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Featured Blu-ray review - Rocky - The Undisputed Collection

November 28th, 2009

Rocky - The Undisputed Collection - Buy from Amazon

Rocky is one of the longest running franchises of all time, having started back in 1976 with Rocky and ending 30 years later with Rocky Balboa. During that timespan, the franchise spawned six films, some of which were Oscar winners, others that were panned by critics and moviegoers alike. Of the six films in the franchise, four are making their Blu-ray debuts as part of The Undisputed Collection, so hardcore fans will certainly be interested in picking up the box set. But is it worth it? Do the films shine in High Definition? Is it better to grab the individual releases, even if that means waiting until they are released separately?

Rocky - Reviews

Rocky Balboa is a boxer, but he's on the lowest rung of the boxing ladder. He boxes in clubs for drunks to bet on. He's doesn't even have a professional opponent and has little chance of ever making a living at the sport, which is why he collects debts for a man named Gazzo. He's friends with Paulie, who works in a meat packing plant, but would rather Rocky would get him a job with Gazzo. Rocky is sweet on Paulie's sister, Adrian, but she's so shy that she won't even talk to him when he comes into the pet store where she works.

Under normal circumstances, the best he could hope for is to eke out a living while avoiding any serious injury in the ring, or while working with Gazzo. However, one day, despite all that is working against him, he gets his big break thanks to Apollo Creed. Creed is the world champion boxer and an amazing self-promoter. (It's clear he was based on Muhammad Ali.) He's in town for a championship match to celebrate the bi-centennial, but his opponent breaks his hand and will be forced to miss the match. Desperate to continue with the fight and not lose any of the money, but unable to find a top-ranked competitor willing to fight under such short notice, he comes up with an idea: Find a local unknown and give him a shot at the championship. While looking through a listing of local fighters he comes across Balboa, who is listed with the nickname, "The Italian Stallion." Taking a liking to the name, he decides that this is the man he wants to fight. While most people don't think he has a shot, Rocky takes the fight seriously and under the training of Micky, the owner of the gym he trains at, he works his hardest. But even he doesn't think it will be enough to win, but maybe being underestimated is his greatest asset.

This is almost an auto-biographical movie with Sylvester Stallone playing himself, except Rocky is a boxer and not an actor. I think that this is the key to the film's success. Because the story is so close to Stallone's heart, it was easier for him to create such believable characters and dialogue, which elevated the script above its predictable elements and its basic wish-fulfillment storyline. Thanks to the impressive script, and the equally impressive performances, this film is truly a classic of the genre and is a boxing movie that even those who are not fans of the sport can enjoy.

The Blu-ray is identical to the 2006 release and those who own that will be disappointed. Sadly, there are no extras on the Blu-ray, while the High Definition presentation is weak. Yes, it is a low-budget movie from 1976 and it does look better than it does on DVD, but it deserved to be remastered and I was expecting much more. The sound is better: not great, but acceptable.

Rocky II - Reviews
This movie starts off where the last movie finishes, literally. In fact, the first five minutes is just the last five minutes of the first movie. (A technique repeated throughout the franchise.) After barely winning against Rocky, Apollo Creed is determined to get a rematch, something Rocky has no interest in. In fact, Rocky has no interest in boxing and retires, in part due to medical concerns. However, his post-boxing career isn't as lucrative as he had hoped, as his reading skills really hurt his ability to star in TV commercials. In fact, his lack of an education prevents him from getting most jobs. With his wife pregnant and in need of money, he convinces Mickey to help him train for the rematch, much to the dismay of Adrian. Without the support of his wife, his training suffers, and it only gets worse when there's a complication in her pregnancy and with the birth of his son. Still an underdog, Rocky overcome the obstacles and prove the first fight was no fluke? Can the dramatic battle with Apollo Creed top the first one?

Does this movie as a whole top the first one? That's the more important question, and the answer is no; however, it is still a very good movie. I think the biggest complaint that could be leveled at this movie is the similarity between it and the first installment, but this similarity is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, this means the movie has a very similar plot, including issues of Rocky not being able to support himself and his family, despite his success, as well as troubles training, etc. But at least the film keeps the same feel as the first movie. It doesn't try to change too much. The story is good, the acting is great, Stallone handles himself well in the director's chair, and the final fight is just as cinematic as the first film. Until Rocky Balboa, this was the best sequel from the franchise.

On the other hand, the Blu-ray also has no extras, while the High Definition presentation is no better than the first film.

Rocky III - Reviews
Rocky is on top of the world, still the champion and finally able to really enjoy the spoils of victory, rattling off a string of ten successful defenses of his title. After a statue of him is unveiled in Philadelphia, he announces his retirement. However, an up-and-coming fighter, Clubber Lang challenges him to a bout for the championship. A devastatingly powerful fighter in the same vein as Mike Tyson (although the real-life boxer didn't gain national attention for several years after the movie was released) Clubber thinks Rocky's recent opponents were bums and he's never really had to defend his title. Mickey confesses Clubber is right and tells Rocky he should retire, but, wanting to prove himself, he returns to the ring with disastrous results. After being soundly beaten by Clubber and after the death of Mickey, Rocky is despondent, but he gets encouragement from an old foe, Apollo Creed, and decides to train hard to try to win his title back.

By this point in the franchise, the formula had taken over. The results were not bad, but what made the first Rocky great is mostly gone. The film is a little too campy at times (Thunderlips?) but for fans of the franchise, it is still entertaining. Also, "Eye of the Tiger" rocks. That song is arguably the best part of the movie, and that's not an insult to the movie. It really is a classic rock anthem.

There are still no extras on the Blu-ray, while the High Definition presentation is only slightly better than the first two movies.

Rocky IV - Reviews
The Cold War comes to the franchise. Russian boxer Ivan Drago comes to the United States to challenge the best fighters America has to offer. Apollo Creed accepts his challenge for an exhibition match in Las Vegas, which goes fatally wrong. After the death of his former opponent and friend, Rocky is determined to avenge him and challenges Drago to a match in his home country. Adrian is appalled by this, as she fears for her husband's life, but with Paulie's support, he travels to Russia to train. But will his low-tech approach and raw determination be enough to overcome the best Russian science and training techniques can come up with?

At this point jingoism overtook story and the result is obvious. The film is as predictable as any in the franchise, while the emotional heart of the movie is all but gone. That said, some of the boxing scenes are still impressive to watch and if you are a fan of the franchise, it's worth checking out, even if you will roll your eyes and groan audibly at some of the more ridiculous parts.

Again, there are no extras on the Blu-ray, but at least the High Definition presentation is improved to the point where I would consider both the sound and the video to be acceptable. Easily the best-looking of the pre-digital era Rocky films.

Rocky V - Reviews
Rocky has finally retired for good, but instead of being able to enjoy his wealth, he is shocked to learn his accountant stole most of his money and fled. With the IRS after the rest, he has to sell everything and get a job training boxers at Mickey's old gym. His life finds meaning again when he starts training an up-and-coming boxer named Tommy Gunn, but as Tommy gets close to being a real contender, he is lured away by Duke, a crooked promoter. Tommy quickly wins the championship, but because he is constantly compared to his former trainer, he challenges Rocky to a fight, but instead of dealing with their issues in the ring, they take it to the street.

Ugh. This film is clearly trying to recapture the gritty feel of the original, but it fails at every level. The story isn't as good, the dialogue isn't as good, the acting isn't as good, etc. The end result is failure and even a lot of fans of the franchise will want to give this movie a pass. On a side note, this is the only movie in this box set that I hadn't seen previously. Looking at its box office performance, I'm not the only fan that skipped this installment.

This movie was an attempt to return to the gritty roots of the first movie, and you can tell by the video quality. A step back in terms of quality in both video and audio.

Rocky Balboa - Reviews
It's been a long time since Rocky stepped into the ring and he has settled into a normal life, despite the loss of his wife to cancer and having a strained relationship with his son. The current boxing champ is Mason "The Line" Dixon, but despite his impressive record, he isn't given any respect by the fans, because his opponents have not be real contenders and he's never had to go the distance. To make matters worse, ESPN showcases the boxer in a simulated match with Rocky at his prime, who easily beats the younger opponent. While this infuriates Mason Dixon, it gets Rocky thinking that he could still compete in the ring. After the media learn that he's gotten his boxing license back, they start speculating about a match between the two, which grows so great amongst boxing fans that they two men agree to an exhibition match. Paulie and Duke help train Rocky and when Rocky, Jr. joins his dad, he gains the extra energy he needs. But will it be enough to keep up with his younger opponent? Will Mason Dixon finally earn the respect of the fans?

At this point in the franchise, the formula of these films is easily apparent and there were more than a few critics that complained that the movie had slipped to self-parody. However, while the three acts are practically the same as the first movie (after the set-up showing Rocky's simple life, he gets a chance at glory, he trains as the underdog, he proves his worth in the final bout) the execution is strong. Easily the best sequel in the franchise and even if you had grown sick of the endless installments, this one is worth checking out.

Finally there are extras. This is the same as the Blu-ray from 2006 and it is loaded with extras included audio commentary track, a trio of making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, etc. Additionally, this is by far the best looking and sounding Blu-ray in the set and at the time it was released it was the kind of disc you could pop into your player to show off your home theater system. It has since been surpassed by a number of other releases that are a lot flashier in terms of visuals, but still top tier for its technical presentation.

So far The Undisputed Collection has been unimpressive and if this was it, I would say buy the two previous Blu-ray releases and wait for the second and maybe the third film to come out individually. However, this box set includes a bonus disc filled with extras, some of which seem a little fluffy, but most are very substantial.

These extras starts with something called Feeling Strong Now! Game. You have to win a bout with five of Rocky's opponents without losing three fights. First you start with three trivia questions, then you have to choose five different punches, and then answer a question based on a clip from one of the other special features on the disc. The trivia about real-life boxing tends to trip me up, but the real problem is the punching section, as I have no idea what the rules are. There might not be any rules and that part might be random. If it were a rock-paper-scissors type of situation where I could at least predict the outcome after seeing what the two punches my opponent and I choose I would be happy. But as far as I can tell, it doesn't matter what you do here and this hurts the game's replay value.

There are several interviews starting with Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva, which is a 5-minute interview with said trainer interspersed with clips from the movie. Interview with a Legend - Bert Sugar - Author/Commentary and Historian is a slightly longer interview with the sports writer about the film's place in history. Stallone records an "audio commentary" about that franchise that runs almost 30 minutes, while there is vintage footage from his appearance on the Dinah! show from 1976.

The featurettes start with The Opponents, which runs 16 minutes and talks about all of the boxers Rocky had to face in the ring. In the Ring is a 75-minute long making-of documentary that is broken up into three parts, and features nearly everyone in the cast, plus a lot of the crew, as well as clips from the movie and even some vintage behind-the-scenes footage. It's a great documentary, but it only deals with Rocky and none of the other installments in the franchise. There are technical featurettes on the development of the Steadicam (17 minutes); the make-up (15 minutes); the score (11 minutes); the set design (10 minutes); as well as 12 minutes of vintage behind-the-scenes footage shot by John G. Avildsen, the director.

Finally, there are tributes to Burgess Meredith, who played Mickey, and James Crabe, who was the cinematographer.

In total that's well over three-and-a-half hours of extras on the bonus disc. I would have loved audio commentary tracks on the first five films, and maybe more extras on the individual movies, as the first film is clearly the focus here, but what we do get is great. It makes the box set worth picking up, despite the weak video and audio quality for most of the films.

Rocky is arguably a trilogy. The first film tells the story of a man who is struggling just to tread water and is one bad day from drowning. However, despite this he gets his one break and makes the most of it. In the second film we see how instant fame can take its toll on a person, but with the right people around you, you can still come out on top. Finally, Rocky Balboa is about a man that is way past his prime, but who wants one last taste of glory. The other three films are mostly filler that quickly go from light entertainment, to silly, to groan-inducingly bad. While it depends heavily on your appreciation for the franchise, for most people anywhere from two to four of these films have enough replay value to be worth picking up. Unfortunately, two of those have already been released on Blu-ray. For these people, I can't see spending $50 to $70 for the bonus disc. On the other hand, if three or more are keepers and you don't have them on Blu-ray yet, then the bonus disc push The Undisputed Collection to a solid purchase.

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Filed under: Rocky Balboa