Rocky DVD Boxed Set
Starring:
Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Mr. T, Hulk Hogan, Brigitte Nielsen, Dolph Lundgren
Directed By :
I & V by John G. Avildsen; II, III, & IV by Sylvester Stallone
Grade
A-

Synopsis: A little while ago, I got a vicious case of the flu and didn't feel like moving…so I decided to delve into my boxed sets and ended up watching all five Rocky movies in a row. Being able to do that gives you a special kind of perspective on these movies…I mean, this isn't a series, this is a saga! We follow Rocky Balboa and his friends and family from when Rocky is nothing but a two-bit hood trying to pay rent in a crappy apartment to Rocky becoming an American hero, and then back to his beginnings when his star falls and he is forgotten (like most of our heroes.)

The thing is, Sylvester Stallone is a great writer. Now I'm not saying if he writes a book it'll be a bestseller, but as screenwriters go, he's one of the best. He has a great understanding of how to stay true to the characters while giving the audience a satisfying story…something that sounds much easier than it is. He actually won an Academy Award for the script for Rocky. He is the driving force behind these movies. He was in a similar situation to the character when he wrote the script (barely paying rent), and he could have sold the script for a lot of money, but he held out until they agreed to let him play Rocky because he had a vision and a passion for the character. (Setting a precedent later followed by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck with Good Will Hunting.) He was an unknown then, but I don't think anyone could have brought Rocky to the screen like Stallone. In addition to writing and acting, he also directed Rocky 2, 3, and 4, as well as doing some of the fight choreography in the later movies. Honestly, watching the growth of the character Rocky in these movies parallels the growth of Stallone and his career…which I think is the reason the story resonates so well, because it's so personal to Stallone.

So now that we've looked at these movies as a whole, let's break them down to their parts again:

Rocky: Tells the story of a regular guy from Philly who wants more than anything to be a boxer. He's had small fights locally, but it seems he's missed his window. But he gets a stroke of luck when Apollo Creed (Weathers) tries to engineer a great American fight and give a nobody boxer a shot at the heavyweight championship title…he picks Rocky because he likes his nickname: The Italian Stallion. Rocky knows he doesn't have the skills to beat the champ, but he just wants to "go the distance" with him, to last all fifteen rounds, something nobody has ever done.

Rocky II: The sequel picks up the second after the first movie ended, and even starts the tradition of showing the fight from the previous movie in abbreviated form at the beginning. Rocky and Creed are at the same hospital, having sustained serious injuries in their fight, and Creed is enraged by the media's reaction to his fight with Rocky. Creed gets geared up for a rematch. Initially Rocky is content to let it go, having proved himself and also because of his injuries, but Creed starts an aggressive campaign to get Rocky back in the ring to 'finish what they started'.

Rocky III: Once again, the fight from the end of the previous movie is encapsulated at the beginning of this movie, then we go to a montage (a heavily employed tool in these films) of Rocky's activities since then…fights he's had and such. It's necessary to note at this point that while Rocky's personal relationships with his trainer, his best friend, and his love interest have played a prominent role in the story thus far, they really take center stage from this movie on. For every good thing that happens in Rocky's life, tragedy has to follow. Additionally, Rocky is a bit of a celebrity at this point, and has gotten soft. This leads to a crushing defeat at the hands of Clubber Lang (Mr. T). So Rocky sets out to regain the "eye of the tiger", with help from a now retired Apollo Creed!

Rocky IV: Rocky seems to be on top of the world, so we know there's trouble. A new challenger from Russia steps forward to test American might. Rocky is forced once again to step forward and put himself at risk in order to stand up for his beliefs. The movie stands as an interesting retro-spectacle of eighties Cold War attitude, wherein the Russians were the default bad guys for every movie. Rocky takes on Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) not only for himself, but for America.

Rocky V: The entire world loves Rocky. Where do we go from here? Back to the beginning. Circumstances lead to Rocky taking his family back to his old neighborhood to settle down. His age and injuries have lead to him retiring from boxing. He needs the money, but for the first time he opts to try something else and begins running a gym for boxers. An up and coming boxer named Tommy Gunn seeks Rocky out to learn from the legend. We see Rocky take Tommy under his wing as his own son, Rocky Jr., needs guidance adjusting to adolescence and the new rough neighborhood. When Tommy falls under a conniving fight promoter, he begins pulling away from Rocky, and Rocky realizes he may be losing his family, too.

Who Will This Appeal To?: When I was a kid, if you said you didn't like Rocky, you were a commie bastard. A Ruskie. (That's un-American.) Rocky is right up there with baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie in my book (before pie became a sex object). I suppose it'll especially appeal to Stallone fans (if there are still any out there?) and boxing movie fans; but really, everyone should be able to enjoy this movie.

Evaluation: All right, so you've got the basic plot of the movies, but let's face it, these are not plot intensive movies. However, they do have great stories. So what are you missing? The character interaction. We watch as Rocky finds himself, finds his place in the world. We see him gain the respect of his trainer Micky (Meredith), fall in love with the introverted Adrian (Shire) and bring her out of her shell, and his complex buddies-from-the-old-neighborhood relationship with his best friend Pauly (Young). And all of these are acted superbly across five films. You just can't find that kind of consistency anywhere. That's what really holds these films together, Rocky's relationships. We see him go from rags to riches. We see enemies become allies. We watch Rocky grow up, get married, have kids, settle down, and grow older. We see him endure tragedy after tragedy…insult, injury, deceit, delusion, death, and defeat. And all of this is handled while staying true to the characters…for instance, Rocky is not that bright. An average guy might walk away from a fight, but Rocky is built to charge ahead. He's not made to be a spokes model, or to manage money. But he's got heart, and honesty, and that's what pulls you in.

What changes from film to film, and reels in the masses, is seeing who Rocky is going to fight this time. These fights are all inspired by real life, and the first one is a doozy. In '75, Stallone witnessed Chuck Wepner go fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali. Wepner was an over-the-hill, low ranked fighter who happened to get a shot, and he made the most of it. This inspired the origins of Rocky. In the third film, we see Rocky match boxing against wrestling (at the height of its popularity in '82) when he faces off against Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan). We also see him take on B.A. Barracus at the height of his popularity. In Rocky IV, Rocky pits America versus Russia and wins Russia's strict and cold military attitude over with his heart and determination. Rocky V is perhaps the most insightful of the films, and serves as a commentary on the corporatization of modern boxing. George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a conniving fight promoter bearing more than a passing resemblance to Don King, ditches his young Mike Tyson look-alike boxer in order to steal away Rocky's protégé Tommy Gunn, initially labeling him the "great white hope." But the young boxer can never get out from under Rocky's shadow, and ends up engaging Rocky in a street fight to prove his abilities to himself. Rocky has to beat some respect back into him and foil Duke's plans for a money-making arena match.

So the artistic value is in the acting and the story, the entertainment value is in the plot and the fights (and let me tell you, the fights may not be strictly realistic, but man are they satisfying!) There's a fair amount of simple humor and surprisingly touching romance…I mean, these films have it all.

On the downside: They are a little dated. The first film was in '76, the last in '90. The sequels in particular really captured the feel of the time, but are especially vulnerable to looking cheesy now. In Rocky III, Stallone was getting tired of being typecast as the dumb guy between Rocky and Rambo, and you see a bit of a character departure as Rocky suddenly talks and dresses a bit more suave. You can write this off as Rocky moving in different circles and having more money, but it was really a personal thing for Stallone. We see this as he starts returning to the Rocky we know in Rocky IV, and especially in Rocky V (which you can explain as the much-touted brain damage taking effect over time, restoring prominent behaviors and speech patterns.) Another big problem is Rocky's son aging a lot between Rocky IV and Rocky V. Five years passed between these films, but it wasn't supposed to be nearly that long in screen time. This was done so that Sage Stallone could play Rocky's son in the movie, and there's really no good way to explain it. The music for the earlier films has become classic, particular the songs by Survivor for Rocky III. But in Rocky V, they tried to stay hip and urban and changed the style of the soundtrack to mostly the hip-hop type music that was popular at the time, stuff similar to MC Hammer, C + C Music Factory, Vanilla Ice, or Marky Mark (before he did movies.) It was okay then, but now it's part of that early '90s music that nobody wants to touch.

Final Verdict: Overall this is just a phenomenal series. Entertaining in the short term, and actually touching in the long term (I'm kind of ashamed to admit I found myself crying at Rocky and Adrian's reunion at the end of Rocky.) Everyone should be required to watch at least the first film.

Rocky: A+
Rocky II: A
Rocky III: B+
Rocky IV: B
Rocky V: B-

It's All in the Details: Sly's brother Frank actually had a small role as a curbside singer in the first movie and another at Rocky's later wedding. He's a musician, and he composed some of the themes which were incorporated into Bill Conti's famous score.

On a separate note: There are rumors of a sixth Rocky movie in development, and Sly has said he's interested. I have the utmost faith in him, but I don't think America will want to see a borderline senior citizen Rocky dealing with the travails of having your body fall apart on you and weekends with the grandchildren. On the flipside, I don't think anyone would buy Rocky in the ring at 50. However there are still a lot of fans out there, and one even put together a fake trailer to pump up interest. You can find it here.

DVD: As far as buying the box set goes…it's cheap. You can probably find it for fifty bucks or less. That's great for five movies. And that's about the best thing I can say about it. The video is okay. The audio is good for the first movie, but the sequels only have basic stereo, and no commentary. Similarly, the first movie has all the extras…an interview with Sly, behind the scenes footage, footage of the early fight-training, trailers, promotional posters and such, and a couple tributes to cast and crew members who passed away. The sequels have no new features. If you like full screen, you're out of luck, as you can only watch two of the movies with the sides cut off…not a factor for me, but maybe for you. Anyway, the box is cheap, if you think you'll watch the movies twice, go for it, if not just pick up the first Rocky by itself and wait for a box set with more quality. Maybe after the sixth movie…

- - Jeff Light

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