So, my wife is asleep and I’m wide awake. For whatever reason, I have chosen to watch Sylvester Stallone’s 2021 “Director’s Cut” of his ridiculous fourth film in the Rocky series, the oh-so creatively titled Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago.
I’m not sure the world was crying out for a director’s cut of Stallone’s Cold War era opus, but here we are. The theater release of Rocky IV was only 91 minutes long, which might leave one to anticipate that a longer version would flesh out scenes and build up the characters.
One would be wrong.
Even with the padding of additional material, the film still only runs 93 minutes—and the first seven minutes of the film (I shit thee not) are a montage of scenes from Rocky III.
So, we are already down to 86 minutes before Rocky IV even starts.
Oh, and on top of that, the end credits run for just over five minutes.
Meaning that, in all ways substantial (and boy, am I using that word loosely), Rocky IV is about as long as an extended episode of The Walking Dead.
The rest of the movie is largely made up of two fight scenes: a training sequence, and a pastiche of scenes stolen from the previous films (yes, there are more flashbacks after the opening of the movie).
What little exposition there is in the film is a bunch of jingoistic, nationalistic, Reagan-era political simplicity set to a new, and worse, Survivor tune. (Editor Note: Sure, “Burning Heart” is Cheetoh-cheese covered…but if you let yourself get lost in the earnest sentiment, the heavily mic'd snare, the fat Strat guitar chords, the way Jimi Jamison pronounced “heart,” same way every high and wide haired rock crooner did in the 80s, I don't know..It's a better song than the one it couldn't get past on the Billboard top 100 chart, “That's What Friends Are For.”)
But here’s the really odd part… it sorta works, right?
This cartoonish David vs. Goliath, good vs. evil flick Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago has the sense to get in and out quickly and give you nothing more than what you came for—which is to see Rocky Balboa chop down a Russian tree. I mean, if Rocky’s last name were “Propaganda” it wouldn’t be any more obvious as to what this film has set out to do.
What once was (and became again) a series of films about the personal story of a true underdog fighter overachieving his way to greatness was made over to appeal to the lowest common denominator among us. But here’s the upshot… it got me too! Yes, your blue-blooded, pinko-commie liberal writer would like to wag his finger at you and tell you that I’m above the nonsense that is Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago. But I’m not. I am so not.
I still wince when Apollo dies.
I still get misty-eyed when Paulie tells Rocky “You’re all heart,” on his way into the arena to face Drago.
I still feel my pulse quicken during the film’s climactic bout (which, if we are being honest, looks nothing like an actual boxing match). Click here, it's Stallone and Dolph Lundgren watching footage and doing commentary.
And I laugh a lot too. Like when Rocky goes native in the Siberian wilderness and pulls Paulie on a dog sled, carries a big wooden pole on his back through the snow (I imagine some “born again” types got off on that imagery), or when Stallone stacks the hate deck against Drago by strongly implying the Russian is taking steroids. That last thing is particularly amusing when one considers Stallone’s physique in the first Rocky film as compared to Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago. I’m not saying Sly was definitely getting juiced up back in the ‘80s, I’m just definitely not not saying it either.
The rest of the cast (including Talia Shire, who somehow made five Rocky movies and three Godfather movies and not one notable thing otherwise) isn’t given much to do. They either look on at Drago in awe or look on at Rocky in awe. That is all.
It's hard to even critique Rocky IV as a film. It’s more of an advertisement for American exceptionalism. Stallone’s Rocky goes off to Moscow to avenge a black man’s death. In a way, I’m not so sure the film isn’t trying to brush away racism in the same way it ignores any discussion of complexity in USA/Russian relations.
Hey, Rocky had a black friend.
True, but he also let his black friend get beat to death in the ring before going on to achieve the glory of victory against the man who laid Apollo low. I’m not saying it’s intentional—in fact, I’m sure it’s not—that would be way too sophisticated for a film that basically boils down to Russia BAD, ‘Merica GOOD.
But, it did strike me on rewatch that Apollo’s sacrifice didn’t just turn into Rocky’s Revenge (woulda been a good title), it also turned into Rocky saving the world by beating the hell out of a Russian boxer in front of a bunch of Russians.
That’s some seriously messianic shit.
And look, I’m not telling you not to like Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago (again, for all its silliness, I enjoy it too). I’m just asking you to recognize it for the 75 minutes or so (if you don’t count the intro, end credits, and flashbacks) of hooey that it is.
You may be thinking, “Dis guy took a dump all over this movie and now he sez he likes it! How can this be!”
Because sometimes shit just works. Especially if you don’t think about it too much.
And that’s the best way to enjoy Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago—by setting your thinking cap aside and just reveling in the Road House of boxing movies.
I mean that as a compliment… I think.