Rocky IV (1985) / Action-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and language
Running Time: 91 min.
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Carl Weathers, Burt Young, Talia Shire, Tony Burton, Brigitte Nielsen, Michael Pataki, Rocky Krakoff, Sylvia Meals, James Brown
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
"I must break you".
At the time wrote the words above are uttered, it's hard to discern whether writer/director Sylvester Stallone was speaking through Rocky's fiercest opponent yet, Ivan Drago (Lundgren, Masters of the Universe), as if he had a secret desire to finally kill off the character that brought him to international prominence almost a decade before. Given that the series continued afterward, and that it is Stallone's brainchild, I doubt it, although it's hard to tell from the effort he turns in here.
Perhaps Drago was a metaphor for how Stallone felt about his series at this point, as he represents everything the films had become. As the series has progressed, the plotlines have been more and more mechanical in nature, with more time given to flexing one's muscles than in characterizations or dialogue. With the lucrative returns on Rocky III, there must have been pressure to get out another before Stallone would be deemed as to old to play the role of a champion boxer, so he hastily wrote this fourth installment. While three years is the length of time it took to get out Rocky II and III, it should be noted that Stallone had just written and starred in four movies in the prior two years before Rocky IV (First Blood, Staying Alive, Rhinestone, and Rambo: First Blood Part II), and the lack of quality time spent on his most famous of projects unfortunately showed. The only new addition to Rocky's entourage is another artificial construct, a talking robot trotted out for comic relief, showing just how desperate Stallone had become for fresh ideas.
Ivan Drago is the latest Russian creation -- a tall, strong, crushing bruiser that packs more strength in one of his punches than any three normal boxers combined. Although his handlers insist that Drago is the product of extensive genetics testing and advanced training techniques, they do deny the use of strength-enhancing steroids, despite the fact that their fighter boasts unheard of levels in terms of strength, stamina, and physical prowess. They openly challenge Balboa to a fight, but it's Balboa's current manager and former heavyweight champ Apollo Creed (Weathers, Semi-Tough) that takes them up on the offer. Creed takes the pummeling of his life at Drago's hands, leaving Rocky feeling responsible enough to be next in line. He accepts the challenge, to take place in Drago's native country, the Soviet Union, where he must fight for revenge, honor, glory, and national pride in front of thousands of sneering spectators, including the Soviet leader himself (modeled after Gorbachev).
If I were to have been able to amend the title somewhat, I would have called this Rocky IV: The Music Video, as there is more time spent in pushing forward this story through lengthy, heavily-edited montages as in scenes filled with dialogue or character development. At a meager 91 minutes, by far the shortest of the Rocky series, this is a lean film, with long stretches containing little or no dialogue. As was the case with Rocky III, the antagonist seemingly comes out of nowhere, with no mention of his past or motivation for doing whatever he does. We root for Rocky mostly because, after three previous films, we already have grown to like him, and without any redeeming features at all in his opponent, our interest in the final battle is secure.
Rocky IV isn't without its entertainment value, as the formula still manages to work, and it is slickly produced and edited for maximum impact. Once again, the fight scenes are played out like professional wrestling matches, complete with body slams; even the commentators within the movie itself mention how the fight has become something other than boxing. It's still amazing to me that Rocky has managed to keep his title belt so long without the ability to defend himself; the only time he ever blocks an incoming punch is with his face. Luckily, all of his opponents share the same masochistic technique.
In the middle of this arguably weakest entry, there is formidable screen presence by newcomers Lundgren and Nielsen, and a definite watchability, but any resemblance to the spirit of the original Rocky of 1976 is tangential at best. Stallone continues to cannibalize his own formula, only injecting something new in the final moments, when Rocky delivers a message to the world about putting aside the differences and prejudices. Given the fact that he resolved his through an all-out violent conflict, the message rings quite hollow to most discerning audiences, although Ronald Reagan would openly applaud Stallone's efforts with this film (and Rambo II) for showing true American spirit (i.e. overcoming all obstacles by eviscerating the shit out of them).
They say that for every aging boxer, the legs are the first thing to go. Rocky III disproved this adage -- the brain was the first to go. The heart went next with Rocky IV. Stunningly, this entry proved Rocky still had legs at the box office, as it became the top grossing film in the series, showing just how we had also lost our minds by forking over our dollars in support of pro wrestling/MTV caliber fare. Despite the success, the series' flaws became too substantial to maintain fan interest. Rocky may have emerged victorious, in the ring and at the box office, but the series integrity was hereby officially broken by its own quest for success.
-- Followed by Rocky V and Rocky Balboa.
©2006 Vince Leo