'Rocky' retains a special place in my heart, as it was one of the first films I ever saw in the theater as a child. And it absolutely terrified me. As I remember it, my mom dragged the whole family to see Sylvester Stallone's surprise Oscar-winning blockbuster back in 1976, when I was only five-years-old. I knew nothing of boxing, having never seen an actual match, real or cinematic. So by the end of 'Rocky,' I was cowering under my seat, absolutely appalled by poor Rocky getting the total crap beat out of him. Bruised, battered, with one eye bloodied into a soupy pulp, this was far worse than anything I had ever seen -- certainly more terrifying than Cruella De Vil in '101 Dalmatians.' In retrospect, 'Rocky' was really the first horror movie I ever saw, and it gave me nightmares for weeks. Thanks, mom.
I can laugh about that memory now, of course. Though I still hate boxing (two idiots beating each other up, only without the thrill of breaking the law), I was able to revisit 'Rocky' a few years after my initial traumatic experience, and finally appreciate what a great -- even fantastic -- film it really is. Which is especially easy to forget thirty years on. After a string of ever-more-preposterous sequels, which culminated in 1990's rather dreadful 'Rocky V,' and subsequent career decline of writer and star Sylvester Stallone, the character has been reduced to a pop culture punchline. With Stallone now dragging him out of retirement for 'Rocky Balboa' certainly hasn't helped matters (although all those late-night talk show hosts cracking Rocky geriatric jokes may have to eat crow, as the latest sequel is actually a pretty good movie). Yet our retroactive underestimation of Stallone and Rocky Balboa is what, ironically, allows the film to deliver such a sucker punch today -- it's almost like we can be blind-sided by this scrappy little underdog of a movie all over again.
The story of 'Rocky' is so well known now it doesn't need a plot synopsis. It is also so fundamental as to almost be mythic. But what set 'Rocky' apart in 1976 was its very averageness. Moviegoers had been used to their heroes coming from the pages of pulp fiction novels, but Rocky Balboa was an everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances -- the schlub next door who only wanted to go the distance. He could be your handyman, or your plumber, or the guy who sells you meat at the deli on the corner. And with a grittiness of locale to match, an unpretentious script (also by Stallone) and a non-intrusive, honest direction by John G. Avildsen, the combination was incredibly potent. America fell in love with Rocky Balboa, and in a way, learned to root for themselves all over again, following the soul-crushing years after Vietnam and Watergate. If 'Rocky' came to define the American spirit, it was because America was sorely in need of a Rocky.
Stallone continues to be underestimated as actor, though many of his post-'Rocky' choices didn't help much ('Judge Dredd?' 'Rhinestone?'). Watching 'Rocky' again is a testament to what a powerful screen presence he can create, at least with the right role. He also attracted a strong cast to support him, including Burgess Meredith as the wonderfully cantankerous coach Mickey, Burt Young, who made the world safe once again for slobbery Italians who mumbled, and of course Talia Shire as the beloved Adrian, the last actress you'd expect to be able to pull off a believable chemistry with a brute like Stallone. Somehow, it all works. Because what 'Rocky' still possesses in spades -- and what its numerous sequels all failed to understand -- was verisimilitude. Authentic, rousing and inspirational, 'Rocky' remains a sparkling gem of '70s American cinema.
It is almost impossible to fathom that 'Rocky' is now thirty years old. Which makes this a tough transfer to judge. Limited by its source material, I never expected the moon, but on the other hand the film is a genuine classic, so should a restoration on the order of a 'Star Wars' or 'Indiana Jones' really out of the question?
That said, this 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer is solid, despite its sometimes wildly inconsistent source material. The opening sequence is particularly poor, with a lot of grain, dirt and considerable softness. Things thankfully pick up from there. Sure, there are shots here and there that suddenly flatten out, and colors are never particularly vibrant. But the image is still fairly smooth overall, with nice fleshtones and a decent amount of depth for a film of this vintage. There are even moments that impress -- mostly daylight shots, which are the only moments that made me believe I was looking at an image akin to real, high-resolution film. I'm tempted to give this one a higher video rating just because it is an older title, but since a bit more money on a proper clean-up would have paid big dividends I just can't cut this one any slack. A three-star transfer for this one that couldda been a contender.
Despite the impressive DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 label on the box, I can't say the audio is any more exciting than the video. (Note that the film's original 2.0 Mono track is also included, and will probably be preferred by purists despite its anemic quality.)
Extracting the 1.5mbps DTS core from the mix, there is still little going on in the way of envelopment. Surround use is rarely active, except for a bit of score and the odd discrete effect (traffic, crowd noise, etc). Perhaps that wouldn't have been so bad if the track's technical specs had been totally up to snuff. Alas, there is a weird inorganic quality to the mix, as if it is all mid- and high-end and no low bass. This is particularly evident in the climactic boxing match between Rocky and Apollo Creed. Punches are thrown and bones crack, but there is just no "Oomph!" to the bass. Even Bill Conti's classic score suffers from a lack of heft, as the big, booming brass feels comparatively weak. At least dialogue is pretty strong for such an old film, with only some dated ADR noticeable and some of the thicker East Coast accents (namely Burt Young's) somewhat hard to discern. Still, unfortunately not much to cheer about here.
Nope, not a single extra. I must admit, I don't quite get MGM's initial approach to Blu-ray -- all of their initial titles are featureless -- and a film like 'Rocky' in particular really deserves the full special edition treatment, no matter how good it may look and sound. Here's hoping the studio will get around to a double dip sometime soon.
(Note that there are a batch of high-definition trailers for other MGM Blu-ray releases, but since there is no actual promo for 'Rocky,' I can't really count them as extras.)
'Rocky' has become such an indelible apart of our culture that it is easy to forget how good a film it really is. So just erase the memories of those ludicrous sequels from your mind, and reacquaint yourself with the greatest of all cinematic prizefighters. As a Blu-ray release, this disc is barely passable. Sure, the remastered transfer and soundtrack are fine, but for a true modern classic, it deserved a better restoration, and the complete lack of extras is vexing. this one's for diehard 'Rocky' fanatics only.