I wasn’t thrilled the first time I saw “Rocky.” It wasn’t one of my favorite films at the time. Now “Rocky” is 25 years old, and it’s amazing how time can change your outlook. “Rocky” is the sort of film that has to work its magic on you. I wasn’t interested in a magic show 25 years ago. Now I embrace the film’s charm and ability to take common themes and make them special.
Part of the problem I had dealt with star Sylvester Stallone. The only other thing I had seen him in was a low-budget drama called “The Lords of Flatbush.” I didn’t like the way he mumbled his way through the film. Some people call it method acting. I call it laziness. Stroke patients have better enunciation.
It took me a while to warm up to “Rocky.” It didn’t help that I wasn’t a boxing fan. In my mind, people beating each other until someone passes out isn’t sport. It’s marriage. I’ve never liked sports where people have to brutalize each other to win. That’s why I like baseball. So here I am, watching a film starring someone I can’t stand participating in a sport I can’t stand. Gee, more could one hope for?
How about a sweet, hopeful script that not only perfectly defines its characters but presents them in situations that seem real and honest. Toss into the mix a director eager to make a film about people and not boxing. Boxing is just the catalyst that brings all of the characters together. Now add a supporting cast that understands the difference between emotion and exploitation, and a musical score that captures the drama and romance with fanfare and delicacy.
What emerges is a film of uncommon depth and understanding of the human condition. Now add into the mix Stallone, whose own struggles to get the film made make him the perfect underdog to play Philadelphia’s Rocky Balboa. After my third viewing, I began to understand how well matched Stallone and Rocky are, and learned to appreciate the actor’s performance and choices. Stallone may mumble, but then so did Rocky. That made his speech part of the film’s landscape.
“Rocky” spawned four sequels (maybe a fifth), and it’s easy to see why audiences flocked to the series. Rocky represents the spirit of man, anyone who wanted a chance to prove who we are and what we can do. As an enforcer for a local hood, Rocky gets respect, but not the kind you earn. For that, Rocky steps into the ring, where he can be himself. Billed as the Italian Stallion, Rocky’s dreams of a championship fight come true when he’s picked to fight Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on a televised Fourth of July bout.
Flying high, Rocky uses his new found sense of pride to ask out Adrian (Talia Shire), the mousy sister of his best friend Paulie (Burt Young). The film’s best moments come watching the relationship between Rocky and Adrian bloom. It’s here where Stallone and Shire shine, generating honest emotions and heat. Even though Rocky puts on a tough front, they’re both coming from a vulnerable place. Watching Stallone and Shire work through those emotions is a real pleasure.
In need of a trainer, Rocky turns to gym veteran Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who always knew Balboa had what it took to be a champion. Together, they become invincible, a fact not lost on Creed’s camp, who don’t know what to expect. Stallone’s screenplay convinces us that dreams can come true, but it takes lots of perserverence and determination. In the film’s signature sequence, we watch as Rocky transforms from a hack boxer to a champion, culminating with a victory dance. By this time, we’re right there with Rocky, at the top of the steps, sharing his victory.
We want him to win, but even if he doesn’t, we know that he’s already a winner. He has changed, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. He understands that victory is hollow if you have no one to share it with. When he calls out for Adrian after the championship fight, we understand the only prize he needs in his arms is her.
Director John G. Avildsen does a masterful job behind the camera. He allows us to get close when necessary, but also understands the importance of distance. His visual style is interesting and exciting, especially during the final fight sequence.
The cast couldn’t be better, allowing us to believe in the characters and their motivations. You believe Talia Shire when she goes from a protected little girl to a woman. You believe that Burgess Meredith has been hanging around gyms all his life.
Bill Conti’s beautiful, almost spiritual musical score benefits the film in so many ways. Filled with fanfares and delicate suites, the score perfectly underscores every important moment in the film.
The digital transfer is okay, but the original negative shows some wear and tear, especially during the opening moments. I hope the negative they used wasn’t the master, because the condition it is in really is alarming. On a better note, what is there looks terrific. The colors are solid and vivid, with no bleeding or fading. Flesh tones looks realistic and are flattering. Blacks are solid to a point, but lack definition, while the whites look a little grainy. Interior lighting looks natural, while exteriors and night shots hold up with good depth of field.
5.1 Dolby Digital Surround
5.1 Dolby Digital Surround French Language
Dolby Digital Mono in English & Spanish
Okay, here’s the rub. MGM remixed the film’s original mono soundtrack into 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Don’t expect much. The results allows for a richer sound mix, but it’s still pretty flat when compared to a true 5.1 Dolby Mix. Stereo and surround effects are minimal and somewhat effective, but nothing close to definitive. Dialogue mix is strong and forefront, and the musical score by Bill Conti (which I love and own two copies of the LP) sounds terrific, with sweet highs and lows that sound clean with no hiss or distortion. Rear speakers get fed the occasional musical cue or ambient noise, but they’re quiet for the most part. Okay effort, but if you want to capture the film’s intimate and meager origins, watch it with the original mono soundtrack. It’s clean and mean and gets the job done.
Closed Captions in English for the Hard of Hearing
Subtitles in French and Spanish
Feature-length Audio Commentary with Director John G. Avildsen, Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, and stars Talia Shire and Burt Young. Even though their comments are scene-specific, the participants were recorded at different times. This is not a bad thing. It allows a sound editor to create a free-flowing audio commentary track that doesn’t bog down with the usual stretches of silence or inane chit-chat. The track is introduced by Burt Young, probably because he doesn’t have anything else to do. So much has been written and said about “Rocky” that you might think this track is a waste of time, but you would be wrong. There’s a wealth of information being dispensed here, and even though some of it is familiar, it’s still a pleasure to hear it in context with the images on the screen.
20-Minute Video Commentary with Sylvester Stallone, where the actors rehashes his experiences getting the film made. We’ve heard most of this before (how broke the actor was, how he got the film to the producers) but it’s here for anyone who wants a refresher.
Behind-The-Scenes with John G. Avildsen Featurette, a 12-minute look at the director’s original Super 8 film of the practice sessions of the fight sequences. Even though Avildsen takes a bow early in the proceedings, this look at how the film’s fight scenes were choreographed is amazing. They also served notice to Stallone, who saw that he needed to lose some weight before stepping into the ring.
Tribute to Burgess Meredith, a short (8 minutes), sweet remembrance of the character actor, even though it’s hardly a definitive tribute. Mostly fluff to fill up the special features menu.
Tribute to cinematographer James Crabe, who is remembered by longtime collaborator Avildsen. Like the Burgess Meredith tribute, this 3-minute effort seems like something out of nothing.
Original Theatrical and Teaser Trailer for Rocky, plus trailers for Rocky II-V. There are also three television spots highlighting the film’s critical acclaim.
A fabulous Easter Egg on the main menu (click up to the Rocky Logo) that takes you to a little vignette where Stallone, the artist, meets Balboa, the boxer. It’s a split screen encounter that is funny and sentimental.
Animated main menu with clips and music, traditional scene access menu.
While it’s nice to have another one of the Best Picture winners on DVD, I wish the original print were in better shape. Most people won’t mind and will probably embrace this release with open arms, or at least a right hook.
$24.98/Rated PG/119 Minutes/Color/25 Chapter Stops/Keepcase
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
BIRTH DATE: 1976
HMO: MGM Home Entertainment