Blu-ray Review: Rocky: The Undisputed Collection

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Being nicknamed "The Italian Stallion" was one thing but had Rocky creator Sylvester Stallone been so inclined, he could've taken a cue from Italian filmmakers Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni and simply opted for a vague or allegorical ending for all six of his movies. To the audience and regardless of the fact that the ultimate bouts of the films were always expertly choreographed and staged with authentic precision, essentially the movies ended even before Rocky Balboa landed his first punch.

Whether he won or lost the fights in the films was unimportant. Overall, whenever Rocky stepped into the ring, he'd already achieved victory in our hearts. We cheered right along with him when he managed to “go the distance” with the world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (a terrific Carl Weathers) but ultimately lost in the original Academy Award winning film as well as when he took the title away from Creed in the sequel.

Truth be told and unlike the obsessive drive to be “number one” that permeates throughout all levels of our society especially in regards to sports, we honestly loved Rocky the most when he lost the fights in the bookend titles of Stallone's six part installment of his American filmmaking odyssey.

Similar to the true-blue parents who hang up every single piece of artwork their child creates on the refrigerator as though it were on par with paintings at the Louvre, we were blinded by our love for Rocky, along with Sylvester Stallone whom we correctly deemed was his interchangeable alter ego since the struggling actor wrote himself the part of a lifetime to give himself the opportunities that Stallone (and therefore Rocky) were being denied. Ultimately, since he put his whole heart and soul into every single endeavor, he managed to capture our heart and soul as well.

Likewise, when it comes to this series, there are no fair weather fans. As referenced countless times, Stallone's quintessential underdog was one with whom everyone identified. Moreover, just like Stallone did via his artistic sublimation of Rocky, it does our own hearts plenty of cathartic good as well in watching him go from his extremely humble beginnings up through the endless stream of heartbreak, disaster, and dramatic changes that filled the series as the most important figures in his life came and went.

Although some of the installments are more successful than others, in my eyes, the original classic work is one of the very best independent movies of the '70s. Additionally, it's ironic that it was released during the year of our bicentennial as director John G. Avildsen's Rocky is arguably one of our strongest American time-capsule classics like High Noon that defines who we are as a nation, which is referenced endlessly in the clever dialogue given to Weathers' Apollo Creed in '76.

And today, it's truly breathtaking to watch them evolve from start to finish, now gorgeously remastered, digitally enhanced and forever preserved in the Blu-ray debut set of Rocky: The Undisputed Collection.

Given the naturalistic feel of the original work, the high definition format tends to heighten some of the flaws on display in the budget limited production that was stylistically influenced by other urban slice-of-life pictures like Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets.

Yet the grain of the print is instantly smoothed out in a darker color setting to sync with the film's equally dark color palette as well as emphasis on tight, claustrophobic shots mostly filmed after sundown, which can be achieved by changing your television's source settings to cinema mode.

Adding more depth to the picture, I marveled at the clarity of the previously two-dimensional but now more lifelike figures of Adrian (Talia Shire) and Rocky out on their awkward first date. And ironically for a "sports movie," this ice-skating date still achieves-- from a straightforward filmmaking and storytelling standpoint-- what I feel is one of the most unabashedly romantic, genuinely sweet, and believable sequences ever captured on film.

Although, like the James Bond series, the Rocky franchise was originally made for MGM, this time around the distribution has been fortunately handled by Fox, whom, as I've noted previously has managed to perfect the Blu-ray format. Therefore, as I also discovered in Fox Studio Home Entertainment's previous 2009 release of William Friedkin's The French Connection, Rocky: The Undisputed Collection gave this early '80s baby the most accurate depiction of what director Avildsen's Oscar winning classic most likely looked like during its theatrical release thirty-three years ago.

Yet needless to say, since the six films were created over the course of three decades, they predictably managed to move with the technology. Finding a new appreciation for some of the sequels I'd previously disliked and likewise, feeling a bit underwhelmed with ones I watched more often than others as a child, viewing them again recently was especially revealing from a film studies perspective. It's interesting to note when they were made and how the overall look, sound, and tone of the movies changed as I noticed the way product placements, '80s Bruckheimer/Simpson style music video edits, and commercialism began creeping into the franchise.

Despite this, they all still hold up exceptionally well on Blu-ray aside from some very dated plot-points (Paulie is given a robot?) as admirably the films-- just like their titular character-- always kept their heart in the right place. Using the same through-line of the underdog with whom we could relate and even when the series was at its most extreme with a Hulk Hogan wrestling match in III or the odd early-techno score of the Russia vs. the US, post-Cold War installment Rocky IV, Stallone stays true to his original vision and intention. And by steadily building upon earlier installments, Stallone's opus pays off extraordinarily well in the emotionally gripping final film Rocky Balboa, which has more in common with part one than any previous sequel.

A perfect close to the franchise for those of us who have been caught up with the series from the start, the Blu-ray set manages to give us more cause for celebration via hours of bonus features on a separate disc. And as we watch Stallone share the saga of the original film which he penned in just six weeks as a personal allegory about not getting the chance to be a contender a la one of his inspirations of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, we're reminded once again why Rocky's legacy has lived on.

The reason for Rocky's success over perhaps any other "sports movie" in the increasingly popular underdog genre is simple indeed. For, just like its main character or the original film that has now been deemed a National Treasure by the Library of Congress' Film Registry, Rocky was never about boxing another but boxing ourselves and building a support system with whom we can train and who will inevitably stand in our corner.

By abandoning the boundaries of what it traditionally means to win or lose with the idea that commitment, dedication, and heart should be our measurement for success, Rocky transcends genre limitations to become a humanistic celebration and metaphor of how important it is to simply try. Thus, the set couldn't have returned to us at a timelier point in our nation's history as The Undisputed Collection finds not just its loyal audience ready to embrace it one more time but an entire nation of "Italian Stallions" who feel extremely ready to “fly now” with Balboa once again.

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