Back when bell bottoms were hip and America was awash in the optimism of celebrating its Bicentennial, a good-looking but lumpy actor with the very un-cool name of Sylvester connected with us average joes in a little film he wrote and acted in called "Rocky." Before Eighties imperialism chewed him up and spat out glistening uber-clones, a sweet-natured palooka defied the odds for a shot at the championship title. As such, itís difficult to tell where Stallone ends and his most famous alter ego, Philadelphia pugilist Rocky Balboa, begins.
Commemorating its twenty-fifth anniversary, MGM Home Entertainment returns "Rocky" to the world with a feature-laded special edition DVD. This release rectifies a previous error in judgment a few years ago with a fresh anamorphic transfer as well as a slew of extras that appropriately mark the historical and cultural importance of the film. Viewing the film and the supplements will bring many back to the moment when they first met "the Italian Stallion." Looking back at the film through a quarter century filter only underlines the terrible price paid for our nationís current love affair with cynicism.
Everyone should know the story: Rocky Balboa is a two-bit fighter, grinding out a meager existence amongst the seedy fight clubs in the city of Brotherly Love. When he isnít fighting his heart out for $40 purses, heís strong-arming for the local loan shark. The lonely boxer has eyes for plain pet-store clerk Adrian (Talia Shire), who lives with her volatile brother Pauly (Burt Young.) Just as Rocky and Adrian eventually face their worldly fears together, fate intervenes in the form of a prizefight sponsored by reigning heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for the world title. Rocky takes stock of his talent, his life and his worth with every punch and every leap up the steps of City Hall, preparing for the big match and possibly fulfilling his lifeís dream of being the contender he always knew he was.
The film succeeds not because of grand operatic gestures (flourishes that choked the sequels of any genuine emotions or even plausibility) but from expertly charted, beautifully observed moments: Rocky recounting his day to his two pet turtles, Cuff and Link; sleepily drinking raw eggs to start his workout; Rocky and Adrianís Thanksgiving night date at the empty ice rink; or the confrontation between Rocky and Mickey about their past and their future as boxer and manager. These moments do not date nor dim with the passage of time. Everything about the film feels right: the rough-hewn cinematography, the gritty colors and the understatement of the performances, even in Paulyís moments of rage. I look back at the original "Rocky" with such fondness for many reasons: nostalgia for the era when I first saw it, the undeniably powerful statement that anyone can achieve if they have the heart and courage to do so and sharing the moment of triumph for Stallone the dreamer.
Benefiting from anamorphic processing and a little more care in the authoring, the new video transfer just pummels the old DVD. The perfectly framed 1.85 image is sharp, yet still wrestles with the low lighting and low-contrast look. Film grain still crops up, as does intermittent compression artifacts. Understandable given the many nighttime scenes and especially the smoky club or arena interiors, but there are nowhere near as prevalent as they were the first go-ound. Solid black levels bring out the few colors when they pop up, like the red lampshade in Rockyís apartment or the vibrant red, white and blues of the final match. The picture is consistently stable and clear under the circumstances, but the source elements arenít the cleanest. Speckles and blemishes occur throughout the presentation, giving pause that maybe a full-on restoration should be undertaken. Fleshtones are natural, if a little pinkish at times. These observations really shouldnít be seen as outright criticisms, though; this is the best Iíve seen the film sinceÖ1976.
The most obvious benefit of the remastered 5.1 discrete audio is the increased front stage presence, heightening the impact of Bill Contiís now legendary "Rocky" theme and scenes with extended background music. Fidelity is a bit thin, perhaps owing to the low-tech, pre-Dolby days of sound recording and mixing. Whereas one might expect that the final match would have the rear channels bursting with crowd cheers and ambient noises, they are surprisingly quiet but not totally silent. Dialogue plays fine but when voice levels rise, so does the distortion. The filmís original mono soundtrack allows comparison of the two options and for the most part, the 5.1 is simply the mono track with a discrete music mix. A French 5.1 track and a Spanish mono track are also included.
The supplements start right with the film, in a commentary track that offers remembrances from an extensive array of on- and off-camera talent. John Avildsen, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Steadicam inventor/operator Garrett Brown all chime in regularly for wall to wall talk during the film. Introduced and kind of moderated by Burt Young, everyone has fond memories of making the film as well as stories of how the property got passed around the major studios and explaining those little moments of inspiration that critics (myself included) read as artistic gospel years later. I laughed out loud when Burt Young explained how two grips were waiting with a blanket to catch the turkey he throws out the door to reuse for the next take.
The video commentary by Sylvester Stallone runs twenty eight minutes, featuring a series of soundbites where he talks about the filmís genesis (the Ali-Wepner fight, with video excerpts), heartfelt memories about his fellow cast members and some of the changes made on the road to success (Rocky was originally conceived as a much darker character). I have never seen Stallone more natural or inviting as he is here, even with the austerity of taping him against a black background. Watching him speak so eloquently and so genuinely about his love for the character and what it has meant to him over the years is truly touching and a high point for the DVD.
"A Tribute to Burgess Meredith" is an eight-minute testimonial to one of the greatest character actors ever. For a generation of baby-boomers, Meredith was best remembered as the nefarious Penguin on the campy 1960ís TV version of "Batman." His portrayal of the irascible but sage trainer Mickey in the first three "Rocky" films is a more appropriate epitaph for future generations to remember him by. Remembrances by Stallone, Carl Weathers, Burt Young, and friend Lee Grant (the prosecutor in "Defending Your Life") paint a most flattering and respected portrait. The most poignant moment for me was listening to Weathers literally deconstruct Meredithís acting in the scene with Rocky and Mickey coming to terms with each other. Having Weathers walk through each nuance of the performance was just as electrifying as the scene itself.
John Avildsen introduces the "Behind the Scenes" section. Running twelve minutes, Avildsen discusses how he shot Super 8mm footage of make-up tests and the fight choreography between Stallone and Weathers. He explains how the footage was instrumental in honing the boxing scenes and giving feedback during rehearsal. About half way through the segment, Avildsen ends his narration and the footage is shown in its entirety. Since there is no audio with the film, the sound effect of a 8mm projector running is added. Cute, but unnecessary. Avildsen also hosts a short tribute to cinematographer James Crabe, talking about how Crabe made the most out of the miniscule budget (just under a million; now one-twentieth of Stalloneís usual salary!) and the environment to photograph the film.
Trailers for all the installments in the series constitute the next section. In addition to the theatrical trailers, a teaser for the original film is included. Itís interesting (and a little sad for me) to chart how the series transformed over the years. I lost interest by "Rocky IV." That filmís marketing hook of the two exploding boxing gloves probably represents the nadir of the cycle. Two of the trailers are letterboxed (I and V) and the rest are full-frame.
Two thirty-second spots and one sixty-second ad, identified on the cover as "Original Advertising Materials," highlight the critical hosannas for the film and the publicity push for Stallone ("heís been compared to Brando, Newman, Pacino and DeNiro!").
Pay no attention to my few technical nitpicks; this is a marvelous DVD made with love and respect. Yet I canít get something out of my head. During the Stallone commentary, he remarks, "I truly miss that character." He later talks about his moment of triumph at the Directors Guild screening and how he will never have that victory again. The second he said that, the image that popped in my head was a scene from "Citizen Kane," when the old Kane picks up the snow globe from the floor and remembers "Rosebud." Weird.
Buying this DVD is a no-brainer. "Rocky: Special Edition" wins by a KO.