from the neighborhood who took on the world. In this film, as limited as his acting was, he's caring and likable. He was a guy with a huge heart and desire to be somebody. America was still trying to right itself after Nixon, Watergate and Vietnam, so a film like "Rocky" was perfect for the time. It was a true underdog story about a roughshod guy with flying fists and love in his heart for a little pet shop girl, Adrian (Talia Shire).
It can be debated whether or not the film should've won Best Picture. The story and plot is very simple and over time, the film doesn't feel fresh and it's not one of those films I feel like revisiting over and over again. Perhaps its due to Stallone's desire to basically remake and expand "Rocky" into a franchise that the meaning of Rocky became diluted. But there is a lot to like in this first film.
Who ever would've thought that Carl Williams, a former football player, would light up the screen with his role of Apollo Creed. He really is electrifying in the role. Such personality and such passion is clearly missing from Rocky, but that's how Stallone wrote the characters. Creed is just plain fun to watch whenever he's on-screen. Talia Shire is adorable as the homely pet shop girl, gradually growing into her role as Adrian. Burgess Meredith is great as Mickey, the grouchy yet lovable trainer. Together they make a good film, though I still contend it isn't great. The end fight scene, as in the rest of the films in the series, tends to run too long and I can honestly say I didn't find the famous ending to get me all chocked up inside.
The Blu-ray picture quality is very good due to the source material. The film has a soft and grainy look to it, which is perfectly fine for this film. The only time I'd seen parts of the film were on television or videotape, so this is a significant improvement.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is very good. The source material is fine for the film, as it's dialogue driven. The dialogue is easy to hear. There is some distortion from the original mix that's inherit in the soundtrack. I can live with that "dated fidelity." I actually preferred the DTS-HD track over the mono track, which is surprising for me as I prefer to hear the film as it was originally presented. The music is nicely presented in the new mix and sounds fairly natural.
ROCKY II (1979)
Over the years, I've heard a lot of people say that this sequel was just a repeat of the first film. After watching it, I can agree, but I also found it to be a pretty decent follow-up. The film shows Stallone's maturity as an actor and writer, and there is some growth in the characters all around.
Apollo is ticked off that Rocky is now the toast of the boxing world, so he looks for a rematch. Rocky, spending lavishly after his first major bout, hits hard times and finds himself at the bottom of the barrel again. So he agrees to fight. So in essence, we see Rocky and Apollo training for the bout through montage, and we get the big match at the end of the film. Yep, it's repetitive. But I found myself liking the film a bit more than the original for its maturity and growth.
The Blu-ray picture quality is about equal to the first film, which isn't a bad thing. In fact, the picture is sharper and cleaner than the original in some respects, leading me to believe that either they used better film stock, or the film was digitally scrubbed for high definition. The quality of the shots sometimes varies.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is very good, although some of the dialogue is distorted as it was in the first film. The film was mixed in Dolby Stereo, one of the early films done in that process. The music sounds warm and has decent fidelity. The original mix included, which also sounds good, but it's not as loud and clear as the DTS-HD soundtrack due to being compressed.
ROCKY III (1982)
This is where Stallone and the "Rocky" franchise started getting a little crazy with some of its choices. This is when the world was introduced to Mr. T. and Hulk Hogan. Now in the film, both Mr. T. and Hogan are actually fairly cool and subdued. In fact, Mr. T. puts in a credible performance as Clubber Lang, the envy of 10-14 year-old boys at the time. He was just cool and full of attitude. Because of "Rocky III," we got Mr. T.'s antics for a few years in the '80s, and Hogan's oversized ego through the early 21st century!
This is what gets me laughing; Rocky and Apollo running up and down the beach in very bright red and yellow dolphin shorts. Those were goofy even back then. I continue to laugh at the melodrama imparted by Stallone. He starts to show that Stallone Method Acting audiences became accustomed to in the '80s. No, "III" isn't a terrible film, but it does show the signs of things to come.
The redeeming factor in this film isn't Stallone's overacting, but his performance over Mickey's death. I can remember watching this scene and laughing (as a young teenager would) at Stallone's incomprehensible dialogue. Yet the scene is still moving. If anything, seeing such fine character as Meredith's Mickey die is reason enough to choke up.
The Blu-ray picture is very good but it is grainy. I don't think this is a bad thing at all. The film was more than likely shot grainy to reflect the previous films.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is very good, but it's surprisingly only OK. The film was released in 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo in 1982, a presentation method that offered (usually) a superior picture and sound over standard movies. The audio is surprisingly low key and lacks the fidelity of other films released at that time, including "E.T.," "Blade Runner," and "Tron." Those 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo mixes were far superior than "Rocky III." Some of the dialogue, again, is distorted and sounds like it came from a 70's "B" picture. Maybe that's what Stallone liked in his films, but it can sound a bit strident today. That said, the soundtrack is serviceable. "Eye of the Tiger" sounds very good, though a CD sounds better than the DTS-HD soundtrack.
ROCKY IV (1985)
The robot. The stinking robot. What the hell?
This is the film, outside of the casting of Dolph Lundgren, that I remember for seeing that damned, stupid, moronic, robot.
Made during a time when Russia was our mortal enemy, Stallone tackled the vibe by pitting himself against that crazy Russian, Drago (Lundgren). This is where the film, and Stallone, went off the deep end. Rocky was now far from his roots as the underdog. Now he was a rich boxer living the high life and was now even better friends with his former arch enemy, Apollo Creed. Actually, that sounds like the plot for "Rocky III." I digress. Rocky, as the band Survivor can be paraphrased, "traded his passion for glory."
The plot is entirely predictable with Creed getting killed in the ring by Drago, and it gets even more silly when Rocky goes to Russia and trains in the snow and mountains. If ever there was a clichéd montage of fight music and an actor standing on a mountain top yelling, this movie has it. Add to it the monotone acting of both Lundgren and Brigitte Nielsen, you've got a silly movie that managed to still make a lot of money. I suppose the kids buying tickets at the box office weren't into "White Nights" and "Out of Africa" that Christmas when "Rocky IV" debuted.
The Blu-ray picture is very good and in-line with the previous films. Grain is present throughout most of the film. Overall, it's a solid picture.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is very good, but it's again not very strong, which is surprising since this film was released in 70mm. The music is still solid though it's not very strong. Sound effects are OK.
ROCKY V (1990)
After "Cobra," "Rambo III" and "Tango & Cash," audiences started growing tired of the whole legend of Stallone. It was as if he was repeating his limited acting style over-and-over again. So by the time "Rocky V" was released, audiences shrugged. This is perhaps the worst of the series, and by gosh, it's got mullets.
This movie is forgettable. Stallone calls in his performance, rehashing as he'd done in the first films, the same underdog-to-champion story and it feels tired. He sets his sights on an up-and-coming boxer (Tommy Morrison) who wears goofy sweats and a mullet. Stallone's real life kid plays his screen kid, Rocky Balboa Jr. Talia Shire looks tired of playing Adrian, and Richard Gant, playing a promoter, is too over the top. The story ends in a big street brawl, so it's credible that the film ends outside the boxing ring. But it's fitting that as bad as the movie is, it ends up in the garbage.
The Blu-ray picture is perfectly fine and retains Steven Poster's good cinematography.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is miles above in quality than the previous films. The dialogue is clear, the sound effects are loud enough, and the music is fine.
ROCKY BALBOA (2006)
I think that a lot of people, especially me, rolled their eyes and shrugged their shoulders when they heard that Stallone was re-booting the "Rocky" franchise. Other than "Cliffhanger," a serviceable riff on "Die Hard," Stallone was written off. Yet one night when nothing else was on television, I caught a scene from "Balboa" and was very surprised in how effective the film seemed. I decided not to watch the rest of it, but it still stayed in my mind. Now finally having watched the film in its entirety, I have to admit I liked it. Sure, the film basically re-treads the first three films nearly verbatim, but it also grows on you.
Out of all the films I've seen with Stallone, this one packs a punch. It's almost as if he realized how far away from his roots he drifted. His redemption, if a highly paid actor deserves it or not, is pure and moving. Despite what we may feel about Stallone as a famous personality, he does lend his heart to Rocky in this film.
The story is sad, with Adrian being dead and Rocky being back on the bottom for the umpteenth time. This premise could be taken with laughs, but Stallone and the cast do a respectable job in showing why "Rocky" was so special. Here's a man who's lived highs and lows, got too big for his own good, then fell. He realizes his mistakes and the opportunities lost. We feel for the big palooka. I'm not sure if Stallone actually went through the pain he does as Rocky, but he's convincing. This is probably his best work as an actor and shows what kind of range he hid under that star persona. This is the Stallone people really liked.
The film really doesn't have a great villain like Apollo Creed (though I always felt that Creed was a good guy underneath that fighter persona), and the end of the film is predictable. But it does work its way into you.
The Blu-ray picture is excellent. Having been shot on modern film stock, the film looks a lot cleaner and sharper in most of its scenes than the previous films did. It's still gritty and hard, but it's a rock solid picture.
The uncompressed PCM is also excellent. Everything is clear sounding. My only complaint was Stallone's insistence upon the using actual boxing sound effects. I guess I was used to the exaggerated '80s-style effects which were loud and punchy.
Seen as a whole, the "Rocky" films are an unusual bunch of hits and misses. You have to give Stallone credit for being so determined in keeping the franchise alive. He and "Rocky" are kind of like a fast food chain. It's bad for you, but you keep coming back. So gather 'round, young people, and see the films that your dad watched on video. See why he still listens to an MP3 of "Eye of the Tiger," baby.
Special thanks to Fox Online PR
Photos: © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Columbia Pictures Industries and Revolution Studios. All rights reserved.