Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
Stars: Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Talia Shire (Adrian Pennino), Burt Young (Paulie Pennino), Carl Weathers (Apollo Creed), Burgess Meredith (Mickey Goldmill), Thayer David (George Jergens), Joe Spinell (Tony Gazzo), Jimmy Gambina (Mike), Bill Baldwin (Fight Announcer), Al Silvani (Cut Man), George Memmoli (Ice Rink Attendant), Jodi Letizia (Marie)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1976
Country: U.S.
Rocky Blu-Ray
RockyRevisiting the original Rocky for the first time in perhaps a decade, I was struck primarily by what a delicate balancing act it is, finding a graceful middle ground between despair and triumph, honesty and fantasy. Director John G. Avildsen, who had helped launch the New Hollywood with his violent drama Joe (1970) and had directed Jack Lemmon to an Oscar in Save the Tiger (1973), transforms the gritty realities of economic hardship and personal desperation into a celebration of individuality and determination without sinking into mushy sentimentalism. Rocky is a great film because it earns its emotions the hard way, taking us through dark back alleys, dingy apartments, alcoholic rages, and bouts of loneliness with a rough, poetic grace that points the way toward eventual transcendence both inside and out of the ring.

Most often described as one of the great, inspirational underdog movies, Rocky’s most famous moments are also its most grandiose, particularly the often-imitated, but never quite duplicated (even by its many sequels) training montage set to Bill Conti’s “Rocky’s Theme (Flying High Now),” which culminates in Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a downtrodden Philly pugilist, triumphantly running up the massive steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum and dancing at the top as if he has just won the Heavyweight Championship title. It is a soaring, audience-appeasing moment of celebration, ironically occurring before Rocky steps foot in the ring against the current champ, the Muhammad Ali-esque Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), and people remember it best probably because it projects on screen the way the movie makes them feel--ebullient. Its powerful momentum is underscored by the way Conti’s musical score builds throughout the film, beginning with a simple, sad piano theme and gradually adding strings and horns until we arrive at that glorious moment atop the steps. And we still have the climactic boxing match ahead of us.

Rocky essentially introduced the world to Sylvester Stallone, a struggling bit actor who refused to sell his script, which he supposedly wrote over a feverish three-day period, unless he was allowed to play Rocky. Of course, now it is hard--if not impossible--to imagine anyone else in that role, especially the actors the studio had in mind (which included Burt Reynolds and Robert Redford). Self-nicknamed “The Italian Stallion,” Rocky Balboa is a gentle lug, an amateur boxer who is seen by most everyone around him (including himself) as a neighborhood bum. He is neither a great nor a terrible boxer, and he is proud of the fact that his nose has never been broken. He makes ends meet by working as muscle for a low-rent loan shark named Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), but he doesn’t have the will to actually break anyone’s thumbs. He is overly generous to his friend Paulie (Burt Young), an alcoholic with serious anger management issues, and he has a soft sport for Paulie’s chronically shy sister, Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a pet store and usually refuses to make eye contact. Rocky practices at an old, worn-out local gym overseen by the cantankerous Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), a grizzled veteran who sees potential in Rocky’s strength and resolve, but resents Rocky working for Gazzo.

The twist in Rocky’s life comes when the current heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, offers him a shot in a much-publicized boxing match to celebrate America’s Bicentennial in Rocky’s hometown of Philadelphia. The film makes it abundantly clear that this is an unearned stroke of luck. Apollo was supposed to box a contender who had to drop out due to a broken hand. No one else would face the champ on such short notice, so Apollo strikes on the idea of giving a no-name a shot at the title, not out of generosity, but because it would make great copy and make him look good. Rocky’s name is chosen for no other reason than Apollo likes his nickname and the way it sounds on a marquee. Thus, Rocky’s literally miraculous shot at the title is not a climactic manifestation of his hard work, but rather a one-in-a-million gift that, more than anything, gives him the opportunity to reveal his true self. Sitting on the bed next to Adrian, he professes that he has no real desire to win, but only to go the full 15 rounds with the champ. Rocky is not a film about victory, but about going the distance, and the difference between those concepts is the difference between a shallow sports movie that does little more than revel in self-centered glory and a deep character study about the desire to be one’s best.

Shot by cinematographer James Crabe, who had gotten his start in the 1960s shooting television series and documentaries, Rocky’s visual approach reflects its balance of grit and inspiration. The film stock is rough and grainy, and large portions of the film take place either in the dark of night or in a grayish winter light that washes all the color out of the frame (it could very well be a black-and-white film, much like the boxing pictures of the 1940s that were usually about “the fix”). At the same time, though, Rocky was one of the first films to utilize the newly invented Steadicam, which allows for fluid tracking shots over rough and uneven terrain that were unlike anything audiences had seen before. When Rocky runs up the steps, the camera (and the audience) glides along with him, and when he faces Apollo in the ring, we drift around the fight, pulled into the violence but always just outside of it. The film’s numerous long shots emphasize Rocky’s connection to his seedy environment--south Philadelphia’s dilapidated skid row neighborhoods, which are replete with garbage in the gutters, burning trashcans, and drunks passed out in front of the monotonous rows of tenement housing. Rocky’s world is one of economic hardship and criminality, and he moves through it, always clad in a black leather jacket and porkpie hat, as if he belongs there. Yet, at the same time, we sense that he is somehow above it, if only because he is so powerfully, resolutely himself.

Rocky ultimately works on multiple levels, evidenced by both its immediate popularity with audiences and critics in the mid-1970s and its enduring legacy so many decades later. It is almost anthropological in its depiction of inner city rot, which makes a compelling backdrop to Rocky’s romance with Adrian, which develops slowly and awkwardly and always rings true (we can see why these two outsiders would be so drawn to each other). Rocky emerges as a fully formed, incredibly complex figure; he’s both profoundly naïve and indelibly street-smart, and he often masks his sorrows behind a veneer of tough-guy joviality (he is particularly given to bad jokes that he writes himself). Stallone’s performance has been consistently undervalued over the years, mostly because he allowed the character to become more and more of a cartoon in its numerous sequels, a mistake that he strongly rectified with the surprisingly moving Rocky Balboa in 2006. Because he created the character, Stallone clearly had a strong affinity for Rocky, and he imbues him with a real sense of presence, particularly in the quiet moments when we are made aware of his deep insecurities. He fights hard and sometimes loses his temper, but under all the physical heft we sense a gentle soul, one who finds solace in turtles and goldfish, the only animals he can afford to keep. We want him to go the distance, just as we want him to find romance with Adrian, because, like Mickey, we can tell that there is something great inside that only needs the right outlet for its emergence.

Rocky Special Limited Edition Blu-Ray Digibook

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorMGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
    Release DateMay 10, 2011

    MGM’s new limited-edition Blu-Ray book features the same high-definition transfer and lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-surround soundtrack that was included on their 2006 Blu-Ray release. The image certainly looks the best it ever has, with the increased resolution enhancing the detail and contrast, but also maintaining a rough, grainy look that is inherent to the film’s low-budget, shot-on-location origins. Colors are appropriately dull throughout most of the film, but when they come out (such as the scenes in the locker room before the fight with Rocky clad in red and gold), they really pop. The darker scenes are a bit more problematic, as they tend to be a bit mushy with not a lot of shadow detail, but that is most likely the inherent look of the film, rather than a transfer issue (although, given that the transfer is now five years old, it would be interesting to see if it could be improved). The multi-channel soundtrack effectively opens up the original monaural mix. Bill Conti’s iconic music is notable for its depth and separation, although I was most impressed with how the remix drew my attention to subtle sound effects, like Rocky’s breathing when he’s stretching before his run.
    No supplements are included aside from the original theatrical trailer and about half a dozen trails for other MGM movies available on Blu-Ray.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © MGM / 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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