Published Feb 11, 2014It's almost impossible at this point to even fathom the monumental impact Rocky made when it was released in 1976, instantly becoming a ubiquitous hit with both audiences and critics and launching the career of its young writer and star, Sylvester Stallone. The new Blu-Ray Heavyweight Collection shows the evolution the series made from a heartfelt low-budget tale of a washed-up underdog to a worn-out formula plugging in menacing rivals and all the way back again.
The original, despite spawning many imitators through the years, remains as rousing a grimy love letter to all of the hard-working outcasts who were never given their proper due as ever. Aside from Stallone's iconic Rocky Balboa, it introduced a collection of closely observed working-class Philadelphia oddballs like Rocky's seasoned manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith), painfully introverted girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire) and her insufferable brother Paulie (Burt Young), all of whom play a part as the Italian Stallion gets an unlikely shot to fight the suave heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
The sequels immediately started to dilute the magic of what had been captured, with Rocky II focusing on a re-match with Creed and Adrian falling into a coma during childbirth, before Rocky faces off against the imposing, fool-pitying figure of Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in Rocky III. While these two undoubtedly suffer from being pale imitations that tick off increasingly familiar story beats, they also manage to at least build on the relationships between the characters and retain some of the same crowd-pleasing spirit of the original.
It's with Rocky IV and Rocky V that the series started to really show its age and lack of fresh ideas. The former's showdown with the fearsome Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is so lazy that it barely bothers to have anything besides training montages and flashbacks in between its bookend fight scenes, except for a an awkwardly comic subplot about Paulie falling in love with a robot. While Rocky V at least deserves points for deviating some from the beaten path, it also introduces the least convincing antagonist of all the films in Rocky's protégé, Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison).
The decision to bring Rocky back for another round in 2006 was one that could have potentially tainted impressions of the franchise as a whole, but Stallone redeemed himself with the sweetly sentimental and nostalgic Rocky Balboa. Though Rocky's opponent, Mason "The Line" Dixon (Antonio Tarver) isn't exactly one of his greatest rivals either, the hard-fought wisdom of all of Rocky's years spent facing down the odds in the ring and his loneliness in the wake of Adrian's death carry surprising weight.
Any excitement for the healthy dose of extras may be tempered by the fact that there isn't really anything here that wasn't part of the Undisputed Collection that was released in 2009, and only the original has been re-mastered and sufficiently supplemented with special features. That said, there are fascinating documentaries and commentary tracks that explore everything from how the film was one of the first to use a Steadicam to the subtle make-up effects used to create all of those cuts and bruises. Only Rocky Balboa also gets any sort of expanded treatment, featuring a typically taciturn commentary from Stallone and a thankfully excised alternate ending.