For so many U.S. audiences, the (first couple) Rocky movies tap into a primal urge: the desire to rise from the gutter, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make something of yourself. It’s about the American Dream, achieving your goals against all odds, making a name for yourself and a fortune through sheer willpower and determination. Rocky’s Horatio Alger, Americana schmaltz at its most potent. The original, 1976 Rocky is as American a picture as Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and viewers eat this sentimental crap up even to this day. I know, because I’m one of them.
Rocky and Rocky II (1979) as a pairing are as perfectly in line with that Horatio Alger narrative as a narrative gets. And damn if it doesn’t warm your hearts cockles to see old boxer-turned-street thug Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) give it his all in two unlikely titles matches against the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). That’s to say nothing of the incredible romance at the heart of these pictures between Rocky and the hopelessly timid, Adrian (Talia Shire). In this combination of Americana rooted in sports fantasies and good old fashioned romance, screenwriter/star (and sometimes screenwriter/director/star) Sylvester Stallone struck cinematic gold, for it plays strong with virtually any audience that isn’t downright averse to sports, pathos, or Stallone. After all, he crafted a tale that’s at once hyper-masculine in its emphasis on gangsters and bloody boxing matches, and yet very nearly a chick flick given the immense role the Rocky/Adrian relationship plays in the proceedings.
After Rocky II, though, the series deviates from this formula somewhat. It has to, of course, because once you’ve gone from rags-to-riches, where else do you go? Rocky III (1982) is nowhere near the emotional roller coaster its predecessors were but it plays well, bringing Rocky and Apollo back together to fight for a common cause. And Rocky IV (1985) is so deliciously 80’s that it’s nearly impossible to resist. In spite of any faults it may have, it’s gloriously cheesy to a fault, sets the absolute gold standard for movie montages, and features one of the most iconic villains from my childhood, Soviet superman Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). But then there’s Rocky V (1990), which most people I know can’t stand even though it tries to wrap the series up on a strong note, and Rocky Balboa (2006), which completely ignores Rocky V and is largely dismissed despite being a perhaps stronger entry in the series than any from III to V. So the Rocky series is a bit of a mixed bag all told, but it’s rooted in a brilliantly realized Horatio Alger narrative, playing out over the first two films, and therefore strikes a chord with anyone remotely invested in traditional notions of the American Dream or who’s a sucker for melodrama like myself.
Earlier this week, all six Rocky movies were re-released on Blu-ray in the six-disc Rocky: Heavyweight Collection from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Now, if the Rocky: Undisputed Collection is already sitting on your shelf, you may not feel the need to upgrade to the Heavyweight Collection. After all, apart from the remastered video on the original Rocky and the fact that the special features from the bonus disc have here been moved onto that first disc with the Rocky remaster, there’s no difference between the sets, really. Rocky II-V and Rocky Balboa appear here precisely as they did in that previous set. So, yes, the only real difference is the new transfer of Rocky. But, oh, what a transfer it is! The spectacular clarity, the popping colors, and the gorgeously-rendered film grain find this particular Blu-ray unmatched by any previous release of the film. So pristine is this transfer in fact that moving from this new transfer of Rocky onto that earlier transfer of Rocky II is actually quite jarring, given the debris and relative lack of clarity in the first four sequels’ transfers.
If you’ve been on the fence about investing in the complete series before, I say now’s the time to do so, because it’s not likely that Rocky will ever look better on Blu-ray than it does here. If you already put your money down on the Undisputed Collection, though, I’d say you really have to weigh how your love of the original Rocky against that $40 price tag. I can’t do that for you, I’m afraid, but I can tell you if you’re a diehard fan that from my perspective, I would indeed be upset knowing there was such a superior transfer out there of a film I loved.