Rocky: The Knockout Collection
Directed by John G Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone
Starring Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, Carl Weathers, Burgess Meredith, Mr. T, Brigitte Nielsen and Dolph Lundgren.
The first four Rocky movies arrive on 4K, including director Sylvester Stallone’s new cut of the fourth film, which he calls Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago: The Ultimate Director’s Cut. The films look and sound great, although there are some issues that are addressed in this review, and the Blu-ray bonus features disc doesn’t contain any making-of material about the first couple films in the series, which seems like a miss.
I have a friend who’s a big fan of the first three Rocky movies. He’s not a big sports or workout guy, but he appreciates their inspirational tone and sees Rocky Balboa as a stand-up guy who always wants to do the right thing, even when it brings him into conflict with family members.
I’ll admit I hadn’t watched those films in a very long time, and I’m pretty sure I never saw the fourth one, but when the Rocky: Knockout Collection was made available for review, I figured I’d give them another spin, based on my friend’s posts about them on Facebook. And as someone who grew up in the Philadelphia area when the movies were released, I think I may have had a legal obligation to do so too.
But before I run down the films and get into the bonus features, which are included on a fifth Blu-ray Disc, I thought I’d address the quality of these new 4K Ultra HD releases. This is the first time the Rocky films have appeared on 4K, and it’s the home video debut of Sylvester Stallone’s new version of Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago: The Ultimate Director’s Cut.
Overall, the films look great in 4K, and if you have a setup that takes advantage of the new format and you’re a big fan of the films, I’d say they’re worth the upgrade here. I should note, though, that there’s a minor error in the theatrical version of the fourth film where the aspect ratio changes slightly for several seconds, and there are some audio errors throughout the set that have been documented online. So you might want to wait and see how Warner Bros. addresses those issues before plunking down some money on the set.
There’s also a code to redeem digital versions of all five films, but the first one in particular looked worse for wear. I’ve always assumed that digital copies use the same transfer as the discs, but apparently not in this case. Of course, that’s an easier thing to fix than recalling a bunch of discs and sending out new ones.
With that out of the way, here’s the rundown of the films:
The Oscar-winning film that started the series, and turned Stallone into a household name, still holds up decades later, including its iconic theme song. Rocky begins his story as a scrappy fighter of scant notoriety who’s plucked from anonymity to fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the heavyweight champion of the world, when Creed’s first opponent has to back out. (I love the names of the boxers in these films; they hit the right bombastic tone for the subject matter.)
Rocky’s main goal is also modest in this one: go the distance with Creed. That’s a win in his book, and it made it easy to root for him. He also initiates his romantic relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire), which has a cringey moment when he won’t let her leave his apartment and kisses her without her consent. I know, it was meant to be romantic, but now it’s just kind of gross.
The only extras on this disc are a trio of commentary tracks: a solo one by Stallone; one with boxing trainer Lou Duva and sports historian Bert Sugar; and a group track with director John Avildsen, producers Irvin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, cast members Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Burt Young, and Garrett Brown, who invented the Steadicam that was used a lot during the production.
Stallone’s solo track is a solid one. He digs into the making of the film, which involved a script he wrote in just a few days, an insistence that he play the main character and shoot in Philadelphia (the producers wanted Los Angeles), and various tricks to stretch the relatively low budget.
The other tracks are worthwhile too, although the group one with Avildsen and others meanders a bit. The one with Duva and Sugar is interesting, especially given the liberties Stallone takes with the sport throughout the series. (But you don’t want to see a movie boxing match that imitates a real-life one, right? That would be pretty boring, especially since the 15-round bouts between Creed and Rocky would have been ended pretty early in real life.)
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★ / Movie: ★★★★
Rocky II (1979)
Honestly, I would have been fine if Stallone never made any sequels, since the first film holds up well on its own, but I don’t blame him for wanting to strike while the iron was hot. The follow-up explores Rocky’s newfound fame and wealth, which is hard for him to deal with, along with his initial reluctance to fight Creed again.
He changes his mind, though, thanks to his long-time trainer, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), and he soon embarks on a grueling training regimen to get into shape for the rematch. I hope I’m not spoiling anything for readers when I say that Rocky does earn his victory here. The end result is akin to a team winning the Super Bowl on a last-second field goal that gives them a one-point advantage. You can’t really say in either situation that the loser was overmatched.
There are no bonus features on this disc, which holds true for the rest of the film platters in this set.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★★
Rocky III (1982)
I’ll admit I always looked back on this one as a bit of a gimmick for its casting of Hulk Hogan and Mr. T, kind of like how Richard Pryor was added to Superman III because he was a hot commodity at the time.
Rewatching this one, though, I can appreciate the continuance of Rocky’s story arc through the series. This time, he’s incredibly wealthy and on top of the world, but it turns out his opponents in his title defense fights were hand-picked, and when Mr. T’s Clubber Lang character rises through the ranks and wants to take on Rocky, the challenge is on.
This time, there are a pair of boxing matches, one in which Rocky discovers how out of shape he’s become and another that shows not only his ability to bounce back but also his shrewd strategy of using Clubber’s anger against him in the ring.
And, yeah, the music, particularly Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” is peak 80s hokum, bested only by the next film in the series.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★
Rocky IV (1985)
The peak of the 80s Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union takes center stage here, as Russian prize fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) comes to the U.S. with his sights set on Rocky. When Ivan’s first match in America ends in tragedy, Rocky vows to take him on, this time in Moscow.
Every Rocky film includes copious amounts of montage scenes, of course (all of them run around 90 minutes; I wonder what percentage of that is devoted to montages), and this one seems to have more than the others. Rocky, his trainer Duke (who formerly worked with Creed), and his brother-in-law Paulie (I haven’t said anything about this guy because, honestly, he’s obnoxious and bigoted) head to a snow-packed isolated area of the Soviet Union for training. A pair of Soviet handlers try to keep tabs on Rocky as he works out.
There are plenty of Cold War cliches to be found in this installment, especially Ivan Drago’s trainers, who use advanced technology and injections of some kind to turn him into the ultimate fighting machine. Can Rocky’s old school methods beat the Soviets’ high-tech ones? It shouldn’t be hard to guess the answer to that question.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★ / Movie: ★★★
Rocky vs Drago: The Ultimate Director’s Cut (2021)
I guess there were plenty of hardcore fans who were excited about Stallone’s recut of the fourth film, but I’m of the opinion that if a movie isn’t great in the first place, do you really need a director’s cut?
It’s not really clear why Stallone embarked on this project. Sure, the annoying robot is gone, although I’ve read that may have been more about not wanting to royalties to its creator than anything else. Same idea with diminishing Brigitte Nielsen’s role: apparently that was due to some bitterness by Stallone given their brief two-year marriage at the time (it should be noted that she reprised the role in the second Creed movie, although Stallone only co-wrote that one and didn’t direct it).
The director’s cut only runs about two minutes longer than the theatrical version, since a lot of the excised footage was replaced by shots that lengthened many of the scenes that were left in. There are also some alternate takes. This film occupies the same 4K platter as the theatrical version.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★ / Movie: ★★★
It’s not clear why Rocky V and Rocky Balboa weren’t included here, since they’ve been in other sets, but maybe Warner wants to package them with the Creed movies at some point. I haven’t seen any of the Creed films, nor the last two in the Rocky series, but maybe I’ll dip my toe in that pool when the time comes.
The fifth disc in this set is a Blu-ray that has a smattering of bonus features. I’m not familiar with past editions of the Rocky series on home video, but I have to assume there was a lot of material, especially for the first film, that didn’t make its way to this set. You may want to hold onto previous editions.
Here’s what you’ll find:
8mm Home Movies of Rocky (12.5 minutes): Avildsen and production manager Lloyd Kaufman (yes, of Troma fame) narrate this footage, which isn’t the best quality due to the camera used and the age of the film. It’s fun to watch, though, and the two speakers give some insight into the conflict they had with the producers, who wanted to shoot the whole thing in LA.
3 Rounds with Lou Duva (4.5 minutes): The famous trainer, who passed away a few years ago, returns to talk about boxing some more.
Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown (17.5 minutes): Contrary to what some folks think, Rocky wasn’t the first movie to use the Steadicam, but it was one of the first. This is a good overview of how the technology came into existence and how it was used on the first film.
Make-Up! The Art and Form with Michael Westmore (15 minutes): This is a subject that fans of the series may not think much about, but obviously there was a need to show Rocky and his opponents bruised and bloodied, both during and after fights. I’m not sure this subject needed 15 minutes, but it’s here if you want to dive in.
Staccato: A Composer’s Notebook with Bill Conti (11.5 minutes): In contrast, the films’ music, especially that iconic theme from the first one, is something plenty of fans talk about. Here, Conti talks about the creation of that song, which I admit occupies a soft spot in my heart (unlike Survivor’s songs).
The Ring of Truth (9. minutes): Set designer James Spencer discusses how he made the boxing environments, from sweaty gyms to rings in huge arenas, look as realistic as possible.
A Tribute to Burgess Meredith (8 minutes): His character Mickey was foundational to the first two films, and his long, illustrious career gets a look here.
Stallone Meets Rocky (3 minutes): This is goofy but fun: Stallone talks to the character he plays, via split-screen.
The Making of Rocky vs. Drago: Keep Punching (58.5 minutes): This is billed as an extended edition of the same documentary that was released on YouTube, but it’s actually more than 30 minutes shorter than that one. It’s still a pretty solid documentary, although, yeah, it focuses on what I consider the weakest film in the series (tied with its theatrical counterpart).
I have no idea why the studio didn’t include any extras about the other movies, especially the first one. Maybe they figured diehard fans already had those earlier editions and wouldn’t feel compelled to buy this set if they were included again. Personally, I would have loved to see them, since I haven’t been exposed to these movies on DVD and Blu-ray.
Trailers for all four films round out the disc.