A Philly ham-and-cheese tough with heart, Rocky Balboa is one of cinema’s best underdogs. Say what you like about its creator, Sylvester Stallone. With Rocky, Stallone proved himself a shrewd storyteller.
Although the Rocky franchise has now stretched across five decades, the first movie (1976; dir. John Avildsen; written by Stallone) is still the best. I hadn’t seen it in years. Modern viewers may bitch about the slow buildup to the climactic fight with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). But the fight is nothing without stakes. And Rocky—a dopey but smart, down-on-his-luck club fighter with a colorful means of expression—just wants a shot at the boxing title. One shot. Rocky hangs out with him, his sweetheart Adrian (Talia Shire), her bruddah (Burt Young), and a crusty old gym manager, Mick (Burgess Meredith). The movie sits with Rocky’s basic loneliness, his struggle not to give up hope; to get the girl, yes, but also to win (back) his self-respect. Rocky doesn’t ask much of life. He also looks out for others. We care about him. Once the showdown with Creed starts, we’re as invested in Rocky’s quest as we could be.
Stallone, I might add, is incredible in Rocky. Balboa, self-proclaimed the Italian Stallion, is part Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, in On the Waterfront), part Marty (Ernest Borgnine, in Marty). He’s also Stallone, of course. Rocky respects the hell out of its characters, the world they inhabit. They could have been walk-on cliches. And while Avildsen’s no grand stylist, Rocky—a sweet, gritty fairy tale done on a modest scale, with great care and affection for its characters—sneaks up on you. Grade: A-
The quality of the rest of the series tapers.
Some folks see Rocky II (1979; written and directed by Stallone) as the best in the franchise. Shot for shot, nuance for nuance, it’s a near-equal of the first movie. Parts are a rehash (especially when Rocky trains on city streets). Still, the sequel doesn’t exude the air of a cynical cash-in. Afraid he’ll lose his eyesight, Rocky retires after the Creed exposition fight, but Adrian’s pregnant and (having blown most of his winnings from the fight) he faces a life of shit jobs. Meanwhile, with his ego more than just bruised, Creed demands a rematch. The actors deliver again, and the final bout packs a punch. Grade: B+
From here on, Rocky’s invincibility is pre-ordained. Sure, his fortunes grow; and yet, with Rocky’s edges shorn, something in Stallone’s approach makes it harder to care about our hero.
With Rocky III (1983; written and directed by Stallone), I feel Sly had run out of things to do with his creation. It’s a slick movie, buoyed in part by flamboyant performances by Mr. T. (as Clubber Lang, a newcomer who K-Os Rocky early in the film) and Hulk Hogan. Meredith and Weathers also make III worth your while. Here, after the Rock suffers a humiliating defeat, Creed convinces Balboa to use him as a trainer. Creed becomes one other voice of reason, the chief instrument by which Rocky gets back in touch with the hunger that drove him to success.
III tames Creed a bit too much; the cocky, irritable showman of I and II has softened. Had Stallone allowed Creed’s more rascally tempestuous side to appear, Rocky III could have been an even more enjoyable ride. Still, it’s watchable entertainment—and days later, I can’t shake its theme song, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” Grade: B-
Rocky IV (1985; Stallone, again, writes and directs) is a true let-down, the series on steroids. Flashy and fast-paced, it’s a comic-book shadow of Rocky. (It’s so ‘80s, too—entire sequences are little more than in-film music videos.) At this point in the series, Rocky’s out for some good ole American revenge: a Russian Duke Nukem of fighting prowess, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), slugs Creed to death in the ring. You may laugh out loud as I did, especially during the extended training montage at the heart of the film. (To purify himself for the bout ahead, Rocky forgoes standard gym equipment, at one point hoisting a wagon with Rambo-like intensity.) On its own terms, Rocky IV is loony fun. It’s a silly, crowd-pleasing spectacle, unbelievable in the extreme. But Stallone puts on a hell of a show. Rousing and sweaty, Rocky IV is a soulless display of technique. There’s something to it. And if I never see it again, will I miss it? Hah! Grade: C+
All said, the five-disc MGM/Warner Bros. 4K UHD set, Rocky: The Knockout Collection, brings value. Each movie is on its own 4K disc and, presented in Dolby Vision HDR, looks as good as one could hope. You also get digital access to the movies. A Blu-ray disc features legacy supplements: 8mm Home Movies of Rocky; 3 Rounds with Lou Duva; Steadicam: Then and Now (with Steadicam pro Garrett Brown); Make-up! The Art and Foam (with makeup pro Michael Westmore); Staccato: A Composer’s Notebook (with Bill Conti, the man responsible for the unforgettable tune, “Gonna Fly Now,” featured in Rocky); The Ring of Truth; A Tribute to Burgess Meredith; Stallone Meets Rocky; and all the theatrical trailers. The one new feature is a documentary—we hang with Sly as he works on a fresh cut of Rocky IV (Rocky Vs. Drago: The Ultimate Director’s Cut, available on the 4K with the theatrical cut). He’s witty, eloquent even. Rock on, Sly.
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