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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Rocky: The Undisputed Collection [Blu-ray]

 

(John Avildsen & Sylvester Stallone, 1976)

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: MGM

Blu-ray: MGM Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: A

Runtime: 634 min

Case: Expanded Blu-ray Case w/ flippages

Release date: November 3rd, 2009

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: MPEG-2 (x1) & MPEG-4 (x5)

 

Audio:

(see comments)

 

Subtitles:

(see comments)

 

Extras:

• Bonus Disc:

• In the Ring: Three-Part Making-Of Documentary (1:15:50)

• The Opponents (16:20)

• Interview with a Legend – Bert Sugar: Author/Commentator and Historian (6:55)

• Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva (4:40)

• Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown (17:25)

• Make Up! The Art and Form with Michael Westmore (15:05)

• Staccato: A Composer’s Notebook with Bill Conti (11:25)

• The Ring of Truth (9:45)

• Behind the Scenes with John Avildsen (12:30)

• Tribute to Burgess Meredith (7:50)

• Tribute to James Crabe (3:45)

• Video Commentary with Sylvester Stallone (28:50)

• Sylvester Stallone on Dinah! 1976 (17:15)

• Feeling Strong Now! Video Game (1080p)

 

 

The Film:

"Undisputed" is a catchy title, and must have seemed too good to pass up, but I am sure I not alone in disputing it, since none of the early Rocky movies have seen any significant restoration in several years, nor is the audio commentary present on the 2-disc special edition of Rocky included here. What's more, the original Rocky film was, and still is, presented on only a single layer disc with the old MPEG-2 encode.

Overview:
Along with Star Wars many would consider Sylvester Stallone's Rocky films to be one of the screen's important iconic sagas. If popularity is a useful measure, then these movies, good, bad and fair, certainly qualify. It might be easy to forget just how much these films, from start to finish, are tied up its star, Sylvester Stallone, who had been knocking about Hollywood in small roles – take another look at Woody Allen’s Bananas if you don’t know about one of his earliest) until he landed a more significant role in Lords of Flatbush and later in Death Race 2000. But his screenplay for Rocky predated all this. Hardly a visible or pedigreed member of the Hollywood establishment, it was some while before Stallone could get the necessary backing. The next thing he or anyone knew, Rocky was an overnight sensation.

Boxing movies have certainly had their day – from Buster Keaton’s silent film Battling Butler to Wallace Beery’s washed up tear jerker The Champ, from William Holden’s Golden Boy to Body and Soul with John Garfield, The Set Up with the implacable Robert Ryan, and Somebody Up There Likes Me with a not very Marciano Paul Newman, what makes these movies interesting isn’t so much the actual fighting, though that is an essential ingredient (more so in Robert Wise’s The Set Up). They are stories about character, usually about their overcoming odds of one sort or another. So, what did Rocky have that these other movies didn’t have? Sylvester Stallone himself for one thing – like Robert Ryan in The Set Up, Stallone was completely believable in the part – the movie could have been autobiographical in some ways for all an unsuspecting audience knew. And let us not forget that Stallone wrote the screenplays for all six Rocky movies and directed all but the best (the first) and the worst (Rocky V).

It helped that Stallone was more or less unknown so that the audience didn't have to work hard to see him as Rocky Balboa. It also helped that he happened on a perfect supporting cast: from Talia Shire as Adrian, his reluctant girlfriend, Burt Young as her abusive, foul-mouthed brother (Rocky Balboa may have his roots in the lowest reaches of society, but he rarely if ever used foul language and, once he put behind him the job of muscle for a loan shark, never again beat up on people who didn’t pay for the privilege.) Then there was Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s trainer, spitting blood and sweat right along with him at every step, and Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed, the colorful heavyweight champ. And besides John Avildsen’s competent direction (later unable to save Rocky V from itself), let us not forget one of the most important characters whose presence would forever accompany each subsequent film: Bill Conti’s music – rousing and poignant by turns, it paints the man as perfectly as any image.

 

Rocky : 9
(1976)
Rocky Balboa is a man without a future, a small time muscle man for a local loan shark, he picks up the occasional boxing match with reasonable success. He is uneducated, but forgiving of others. He's something of a boy scout, looking out for dogs and drunks alike. But he’s also a man in need of the confidence to take the next step, whatever that might be. He meets and courts a shy woman who works at a pet store and with this success of sorts, he finds the necessary courage to take Apollo Creed’s challenge at its word. As a publicity stunt, Creed picks Rocky, “The Italian Stallion” almost at random to give an underdog a shot (and in part to commemorate the upcoming Bicentennial), bypassing the usual political greasing of palms. All Rocky wants is his self-respect, to not see himself as just another bum from the neighborhood: to do is go the distance and still be standing at the end of 15 rounds.

Image: 5/7
Surprising as it may seem, Fox opted to reissue their 2006 Blu-ray for this set. Back then, single-layered disc were the going thing and MPEG-2 a reasonable solution for the codec. While the movie itself doesn’t sparkle as a Million Dollar Baby it could benefit from a little restoration. Aside from a oversaturated splashes of color here and the (e.g. ring robes and trunks) and overuse of indoor light to enhance color and contrast by the cinematographer, outdoor scenes seem about right, reflecting the drab climate of the docks and early light. In indoor shots and in the ring, blacks are pumped up in what seems an attempt to close the barn door after the horse has bolted.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

CAPTURES FROM Rocky reviewed individually HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Audio: 4/9
English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, English Mono, French DD 5.1, Spanish Mono.

Subtitles:
English SDH, Spanish, and none

While Warner and other were still relying on standard Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, Fox was one of the leaders in the use of uncompressed audio. However, I can’t say that it serves this movie as well as we might hope. For one thing, the movie was not recorded in 5.1, but mono, so a remix would need to have been done with great care. There is the occasional directional cue, but by and large the mix lacks dynamic, uh, punch. It is Rocky’s punch, after all, that is his calling card, and the scene where he punches out Paulie’s meat doesn’t have the desired weight. Dialogue is usually clear, but does not always reflect the truth about the space. Bill Conti’s music sparkles, but screeches a bit too much. The mono track should also have been uncompressed, but no one hardly ever thinks to do that, even today. A side note: Rocky was nominated for an Oscar for Best Sound.
 

 

Rocky II : 7
(1979)
Like every Rocky movie that follows, until the last, Rocky II begins with a reprise of the fight that ended the previous movie. Rocky did finish the fight still standing, though made partially blind in one eye, and it is only left for him to marry the girl and find some plot device that would make Apollo desire a rematch and for Rocky to face him handicapped by compromised vision.

Image: 6/8
Rockys II-V heretofore have not seen the light of high definition video, so it is something of a letdown that Rocky II is as speckled as it is. That said, the image is an improvement over the first movie, possibly benefiting from its being dual layered with a corresponding near-doubling of the bit rate: Blacks don’t overwhelm the shadows nearly as much; sharpness is improved and more consistent; contrast, especially evident in the ring and in close-ups, is more solid; color is more natural and more vivid (I’m not sure that natural color is what the first film is really going for, so let’s not be too quick to judge it for its lack.) I wasn’t aware of transfer manipulations elsewhere.

Audio: 6/9
English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1.

Subtitles:
English SDH, Spanish, French, and none

A more consistent rendering of the audio this time: the bass and treble are not nearly as exaggerated. The music score is the principle beneficiary of this trend, with the instruments more believable and more effective in their roles to get us moving or meditative, as required. The surrounds, too, are more active in the effects of cheering audience and subtle factory sounds.

Rocky III : 6
(1982)
Rocky, now the heavyweight champion, is enjoying the good life – until he is challenged by Clubber Lang (Mr. T), a brute of a man who enjoys hurting people more than he needs to be the champ. Rocky has enjoyed five lucrative years as champ and is even giving the idea of retirement some thought. As he begins to believe that his opponents over the years were "hand-picked" so that he would not suffer another beating as he got from Apollo, his righteous need to regain self-respect requires he fight Clubber and discover for himself how he got his name.

Image: 6/8
Though once again no remarkable transfer problems are evident, the image has a curious habit of dancing between strong and weak resolution, sharp and soft, clean and noisy. This may be in the source material, as the reduction in picture size, together with a high definition picture renders contrast more vividly than we would see in the theatre.

Audio: 6/9
English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1.

Subtitles:
English SDH, Spanish, French, and none

Much the same as for Rocky II with an exciting rendering of music in a huge soundscape.

Rocky IV : 5
(1985)
It is commonly believed that Ronald Reagan was the man who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union and opened the door to a rapprochement between East and West. Not so. It was Rocky Balboa. Four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rocky accepts the challenge of Russia’s amateur, but very effective, killing machine, Capt Ivan (!) Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a man whose reach is as long as Rocky’s leg and whose height dwarfs the champ head and shoulders. Rocky puts off Drago’s taunts until Apollo comes out of retirement to face the challenger only to meet with a tragic end. If it hadn’t been clear all along, it would be by now that Rocky consistently faces and beats opponents with more impressive specifications because he doesn’t give up and his heart is in the right place. At the movie's end Rocky makes some public statement about how if he could change, than anyone can, by which he means governments and populations. It's a reach beyond those he has faced in the ring and may seem melodramatic and sentimentalized, but Rocky can make you a believer if anyone can.

Image: 8/9
Things are beginning to shape up in Rocky IV. Everything looks crisper, more natural, with better than adequate definition. The monochromatic Russian landscape contrasts marvelously with the arena where Rocky and Drago meet – with posters of Drago flying in the background while Rocky and Drago trade blows in a brilliant mix of red, white and blue. Contrary to Rocky II & III there is little if any print damage evident.

Audio: 7/9
English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1.

Subtitles:
English SDH, Spanish, French, and none

Much the same as for Rocky II & III but with more expansive dynamic scale for the pop music heard throughout the film. Dialogue is perhaps a shade clearer through every thick and thin.

Rocky V : 4
(1990)
Rocky IV had its embarrassing moments and perhaps even the basic premise was Rocky’s homage to the flag-waving politics of John Wayne’s Green Berets, but nothing could have prepared us for the relentless series of clichés that is Rocky V. I don’t think the movie goes more than two minutes without resuscitating some tired family dysfunction or boxing formula. I didn’t know you could make use of so many formulaic bits and not have the movie completely fall apart. Instead, a kind of numbing constipation ensues. Rocky’s son (Sage Stallone) is now just coming into his teens; Rocky himself is retired, but his head is still back in the ring. Along comes Tommy “Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison), an undisciplined wannabe whom Rocky coaches, ignoring his once adored son. Tommy succumbs to a speedy shot at the title, wins and becomes a jerk, which he always was. The audience sides with Rocky Jr and Paulie who can't see that Tommy has any redeeming qualities. Rocky has to put Tommy in his place. I may go hang myself.

Image: 7/9
The action returns to the street of Philadelphia in an autumn that makes for an almost depressed monochromatic mood. The transfer captures this well, with an appropriate filmic grain, though there are a couple of instances where noise takes its place.

Audio: 8/9
English DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French DTS 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1.

Subtitles:
English SDH, Spanish, French, and none

The entire audio mix graduates from high school to college here: everything is more in control, yet spontaneous, dynamic and clear: dialogue, punches, music. Ambient sounds, like those ubiquitous trains that pass in the night, immerse us into the action. The street fight between Rocky and Tommy is particularly effective.

Rocky Balboa : 7
(2006)
Stallone begins Rocky's swan song not with a reprise of the last fight from the previous movie but of ghostly images of the latest fight by the present heavyweight champ, Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver) who, like Tommy, is not a very likeable chap (Where is Apollo when we need him!). And it is right that the movie like this for we soon learn that Adrian has died sometime between Rocky V and the present. Her ghost is very alive as Rocky visits all the important places that were important to their early days, some of which are ghosts in themselves. Paulie admonishes Rocky that he is living in the past. For his part, Rocky doesn’t yet understand how much his life as a fighter is tied up with Adrian. He would prefer to see her as the person who made his career possible, and there is some truth to that. What is also true is that Adrian never wanted him to fight in the first place and did what she could to protect him from harm. Grace Kelly was ready to leave town altogether, but came to Coop’s aid at the moment the bell sounded. Enter: “Little Marie” (Geraldine Hughes) who is everything Adrian wasn’t insofar as her respect for Rocky’s need to be what he is. Their story is more hinted at than developed, and perhaps it isn’t necessary to be more than it is because we have five films of history behind us, yet her sudden appearance in Vegas at the final fight doesn’t ring true. Still, given the disaster that was Rocky V, we are grateful that Stallone came back for one more shot. The actor was coming up on 60 when he made this movie; his character is only a few years younger. While not the lean mean fighting machine he once was, he looks pretty good even when he finally takes his shirt off. A good way to go out, Sly.

Image: 9/9
This and the first Rocky movie are the only ones in the series that have had a previous life in high definition video. This disc is identical to the one brought out by Sony in 2007 (including its ample Extra Features.) Images are sharp and coherent, though intentionally high contrast and gritty. Blacks are particularly well realized. The big fight at the film’s finale goes for a more popping image in keeping with Stallone’s intentions. Color is a wonder, from flesh tones in the ring to Adrian’s roses.

Audio: 9/9
English PCM 5.1 (Uncompressed), English 5.1 Dolby Digital, French 5.1 Dolby Digital

Subtitles:
English SDH, Spanish, French, and none.

The default audio mix is the DD 5.1 and I hadn’t realized that at first, wondering why the audio seemed so flat. A quick check with my remote, a switch to uncompressed PCM, and: Voila! The difference isn’t subtle, let me tell you. Clarity, dynamics, scale, ambient effects, immersive surrounds, music, even the dramatic intentions of any mix, are just that much more immediate. We don’t have to work at the movie, we just let it unfold and take us into it. This works just as well in quiet scenes as when Marie encourages Rocky to be what he is as in the ring and the punches become increasingly powerful. Time of your life – Knock yourself out.

 

Supplements:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Operations: 5
What is remarkable about a set titled "Undisputed" is that there is no accompanying booklet – not even an insert (though the back of the slipcover offers some details of what's included in really small font.) The seven discs come in one of those dreaded cheap plastic cases with flippages where the disc is both difficult to remove and could fall out on its own without provocation. Someone really needs to do some long overdue redesign of the default multidisc Blu-ray case.

The first five Rocky movies come without any extra features and so their menus are simplicity itself. The main bonus feature disc, in keeping with current trends, does not allow us to see all the features at one go. I have a personal dislike of such organization.
 

Extras: 7
In addition to the extra features that appeared on earlier DVD & Blu-ray editions of Rocky Balboa, this set includes some two hours of bonus features previously available on the 2-disc Special Edition of the original Rocky movie.

Most of the contents here are ported over from the 2-disc special edition Rocky DVD. Unfortunately, the original Rocky disc hasn't been repressed to include the commentary tracks available on that release.

• Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva
World class boxing manager Lou Duva responds to questions.

• Interview with a Legend – Author and Historian Bert Sugar: Sports writer Bert Sugar talks about the Rocky story.

• The Opponents: Rocky as Underdog is the theme here as Producer Robert Chartoff looks at each of Rocky’s opponents, with interviews with three of the actors who played them.

• In the Ring: Making-Of Documentary: Interviews with Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Director John Avildsen, and Producer Robert Chartoff, from Stallone's oroginal ideas for the story, Rocky's whirlwind shooting schedule (28 days!), and a more detailed look at some of the supporting characters, the music and the staging of the fights.

• Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown, the inventor of the Steadicam. Rocky was one of its first applications, along with Bound for Glory, Marathon Man and The Buddy Holly Story.

• Make Up! The Art and Form with Michael Westmore.

• Staccato: A Composer’s Notebook with Bill Conti

• The Ring of Truth with Art Director James Spencer.

• Behind the Scenes with John Avildsen: The director presents his own 8mm footage that he used as a kind of working storyboard model.

• Tribute to Burgess Meredith: More about Meredith's work on Rock than a retrospective of his career (which goes back to the 1939 Of Mice and Men.)

• Tribute to Cinematographer James Crabe.

• Video Commentary with Sylvester Stallone: Contrary to common practice, Stallone addresses the camera directly as he recalls his original thinking about the project and the reception it and he received.

• Sylvester Stallone on Dinah! 1976. One of my favorite clips – Stallone makes an appearance on the Dinah Shore talk show, along with Joey Bishop. A trip down memory lane.

• Rocky Anthology Trailers: All in HD except for the original film.

• Rocky TV Spots

• Feeling Strong Now! : A game to your knowledge about Rocky, his friends and career.

 

Bottom line:6
And now for the hard part: What to advise? The best is sore need of a better transfer and will likely get one, and, I expect, separately, along with its missing extra features. I don't the other movies as getting special treatment anytime soon. The price for the set is reasonable. Many people think that the best movies are the first and last, and you may already have those and would think twice to getting this set, which duplicates what you already have just for the sake of completing the saga. So there it is: If you want the whole thing youll have to eat copies you likely already have. Maybe they would make nice gifts.

Leonard Norwitz
November 17th, 2009

 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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