August 24, 2012
Rocky IV (1985)
Some might disagree but ALL of Rocky's sequels are excellent except Rocky II though, since Rocky II is virtually Rocky I all over again, it has its moments. Sylvester Stallone, who directed Rocky II, III, IV, and VI (titled Rocky Balboa) is the ultimate heart-on-the-sleeve director. He might not pump out Oscar bait like Clint Eastwood, but the two director/actors have a lot in common: a raw look at humanity, a no frills approach to film making, and, in some cases, a message.
While Sly has dipped into an anti-Rocky sentiment with his nearly nihilistic Rambo sequel (titled simply Rambo in 2008) and the fun but insanely violent/meaningless Expendables (he did not direct the recently released sequel), his Rocky contributions sustained, if not necessarily a visual flair, then an entirely positive message. With the exception of the inexplicable Rocky V ending, all of the Rocky flicks are about perseverance, dedication, love, and putting yourself above your expectations.
And Sly doesn't slip from this theme in his not-too-subtle vision of Rocky IV, which takes the battle away from Rocky himself and adds the will and power of the previous three films to the United States as a whole. In Rocky, Balboa just wanted to go the distance with Apollo Creed. He defied the odds and did go the distance. In Rocky II, he wanted to actually beat Creed (well, after some much needed inspiration when Rocky hit the skids and was working the blue-collar beat). In Rocky III, a man with just as much heart, Clubber Lang, caught Rocky when he, as Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" states, chose glory over passion. His goal was to get his heart back along with the heavyweight title.
In Rocky IV, Balboa isn't driven by revenge, like most people expect, but to do something his best friend loved and do it to perfection. But, on top of that, Rocky's goal, layered in the not-so-subtle subtext, is to defeat ideals that go against his country. Let me give you a brief rundown of what Rocky IV is about just in case you were digging ditches in gulags and haven't seen this gem of a film (pinko scum!).
Rocky, retired a champion after defeating Clubber Lang (Mr. T), is rich and happy, watching his son grow and his friendship with Apollo Creed blossom (they had, after all, spent the last film training with each other and dancing around in the ocean, hugging). However, pissed off by an arrogant Russian's wife/promoter (Brigitte Nielsen) and her husband, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a Soviet amateur boxer, who seems oblivious to any emotion, Apollo wants to get back into boxing, despite being over 40 and having been retired for five years.
Creed begs Rocky to help train him and a reluctant Rock agrees despite, in his heart, knowing that the young Soviet is incredibly powerful despite the lack of bout tape for research. Apollo, in all his American glory, puts on a show pre-fight but ends up getting killed in the ring by Drago's ruthless nature. Drago's words, as Creed's muscles spasm and he lays in Rocky's arms bloody and dead: "If he dies, he dies".
I think you know what happens next. Pretty much what happens in Rocky I-III but this time. . .it's personal. . .and natural! Rocky gives up his titles since the boxing commission won't license his fight with Drago and temporarily moves to rural Russia in the middle of winter, forgoing state of the art technology for hauling rocks, picking up carts, and making a barn his personal gym.
Rocky IV is simultaneously ridiculous and incredibly awesome all at the same time. The first Rocky stretched credibility enough: a pretty in-shape but clearly over the hill Rock fights a heavy weight champion who isn't taking anything too seriously, at least right away. Things get 'sillier' if you will once Rocky wins a title and defends it 10 times before losing to Clubber Lang, probably one of the most stunning physical specimens committed to film (seriously. . .Mr. T made Sly Stallone look like an ant). Beating Lang seemed to be the desired but least likeliest scenario. . .but here, in Rocky IV, we have Rocky going up against near-teenager and behemoth Ivan Drago for pride, glory, and capitalism!
Yet, like every Rocky film, Rocky IV manages to be inspiring. You can't fault a director/writer/actor who might aim to high. Even Rocky, in his prime, swung hard and missed a few times. But it is Rocky IV's balls and willingness to swing even if the target moves that makes it so enjoyable. For one, you have the classic underdog story, as Stallone brilliantly creates yet another scenario where his 2.5% body fat, supper slugger persona can be considered an underdog.
And second, he takes the near-end of the Cold War and makes boxing an allegory for it: US vs. USSR, capitalism vs. communism, self determination vs. think tanks, and heart vs. drugs (as Drago is a willing participant in steroids). Obviously the opinion is biased as the United States is the clearer thinker and the cleaner fighter, but Stallone actually doesn't over reach on the politics. . .in fact, he just makes it a not so subtle metaphor.
As you can imagine, SPOILERS, Rocky beats Drago but, during the fight, he manages to turn the Soviets and Drago into, if not good guys, then innocent victims of a war of ideology. For example, Drago, who barely has any lines, is further revealed to be a puppet for the Soviet government; a face of power and superiority in the world of athletics and ideals (Drago himself says he can't be defeated). When Drago starts to lose the fight, everyone turns against him. The Russian crowd cheers for Rocky and the Premier's aid slaps him telling him he is a disgrace!
Drago, after manhandling his 'manager', decides to fight his best. And, in the end, though Rocky scores the knockdown, Drago goes out with dignity. And then, after the fight, Rocky gives a speech to what appears to be all of Russia (and this is probably Sly's intention) saying that the Russians didn't like him coming into the fight but grew to love him as he thinks 'we' all can do with each other. God damn, it's almost fucking romantic, isn't it?
So I can't fault Stallone for not simply knocking out communism and the Soviets: his approach is positive. And, though people think of Stallone as the killer of many henchmen and a 'macho' figure, he has made six films in the Rocky franchise that are about positivity, not negativity and love of all kinds. As mentioned, Drago becomes a victim of his country's mean ways and we almost feel bad for him. We see the Soviets not as one monster against our beliefs but individuals. Yes, Stallone is saying the Soviets way of life is wrong, but he isn't making them pay for it with blood and mistrust. He just wants to teach them. While that, in itself can be generally insulting and singular in thought, it is better then depicting all the Ruskies as a bunch of plutonium grabbing war mongers (which makes Rambo's vigilantism against them kind of bizarre in Rambo III).
Stallone does sneak in a little America bashing though as well. People seem to forget it. Since Rocky's mission in the film is getting to the roots of himself (and the Earth), he makes America look foolish when he films the Creed-Drago fight. Drago, standing alone in the ring, rises from the floor, a look of shock and confusion in his eye, as he is lifted into the middle of a showgirls dance. And out comes Creed, with his Uncle Sam top hat and American trunks, dancing and singing with James Brown.
It is a good ten minutes before Creed even enters the ring. Creed, arrogant as always, assumes he is good to go until he pumps fists with Drago and realizes the boy is BIG. Drago, in a no frills manner, goes on a rampage and pummels Creed to his death. Slow, effective, not fancy, but deadly. In that scenario, America lost. Pomp and circumstance lost out to industry and precision. Stallone is almost saying that America is at it's finest when we are doing what we need to do, not showing off.
So, while contradictory in some ways, Rocky IV is a positive picture, designed to inspire through a nearly sophomoric yet utterly moving metaphor of men punching each other. It's replacement violence: fists in a 'civilized' sporting event as opposed to blood shed and calling each other nasty names.
The film was a box office blockbuster, even more so then the other three films which were all popular. But it is perhaps the simplistic viewpoint that Rocky IV is simply about beatin' up some Commies in the middle of the '80s that made it so popular. But I'm willing to give Sly the benefit of the doubt and say he was thinking deeper, beneath the seemingly repeated cliches.
Most of the drawbacks of Rocky IV are technical though they are very few. Stallone is on top of his directing game with amazing cinematography and incredible set design (the Russian arena Rocky/Drago fight in is beautiful). The music is a bit wacky as it was scored by hit-or-miss keyboardist Vince DiCola who is infamous for his contribution to the song 'Touch' which featured in both Transformers: The Movie (animated version) as a serious song and in Boogie Nights as a complete horror fest joke. But overall the production is perfect.
And, to me, so is Rocky IV. It isn't as moving or heartfelt as Rocky's last cinema outing, Rocky Balboa, which is a masterpiece of loss and determination that only rivals the original Rocky, the ending of which still makes me cry big time, but it is both entertaining and both noteworthy and mainly sophomoric in its politics. But it certainly goes against the grain. . .just like Rocky himself.