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Review: Rocky – The Complete Saga Collection (1976 – 2006)

Rocky – The Complete Saga Collection (1976 – 2006)   

Directed by: John G. Avildsen and Sylvester Stallone

Premise: A box set of the six Rocky films, tracking the fortunes of heavyweight boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) from a small time prizefighter to heavyweight champion and back again.

What Works: The Rocky films represent Sylvester Stallone’s true imprint upon American culture. Although John Rambo is nearly as iconic, Rocky Balboa is Stallone’s creation and he has maintained much more influence and control over the character and these films, including writing credits on all of them and directing four of the sequels. The pictures are closely linked to Stallone’s own life. The original film finds a streetwise, down on his luck fighter with a heart of gold fighting for his shot at greatness, much like Stallone the writer and actor at that point in his career. In Rocky II and Rocky III, Stallone faces his success and the cost of fame, including the pressure to replicate the original film (which he largely does in the second chapter) and the threats to his integrity in the face of wealth and influence. The fourth film, a Cold War picture, can be read as a response to Rocky and Rambo’s iconic status and the exploitation of fictional characters or larger than life personalities by others (namely Ronald Reagan’s use of Rambo) to symbolize political ideologies. Rocky V and Rocky Balboa return the character to the Philadelphia streets of his roots and Rocky, like Stallone, struggles to redefine himself in a world in which fame and the public eye have passed him by. The close links between this series of films to Stallone’s career make these auteur pictures that have allowed Stallone the chance to achieve great box office success while also exploring his own anxieties and concerns as a cinematic artist. Aside from the biographical content, the films are also important cultural artifacts from the last thirty years, demonstrating a progression from a modestly budgeted original to a multimillion dollar studio franchise and then into an independent, low budget film.

What Doesn’t: The Rocky films are flawed, some more than others. The second film recapitulates so much of the original Rocky that it’s almost a remake. Rocky IV can be criticized as an overextended Survivor music video, and Rocky V spoils what is otherwise a good film with a lousy ending. Given Stallone’s somewhat unfair reputation for producing duds, the audience may expect this going in, and lowered expectations may offset the actual quality of the films.

DVD extras: As far as extras are concerned, this box set comes up short, at least for fans looking for more supplemental material. The original film is available in a 2-disc edition with multiple commentaries, featurettes, deleted scenes, TV spots, and a booklet.

Bottom Line: The Rocky films stand out among Sylvester Stallone’s checkered body of work as his crowning achievement, as they combine audience-pleasing entertainment with a character study, compelling drama, and some impressive cinematic craft. They are also an interesting time capsule from the late 1970s through the 1980s with some later reference to the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, and they provide a look into sports and heroism in our culture. 

Episode: #176 (January 27, 2008)