Stallone’s underdog franchise packs a punch on 4K-UHD
Coming in the wake of Creed III’s big box-office take, we finally see Sylvester Stallone’s long-running franchise make its first foray into the 4K platform. After six films (and three more on top with the Creed series) Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is kicking things off with this Knockout Collection, bringing together on 4K-UHD, ROCKY, ROCKY II, ROCKY III and ROCKY IV, and the recently recut/rereleased ROCKY IV Ultimate Director’s Cut, ROCKY VS. DRAGO.
Where it all began. Kickstarting not just the franchise but Stallone’s career. A low-budget film that won the Oscar for Best Picture, and is now part of the United States National Film Registry The underdog tale of a man (Stallone) rising from the Philadelphia streets, chasing a once in a lifetime shot at glory. Beyond it’s boxing angle, we also get the human element. A common man, punching above his station, who while in search of his dream, also meets the love of his life. It’s a perfect setup, centering the film around this humble, driven man, and enabling us to root for his success, in both ventures. Rocky himself is the anchor of the series, an endearing, deeply authentic man, devoted to his work, his family, and his turtles. Beyond the emotional, Rocky is a damn good sports movie, with impactful boxing sequences, the emotion behind then drawing you even further into the spectacle. A legendary score from Bill Conti, moving dialogue, and memorable characters, including franchise mainstays Adrian (Talia Shire), Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Paulie (Burt Young), Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Ingredients that ensured not only the success of Rocky, but the 5 sequels that followed.
The 4K-UHD transfer for Rocky is a marked improvement on the last round of Blu-ray releases. There is no wholesale change to the look/color tone of the film, rather an increase in detail and definition. Brighter scenes in particular benefit from increased image stability. Natural grain preserved, and no artifacts were evident. Looking at the 5 movies included in this set, this one is the clear winner.
ROCKY II (1979)
A direct sequel, and one that puts Rocky into a position he will wrestle with the rest of his life, his health, or his career. Taking retirement due to his injuries, Rocky is enticed back into the ring when given a shot at rewriting history and finally securing the world heavyweight championship in a rematch with Apollo Creed. There are plenty of parallels to the first film, if it aint broke, why fix it? Revisiting the underdog story, dipping into relationship development (now as a married man), only everything is just ramped up a bit more, as you’d expect in a sequel. It also marks a larger embrace within the series of that conflict between athlete and celebrity, between competitor and commercialization. Familiar in formula, but there’s enough freshness here to carry Rocky II along, and who can fine fault with spending more time with the Balboa’s and their expanded family.
The transfer here is of similar quality to the first film. A step-up from Blu-ray, with a sharper and more healthy image, good color representation, and no real sign of changes to the color palette or artificiality creeping in.
ROCKY III (1982)
Rocky III poses that interesting question about athletes and sport in general, once you reach the top, what keeps you going? Finally, Rocky has it all. The title, sponsorships, a nice home, a family. Then he endures a crushing defeat to an young, aggressive, and hungry boxer. What does Rocky do about it? Montage. Yep, he becomes the underdog again and doesn’t just have to get in shape, but rediscover his thirst for winning. The film narratively harkens back to the first, but the fact that Rocky faces off against “Thunderlips” (Hulk Hogan) and Clubber Lang (Mr. T,) here kind of tells you a lot about where the franchise was going. A tilt into more entertainment and bigger in scale. The result is something that is at times uneven, and lacks the raw emotional stakes of the first two. Where the film shines though is in its focus on the bromance between Rocky and former adversary Apollo Creed, and the feel-good factor that comes with it.
While again a step-up from the Blu-ray editions, there are some compression artifacts that creep in here, especially during brighter scenes. The natural grain covers up much of this though, and overall the improved detail and depth of image feel a worthy tradeoff. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good.
ROCKY IV (1985)
With the Cold War tension between America and the Soviet Union reaching it’s peak, who better to extoll ‘Mericuh’s values and take down the Iron Curtain than the Italian Stallion? Rocky, having reached the upper echelons of fame and wealth, and holding the world heavyweight boxing championship , faces the emergence of a behemoth out of the Soviet Union. Ivan Drago, a mountain of a main, seemingly bred and trained to pummel those he faces in the ring. First refusing to meet him, he later agrees after Drago’s boxing tour results in tragedy for Balboa. Stepping up, and montaging hard, he has to avenge his lost friend, and fight for national pride. Yep it’s capitalism vs communism in this patriot-fest which continues the tilt into cartoonish entertainment. It doesn’t reach to human heights of the first, but there’s an macho, emotional swell that’s undeniable. It’s one of the more maligned entries to the franchise, but the pulpy tone and stonking soundtrack ensure good, dumb, fun.
The 4K-UHD treatment here does look to tilt towards a cooler palette, with elements being a tad desaturated. This does seem to result in inkier blacks, and generally shows off the increased detail and definition well. It’s a good 4K, just not at the same level as the first film in this release.
Rocky vs. Drago: The Ultimate Director’s Cut (2021)
With a few decades of experience under his belt, and some reflection on the journey of Rocky himself, Stallone took it upon himself to recut IV. The result if a film that is a more sombre affair, one that tones down the patriotic fare, and ramps up the emotional heft behind things. It’s an interesting experiment on Stallone’s part, and many of the cuts, edits, additions, and alternate takes, do help the film in certain respects. Less bombastic, perhaps better aligned to the trajectory of Rocky coming out of III. Sadly we get less of Paulie’s robot, but it is a fascinating insight into Stallone’s journey as a filmmaker, and how he views this character. It’s great to have both included in the release.
The director’s cut is aesthetically is in the same ballpark, but some creative decisions strip select scenes of color. The black and white flashbacks hold up well in 4K, but there is some inconsistency in image quality in other scenes due to digital zoom and alternate stock sources. Nothing overly egregious, but it’s there if you’re looking.
- Rocky Audio Commentary 1: A group track with director John Avildsen; producers Irvin Winkler and Robert Chartoff; actors Talia Shire, Carl Weathers and Burt Young; and Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown: A rather crowded commentary, but it has some interesting content, largely about technical aspects of the production, and from cast members discussion the experiences under Stallone as director
- Rocky Audio Commentary 2: Featuring boxing trainer Lou Duva and sports historian Bert Sugar, who convey their affection for the film, and also add some sporting context to the boxing matches
- Rocky Audio Commentary 3: The best of the bunch, handled with aplomb by Stallone himself, who as writer/director/star, has a rather unique perspective on the film
- 8MM Home Movies of “Rocky”: A stock compilation of clips from the franchise
- 3 Rounds with Lou Duva: An interview with the renowned boxing trainer, manager and promoter
- Steadicam: Then and Now with Garrett Brown: A technical take on one of the most legendary scenes featured in the film
- Make-Up! The Art and Form with Michael Westmore: A great featurette on some of the work done to mimic the real damage from stepping in the boxing ring. Westmore is perhaps better know for his work on the Star Trek franchise!
- Staccato: A Composer’s Notebook with Bill Conti: The music/score of Rocky is one of its most memorable features, so great to see a little content showcasing the work behind it
- The Ring of Truth (9:37) — Rocky set designer James Spencer talks about his production work.
- A Tribute to Burgess Meredith: An salute to the man and his career
- Stallone Meets Rocky: A comedic split-screen affair
- The Making of “Rocky vs. Drago”: Keep Punching: A solid documentary that gives a run down of the making of this reimagining of the film, large;y centered around Stallone working at his craft. PSA, there is a longer version of this doc. available on Youtube
- Trailers: For all the included films
Note: There are no Blu-ray copies included in the release, just 4K-UHD discs, and digital copies
The Bottom Line
While there’s something grating about the release strategy here, something also seen with Paramount’s recent splitting up of the 4K Star Trek movies, the Knockout Collection is still a welcome release, especially with the inclusion of the alt-Rocky IV edition. Detailed, pristine transfers give the films a visual upgrade that complement the vitality and enduring spirit of the Rocky franchise.
Rocky the Knockout Collection 4K-UHD is available via Warner Bros. Home Entertainment now