While by no means the first boxing movie, Rocky is without a doubt one of the very best, ranking No. 57 on the AFI Top 100 Movies List and going on to launch five sequels and two spinoffs (Creed and Creed II).
However, while it is nearly always described as a “boxing movie,” there is actually surprisingly little boxing in the movie. Other than an opening scene to establish that Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) can take and dish out a beating, some training on the speed and heavy bags, and the final fight with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the film spends just a few minutes of its nearly two-hour runtime in the ring.
Instead Rocky dedicates the vast majority of its time to character and relationship development, and, in a way, it reminded me of Jaws in the way it builds and builds towards the big fight/shark reveal. Even the title fight at the end doesn’t dedicate a ton of screen time to the boxing, but rather shows a few key choreographed fight sequences from different rounds, followed by girls flashing round cards to show that the fight is progressing towards the 15th and final round.
Without question, Rocky launched the mega career of Stallone, establishing him as a leading action hero, and, to a lesser degree, gave ex-NFL player Weathers his big Hollywood break as Creed. Stallone wrote the original screenplay for the film (apparently in a feverish three-and-a-half-day period after watching a fight between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner), and famously held out on selling the script to United Artists until the studio agreed to cast him in the starring role—a decision that turned out the be the best of Stallone’s career.
But as good as the screenplay is, Rocky likely wouldn’t have had nearly the success it had if not for the quality of the acting throughout, with everyone doing exactly what they needed to enrich their characters and flesh out the story. Beyond the boxing, Rocky is a movie about relationships—between Rocky and love interest Adrian (Talia Shire), Rocky and trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith), Rocky and friend-antagonist Paulie (Burt Young), and Rocky and mob-boss Gazzo (Joe Spinell)—and for these to work, the acting had to be spot-on.
What you might not remember is just how successful Rocky was at the 1977 Academy Awards. Besides winning three awards for Best Director (John Avildsen), Best Editing, and Best Picture, it received nominations for Best Actor (Stallone), Best Actress (Shire), Best Original Screenplay (Stallone), Best Sound Mixing, Best Music (Bill Conti), and Best Supporting Actor (both Meredith and Young).
Rocky was also one of the first (but not the first) films to use the new Steadicam process for smooth photography during action scenes and the iconic run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Not too shabby for a movie made for under $1 million that went on to gross $225 million!
Something else that can’t be understated is Stallone’s shape and conditioning for this film. While it isn’t unusual today to see stars getting jacked and shredded for roles—often spending months preparing and training—Rocky came out six years before Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role in Conan the Barbarian, and this level of fitness certainly wasn’t the norm for leading men of the day. But Stallone brought a legitimate level of strength and conditioning to the role, and you can see this in his thighs during an early training session with Mick and in the one-arm pushups he knocks out.
Rocky comes to the Kaleidescape Store in a 4K HDR transfer, one of the first batch of titles to be available following a distribution agreement signed with MGM.
Shot using Panaflex cameras and Panavision lenses on 35mm film, Rocky’s negative is actually 1.33:1 aspect ratio but matted down to the 1.85:1 aspect shown. There’s no information on the restoration process or on the digital intermediate used.
The transfer is a bit of a mixed bag at times. Unlike many of the re-releases from Sony that I’ve raved over, there were quite a few scenes in Rocky that look like they could have used a bit more time in restoration or digital cleanup. (Though it’s possible that the original film elements just didn’t lend themselves to further improvement.) Dark and low-lit scenes such as the boxing match at the opening and the early scenes inside Rocky’s apartment reveal lots of noise and grain in the image. Also, the pale blue of the early morning and day sky scenes seems especially susceptible to showing tons of noise, such as during Rocky’s first morning run (after he famously chugs the five raw eggs).
Images look cleaner and less noisy starting at Rocky’s first visit to Adrian at the pet store, and there are many closeups in the film that have startling detail and clarity, with razor-sharp edges that are clean and detailed. Other scenes, though, have almost uneven focus as if the camera’s focal point was off, most notably in one scene where Rocky and Adrian are sitting on the couch at Paulie’s, where half of Rocky’s face is almost blurry.
The higher resolution also makes some things like the heavy makeup used for “the vegetation” on Mickey’s ear or some of the fight damage appear less real. And there are shots during the big fight near the end where large crowd shots that were mixed
to make it appear like a much larger crowd is watching look obviously cut in.
Compared to the earlier Blu-ray releases, however, this Rocky looks better in nearly every regard. Skin tones are more natural, colors in the ring at the end are more vibrant, as is the sun in Rocky’s big morning run, and the blacks of Rocky’s leather jacket, pants, and felt hat are nice, deep, clean and noise-free. (You also notice how Rocky almost never changes his outfit . . .) Images are noticeably sharper in almost every shot, especially things in the background.
Originally featuring a mono sound mix, the DTS-HD 5.1-channel mix found on both the 4K and Blu-ray versions does a nice job of spreading audio across the front channels. It even gets a bit of crowd noise into the surrounds during the big fight and moves Conti’s iconic “Gonna Fly Now” out into the room. But this is not a movie you’ll ever use to demo your theater system. As much as I’m all for a new immersive Dolby Atmos mix with a re-release, I’m not sure there was much in the original material that would benefit.
Unfortunately, dialogue can be difficult to understand at times, especially near the big fight at the end, where there is so much going on sonically that I struggled to hear the ring announcers over all of the music and crowd noise. But this is a case
where the fists are really doing most of the talking, and missing a phrase here or there doesn’t have a big impact on enjoyment.
Remembering Rocky was filmed on a shoestring budget 44 years ago, it’s safe to say no one will mistake this latest 4K transfer as a modern film shot in native 4K on Arri cameras. But this is likely the best Rocky has ever looked, with the HDR and color grading giving the image life and depth without any flatness, and this is a classic that belongs in every collection.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at
@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.