ROCKY - Blu-ray review

One of the classic sport films, partly because it's also a likable ugly duckling story about two people who find and help each other

James Plath's picture

Yo Adrian, we're on Blu-ray!

But "Rocky" fans may feel as if they're the ones who've taken too many blows to the body when they see that there are no bonus features. Zero. That means they'll have to hang on to that Special Edition with its two audio commentaries, a video commentary by writer-star Sylvester Stallone, three featurettes, collectible booklet, and more. MGM went 25-gig on this single-layer disc, and so there's only room for the movie. What complicates a collector's life, though, is that the Blu-ray release isn't just a transfer. The thing fans will notice most on the Blu-ray version is the absence of flickers and imperfections that kept popping up on previous DVDs, as if it were an old silent movie they were watching instead of the Best Picture winner for 1976. It's cleaned up, and also sharper, especially in close-ups. Viewers will notice a big difference on the edges of characters and objects in low-light situations. There's simply more detail and clarity on the Blu-ray. But alas, no background to help you better appreciate the film.

Remember Chuck Wepner? He surprised everybody (and probably bankrupted more than a few bookies) when the low-ranked fighter lasted almost 15 rounds against Muhammad Ali when the champ was still wearing his belt. A struggling writer-actor was so impressed that he wrote the screenplay for "Rocky" in 86 hours, working in his kitchen. Then the young but audacious Stallone insisted that he be the one to star in the film, and not Burt Reynolds or Ryan O'Neal, whom the studio preferred. The studio finally gave in, because they sensed this could be big, and, of course, it was. Besides being a blockbuster hit, the film launched an industry. Appropriately, "Rocky" premiered at the New York theater (the Baronet) where Stallone had worked just six years earlier as an usher who earned a measly $37 a week. Ali, who saw and apparently liked the film, sent Stallone a telegram afterwards, written in the form of one of his trademark poems:

You fought and you worked,
You're a determined guy,
Rocky is great,
And we all love you Sly
And if you get an Oscar,
Remember, please do,
The greatest will also get one,
Cause I'm prettier than you.

Stallone lost the Best Actor statue to Peter Finch ("Network"), but hey, Finch KO'd Robert De Niro ("Taxi Driver") too. But "Rocky" did win for Best Picture, Best Direction (John G. Avildsen), and Best Film Editing. All these years later, "Rocky" still packs a punch, though it's hard to watch now without thinking of the claymation 7-Up commercials that parody the film. In fact, "Rocky" is so iconic that it takes a cave dweller not to have heard at least one person imitating Stallone-as-Rocky, the self-named "Italian Stallion" who went from a bum to a heavyweight title fight faster than Cinderella was zapped into a bodice and ballgown.

"Rocky" was a story that won over fans, and not just because it was a rousing and inspirational sports story built on a solid work ethic--strive hard, and you can elevate yourself. It was also a double ugly duck tale, with a pair of uglies on both side of the gender finding each other and finding themselves. Rocky (Stallone) was a nobody fighter who fought other nobodies in clubs and worked as an enforcer for a local Philadelphia loan shark. His world is gritty-a landscape of fires burning on curbsides, passed out winos, and young toughs who'd cut you as soon as they'd shake your hand-and it defined his station in life, and his psyche. He was a loser, which was why he lost his locker at Mickey Goldmill's gym to a younger, up-and-coming fighter. Then there's Adrian (Talia Shire), the sister of blue-collar friend Paulie (Burt Young) who seems pathologically introverted and dresses dowdier than a librarian, with a knit hat pulled practically over her face. When they come together, they help each other transform into something more beautiful . . . if a face like Rocky's can ever be described that way.

The performances still hold up, as does the script that has Mickey (Burgess Meredith) seeking out Rocky to train him after the fighter is picked from a boxer's line-up to fight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on the Fourth of July. It's a publicity gimmick that the champ comes up with after the contender he was supposed to fight withdraws because of an injury. So Rocky is literally plucked from obscurity and given a token chance to win the championship. If anything dates the movie, it's the musical score. Seventies' drama and cop-show music just had this cheesy hint of disco in everything, and Bill Conti's score, while memorable, is certainly evocative of the era.

The 1080HD picture was transferred to a 25GB single-layer disc using MPEG-2 technology at 18MBPS and presented in 1.85:1 widescreen. When you see the first scene, you're apt to feel a surge of disappointment, as it's REALLY grainy. But as the film progresses you begin to see that close-ups (as is often the case with older films) have the most amazing detail compared to previous DVD versions. If you pop in your older DVD and have a look after watching the Blu-ray, you'll be amazed at how clean it is now, how all those flickers are gone, and how there's considerably less grain and less fuzziness on the edges/margins of people and objects. So yeah, it's a big upgrade in Blu-ray.

So is the audio. Though the original Mono is included here as an option, most will opt for the fuller and richer DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio, which distributes the sound across the speakers and makes the source of the sound less identifiable. It doesn't exactly fill the room with sound the way that contemporary films do, but it does spread it out better and not too artificially, as is sometimes the case when people tinker with an original mono soundtrack. Additional options are French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Mono, with subtitles in English (CC) and Spanish.

BAM! Ouch. No extras. Why you gotta be that way?

Bottom Line:
"Rocky" remains one of the classic sport films, partly because it's also a likable ugly duckling story about two people who find and help each other to become more beautiful in their own way. Yo!


Film Value