Director John G. Avildsen lived Rocky’s American dream. Despite directing Jack Lemmon to a Best Actor nod for Save the Tiger in 1973, Rocky was pieced together with determination outside of its budgetary limitations.
Conceptually, Rocky is dire, a menial boxing story depicting a Philedelphia loan shark hustler inexplicably granted an exploitative New Years Day world title shot. And yet, this lean concept would be reworked into a karate film and another subsequent series of underdog sagas, again headed by Avildsen.
Rocky shows successful filmmaking is removed from its concept. We have features which dress men in metal suits with a title like RoboCop, going on to become seminal satire classics. Even by 1976 standards, boxing and sports metaphors were tired. Spurred on by Stallone’s first feature length script, Rocky was born into a film of sturdy character. Streetwise Rocky is surrounded by growth, pulling a shy Adrian (Talia Shire) from her societal shell and rebounding a battered trainer in Mickey (Burgess Meredith).
This is a quiet and unassuming film, growing on the back of Bill Conti’s marvelous, timeless score. Music represents Rocky, from his dour conditions into a swell of enlightening training montages while still acting as a support for secondary players. Rocky is never single minded, bringing Adrian, Mickey, and Paulie (Burt Young) up with the turn around. Rocky’s character study is remarkable in how it displays proficiency in building others with the same detail.
Of course, this is a boxing movie and as with any grandiose success in the sub-genre, turns itself against the sport. Rocky’s arrogant opposition in Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is inessential if disposable to the purposes of this drama. Training segments and frozen meat punching aside, Rocky’s alluring closure with its mesmerizing in-ring cinematography is less than ten minutes of face battering.
There would be a rematch and five additional films later, Stallone found his closure. The menial concept proved almost infinitely malleable, turning from a direct underdog saga into whatever framework was necessitated by cinema trends. Before it was over, Rocky as a franchise became an almost embarrassing example of American exceptionalism and groan inducing propaganda. Russians would fall but Rocky wouldn’t, pushed into a seemingly inescapable creative corner before emerging 16 years later in 2006, yet again as an underdog, to earn Rocky an indisputable legacy moniker.
Fox/MGM re-release Rocky to Blu-ray after their initial issue in 2006. Rocky Balboa was was being slung into theaters and Blu-ray was slipping in as DVDs replacement. Now a recipient of a full 4K remaster, this 1976 icon glistens with clarity. Grain management is superior to many catalog titles, although a mild level of filtering appears to have been employed making the codec’s workload less burdensome. Impact on visual scope is limited.
Improvements in resolution are apparent even through the haze of smoke as Rocky punches out Spider Rico. Inherent detail is improved while remaining tucked away by cinematography. Documentary style shifts in focus are aggressive, slipping away from HD expectations of pore riddled faces. Rocky looks as intended, and without a swell of swarming artifacts – plus the boost from this master – the disc becomes battered eye candy for fans used to this degraded, budget strapped appearance.
Equally so, black levels suck down further definition. Crush is a consistent byproduct of set lighting (or lack thereof) and comes across as more aggressive than in past home video editions. Digital touch up appears at fault while simultaneously avoiding a sense of fading, aging film stock. The trade for shadow details is aggressive if satisfying the need for depth.
Bumps to color saturation are minimized, with a heft to flesh tones which was unnoticeable previously. Any signs of modern tinkering with teal are zapped before arrival, keeping the dirtied browns and lifeless nights intact.
Currently locked to the titled, “Heavyweight Collection,” Rocky is the only film to be graced with a new transfer. If you own the, “Undisputed Collection,” you are paying again for a one movie remaster. While an impressive digital work, it is rather shameful to have left the other discs in this series left as is.
While video attention will spur marketing, the audio side appears ignored. The DTS-HD 5.1 mix sounds identical, fine considering the grungy source material. Typically firm dialog (with the exception inside of the meat freezer at 1:16:00) runs through most of the feature with a naturally aged quality. Fidelity is appreciable.
Bill Conti’s score will split stereos, and “Gonna Fly Now” pushes even further to the sides. It’s effective. Mild street ambiance will capture the elevated trains in appropriate channels, and street singers slip into the right front as Rocky heads home early in the film. Crowds are lively, especially the hyper audience for the finale. However, the opening rumble with Rico sounds too heavy. Surround use is depicting a crowd three times the size.
Bonuses mostly carry from the 25th anniversary DVD in 2001. What’s new? Some 8mm footage of the set from director John G. Avildsen and Lloyd Kaufman. These combined clips run a touch longer than eight minutes. The rest? It is a complete package of Rocky extras, including three different commentaries. Stallone himself offers thoughts, with boxing staple Lou Duva & writer Bert Sugar on the second. The trilogy maker is overloaded, led by Avildsen, with actors, producers, cameramen chiming in.
Further interviews with Sugar, Duva, make-up man Michael Westmore, steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, and art designer James Spencer make up individual featurettes of varying length. Tributes to Burgess Meredith and cinematographer James Crabe are brief.
The heart of the bonuses is a feature length documentary, In the Ring. Despite its age in terms of bonuses, it remains integral viewing for Rocky fans. A short video commentary by Stallone continues afterward, picking up on key scenes for 28 minutes of content. Ten minutes of focus on Rocky’s foes makes for a fun featurette. Stallone visits the ’70s era talk show Dinah for a segment running 17-minutes, while a short skit with Stallone meeting Rocky in character has a laugh or two. Trailers are left.
Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.