Six movies, thirty years, unfathomable brain damage.
In 1976, America was introduced to one of the most iconic film figures of all time, a simple, amiable paisano from Philadelphia with a slow wit and a hard head. His name? Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, Rambo), a.k.a. the Italian Stallion, a man whose superhuman willpower is exceeded only by a shocking ability to absorb fist-propelled punishment.
Rocky Balboa debuts as a simple meathead who works as a collection guy for the neighborhood loan shark. When he’s not shaking down losers at the pier for chump change, he’s mixing it up in local fights. When the current heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, Arrested Development), chooses Rocky as his opponent for a gimmick Columbus Day fight. Of course, no one believes Rocky has a chance. Then again, they haven’t seen him beat a slab of frozen meat into submission.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before (actually, stop me if you’ve heard “stop me if you’ve heard this before”): the original is still the best. Rocky is genuine and moving, authentically inspiring, and one of the all-time great underdog movies. The finale is most impressive, a culminating bout not defined by who wins but rather who doesn’t get destroyed in the first round and manages to shock the world. In lieu of technical mastery and talent, the original Rock has pluck and bricks for fists!
Fresh off his mind-boggling, go-the-distance engagement with Creed, Rocky has returned to toiling away in relative obscurity. That is until Creed — convinced he needs to get back in the ring for a rematch and decisively annihilate the Italian Stallion — challenges Balboa once again. Yada yada yada, it’s back to montages, running laps, push-ups, and egg yolk frappes, all culminating in yet another brutal smackdown…with a drastically different ending.
Here’s where the series starts to lose its bearing and the finales become predictable. Rocky is still an underdog and Adrian still shoots him concerned looks, but the outcome is never in any doubt and that severely damages the emotional impact (and suspense) of the excursions. Then again, we do get more Apollo — always a good thing — and the big boxing scene is once again brutally epic.
But this is a harbinger of what’s to come…
…and that would be Hulk freakin’ Hogan. Rocky, now a wealthy and renowned champ, opens up the film with a charity bout against a dude named Thunderlips, but things rapidly get out of control, turning into a free-for-all brawl. Meanwhile, a new challenger is poised to take down Rocky, Clubber Lang (Mr. T, The A-Team), a ferocious young boxer who not only wants to beat his opponents but hurt them. A lackadaisical Rocky coughs up the title to the hungrier challenger, forcing him to partner with ex-nemesis Apollo Creed and train for a rematch. Slow-motion beach running in tiny shorts ensues.
The growing relationship between Apollo and Rocky is the most interesting thing going on here. Even Mr. T, as hard as he tries to be a scary badass, comes across as cartoonish (thanks in part to his obvious cue card reading). Even the centerpiece of these Rocky movies, the end fight, is unfulfilling. But, Adrian still shoots Rocky those concerned looks.
Next stop: Rocky vs. The Evil Empire. When Apollo foolishly decides to square off with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, Masters of the Universe), the Soviet Union’s unstoppable boxing machine, and ends up splayed out on the canvas, dead as a doornail. To avenge his pal’s death, Rocky travels to Russia (for some reason) and fights Drago, attempting to change the hearts and minds of the proletariat.
For my money, this is where the series hit self-parody. Is there any doubt that Rocky isn’t going to beat the Vegemite out of Drago? Of course not. And if utter predictability wasn’t enough, you have the goofy sight of Rocky training in a barn by pushing a plow around, plus a gobsmackingly naive and condescending speech he gives to the Soviet audience (and newly-inspired politburo) before the end credits roll.
Once you’ve fought Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago, who else is there? How about a mullet-headed douchebag named Tommy Gun? A retired Rocky discovers a young fighter from Oklahoma who wants a shot at the title, and gets bitten by the boxing bug once more. So he decides to train Tommy, while ignoring his overly-sensitive son, and both decisions backfire in a big way. Tommy, drunk with power, turns on Rocky and challenges him to a streetfight…and Rocky’s son starts wearing earrings.
The less said about this embarrassment the better. Apparently Sly considers this installment a waste of everyone’s time and he’s absolutely right: lame Balboa family side stories, a dumb final fight, and one of the dopiest cinematic antagonists ever conceived, combine for the low point in the franchise.
Thirty years after the original, Stallone resuscitated the character that granted him iconic status, wisely returning Rocky to his roots. Long retired, his son not interested in much of a relationship, and his beloved wife passed on (though I am certain she is shooting him concerned looks from the grave), Rocky lives a simple life in Philly. One day a computer simulation renders a fantasy fight between ’80s-era Rocky and the current heavyweight champion, Mason Dixon, with Rocky coming out on top. Smelling money to be made, Dixon’s managers set up an exhibition bout between the two, despite everyone telling Rocky it’s a bad, bad idea. But the guy has some issues to work out, so he signs on for one more training montage, and one more fight.
The sixth entry in the series is easily the second-best film. For the first time since the original, it actually feels like Rocky is an underdog, and his last journey into the ring taps into what made the first film so great: the long odds, the simple and accessible morality, the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American idealism, and a hugely sympathetic protagonist. Plus, the fight at the end is tense and extraordinarily well-staged. Rocky Balboa is a great movie.
All six films receive 1.85:1 HD widescreen transfers and it’s not until the final three that the upgrades really kick in. The first three films boast a solid enough picture quality, but reflect their respective ages. Still, the bump in fidelity is noticeable when measured against the previous standard-def release. To no one’s surprise, the sixth film is the best-looking of the bunch. Each benefits from the Blu-makeover, though the latter half of the series earns higher marks. DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks outfit the first five films with varying degrees of panache — the earlier the film, the more front-loaded the mix. And yet those overbearing punching sounds and “The Eye of the Tiger” have never sounded better.
Rocky Balboa features its own set of extras, including commentary from Stallone, deleted scenes, and making-of featurettes. A bonus disc covers the rest of the franchise, and there’s plenty to go around: Interviews with Stallone, trainer Lou Duva, and Bert Sugar; featurettes on the make-up, music, direction, and Steadicam; an hour-plus documentary called “In the Ring”; a tribute to Burgess Meredith; 1976 footage of Stallone on Dinah!; and a Blu-ray exclusive trivia challenge.
Not Guilty. Go for it!