****This review does contain spoilers so if you haven’t seen Rocky you may wish to do so first****
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
BBFC Classification: 12
Director: John G. Avildsen
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers, Tony Burton, Joe Spinnel
There can’t be many media savvy people who aren’t aware of the character of Rocky Balboa and the way that he has infiltrated popular culture over the last 40 years, and like with any popular fictional character the years bring about parodies, homages and rip-offs that may be funny or cool at the time but they only really serve to dilute the power of the original, and that is certainly true about Rocky, both the character an the movie. Whilst the films from Rocky III onwards have all been enjoyable on an action movie level (even the much-maligned Rocky V, although it is a less satisfying movie than the others) and do have their share of emotional moments, they also contain the majority of the parts that have been parodied in various comedies and cartoons over the years (“Eye of the tiger, man. Eye of the tiger…”, “If he dies, he dies”, whipping the skipping rope, and all the other things we thought were cool in the ’80s) but when you go back to the 1976 original you realise what a fantastic character piece Rocky really is.
Just in case you don’t know, Rocky is about Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a 30-year-old club level boxer with limited skills and a cast-iron jaw who collects money for a loan shark to make ends meet. He lives in a grotty apartment, regularly visits the local pet shop to tell jokes to the shy assistant Adrian (Talia Shire), the sister of his best friend Paulie (Burt Young), and goes to the local gym run by Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), a grouchy old boxing trainer who gets on Rocky’s case at every opportunity because he believes that Rocky had the talent to become a better fighter instead of slumming it working for loan shark Gazzo (Joe Spinell). Life is simple for Rocky until one day he gets a call from the management of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, but instead of being offered a chance to spar with the champ – as he initially believes – Rocky is offered the chance to fight Creed for the title. Creed’s original opponent has backed out and, always the showman, he decides to put on a gala spectacle by giving an unknown a shot and, thinking that he’ll walk it, treats the fight like a show but Rocky is taking things a little more seriously, knowing he can’t possibly win against Creed but realising that this is his chance to prove that he’s not the bum everyone thinks he is by going the distance against the champ.
The biggest strength of Rocky is the cast of characters that surround Balboa and how readily defined they are when we are first introduced to them. This is down to fantastic writing by Sylvester Stallone but also the performances from all of the cast, most of whom were relative unknowns at the time. The character of Paulie is probably the most integral to Rocky, a reflection of what Rocky could be if he wasn’t so upbeat about life and willing to go the extra mile with the opportunities that he is given. We are first introduced to Paulie in the men’s room of a tavern, shouting about how he can’t brush his hair as somebody has broken the mirror, and he continues to shout and be abusive for the rest of the series, but amongst all of the bluster Paulie has a good heart and, in this film and all the others, has moments of humanity that guide some of Rocky’s life-changing decisions; it is Paulie who sets up Rocky with Adrian, it is Paulie who provides Rocky with his unusual training method of punching sides of beef and throughout the saga it is Paulie who is at Rocky’s side. He even lifts the ropes for Adrian to sneak into the ring in the film’s most poignant scene.
If Paulie is the part of Rocky that keeps him grounded, Adrian and Mickey are the characters that complete him as everything he does is driven by his need to be seen as somebody in their eyes. Adrian for obvious reasons but his reasons for trying to gain Mickey’s approval are a little less clear, although Rocky alludes to the fact that he needed Mickey’s help 10 years before and Mickey didn’t want to know in one of the film’s most powerful scenes. Burgess Meredith gives the performance of a lifetime as Mickey and the scene where he goes to Rocky’s apartment to offer his services as a manager, only to be given short shrift from Balboa over Mickey’s lack of concern for the fighter before he was given his title shot, is the pivotal point of the film, the moment when Rocky’s life seems move from one level to the next. So powerful is the performance that recalling the scene during one of the documentaries in the special features brings Burt Young to tears, and he wasn’t even in it.
The casting of Apollo Creed also turned out to be a masterstroke. Former professional American football player Carl Weathers was a last minute choice to play the charismatic heavyweight champ, as Sylvester Stallone had envisaged Creed to be like Muhammad Ali, who was still dominating the heavyweight ranks at the time and whose fight against Chuck Wepner in 1975, where long shot Wepner knocked Ali down early on before going the distance with the champ, was the main inspiration for the film. Weathers had the physique, the athleticism, the confidence and the acting chops to pull off such a demanding role and made Apollo Creed as much of an enduring presence on the screen as Rocky was. Unlike the opponents in the later films Creed wasn’t a ‘bad guy’ per se, just a professional boxer trying to stay at the top and prove that he’s the best as he covers up his insecurities by putting on glitzy spectacles, and it is this flaw in the character that makes him interesting. Along with Creed comes his trainer Duke (credited here just as ‘Apollo’s Trainer’ but named as Tony in Rocky II and Duke from Rocky III onwards), played by former professional boxer Tony Burton who, along with Stallone and Burt Young, is the only actor to appear in all six Rocky movies.
Rocky doesn’t get offered his shot until about an hour into the film so during the first act we get the chance to spend time in the universe that Stallone and director John G. Avildsen manage to create, and it is a universe that we don’t mind spending time in as the characters we encounter are all familiar types without resorting to cliché. Unlike the films that followed it, the weakest moment of Rocky is the fight itself. Not that it isn’t superbly choreographed and as emotionally charged as it ought to be, helped along by Bill Conti’s anthemic score and a quick look at the special features shows you the work that Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers put into it, but after the opening round where Rocky gets in an early shot that rattles Creed and a second round where we see Rocky start to show he’s made of stronger stuff than Apollo thought, the fight is shown in montage until the closing seconds of the 14th round. It hammers home that fact that the boxing fight itself is secondary to Rocky’s moral victories and his desire to be with Adrian.
This remastered Blu-ray is the best the film has ever looked, thanks to a gorgeous 4K transfer that brings out all of the colours and not just the reds like the previous Blu-ray releases. The picture quality is cleaner and the images sharper than ever, so if you’ve still got the old DVD version or even one of the Blu-ray versions already out then this edition is still worth picking up as the difference is very noticeable. As if any more incentive were needed, the disc comes packaged in a Steelbook featuring an image of Rocky on the front and Apollo Creed on the back with a shot from the fight on the inside. To be honest, whilst the Steelbook looks wonderful it may have been a little more enticing to have one of the more iconic images from the film on the front instead of an image that looks more than a little photoshopped, but the embossed Rocky logo and the inside image are pretty cool. The special features are the same that were included in the Undisputed Collection Blu-ray box set along with a brand new featurette called 8mm Home Movies of Rocky, a collection of production films narrated by John G. Avildsen and production manager Lloyd Kaufman (of Troma fame). This disc is also included with all the other films in the series in the Rocky Heavyweight Collection Blu-ray box set, although the other films are the same standard versions that were in the Undisputed Collection.
More than a sports movie and more than just a straight-up drama, Rocky is, at its core, a love story. If the sequels were never made it may be a little more apparent but the fact that Rocky doesn’t win the fight, isn’t bothered by the result and just wants to be with Adrian during what is potentially the greatest moment of his life speaks more about the spirit of the film than if Rocky had overcome the odds and won the bout. The film ends as Rocky and Adrian embrace, with the announcement of Apollo Creed as the winner audible as they declare their love for each other; it is the perfect ending for a story that is as inspiring as it is entertaining, and while the underlying message of making the best of the opportunities you are given may have been slightly lost amongst the bravado of Rocky III and the adrenaline-fuelled excitement of Rocky IV, it does one good to go back and remind yourself that big things can come from small beginnings – let us not forget that Rocky was nominated for 10 Oscars in nine categories (both Burgess Meredith and Burt Young were nominated for Best Supporting Actor) and won three (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing), and although that may not have the sway with audiences nowadays that it did in 1976, it’s always a good argument to throw at those who mock the series as big, dumb testosterone workouts (and even more justified now that Rocky spin-off movie Creed is also in the running for an Academy Award, with Stallone being nominated for Best Supporting Actor). If you’ve yet to be inspired in life or just need an extra little boost when you’re not sure if you can go on then watching Rocky is probably the best thing you can do to give yourself a lift, and this excellent edition of this most heartwarming and inspirational film is certainly worth shelling out on and losing yourself in for a few hours. A true classic.
Special Features: Audio Commentary by director John G. Avildsen, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, actors Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Burt Young, and Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown, audio commentary by Sylvester Stallone, audio commentary by boxing trainer Lou Duva and commentator Bert Sugar. 8mm Home movies of Rocky featurette, Three Rounds with Legendary Trainer Lou Duva featurette, Interview with a Legend: Bert Sugar featurette, The Opponents featurette, In The Ring – Three-part making-of documentary, Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown featurette.
UK Release Date: 10th February 2014