Revisiting Rocky: A Look Back at Rocky IV

Over the next few weeks, I will be taking a look back at one of my favorite film series – the Rocky franchise, from my least favorite to my favorite.

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One of the reasons why I love the Rocky series is simply because it’s a metaphor for life in general – about overcoming odds when you’re an underdog.  It has a mix of everything for every type of person, whether you like romance, drama, comedy, action, etc.  The film mixes the best of all worlds.  And so without further ado, I present Rocky IV.  (Spoilers if you have not seen the films, by the way).

I first watched Rocky IV pretty soon after it came out (in 1985) and it was either this film or the third one that introduced me to the whole series (I really can’t remember which one I watched first, but I did not start with the first one until years later).  I remember really liking this film as a kid and really rooting for Rocky throughout the film, yet over the years my opinion has changed drastically.  When you watch this film with the others, it doesn’t fit.  There’s something off with this one.  On the one hand, it’s different from other films and yet, there’s also parts that are similar to the previous film that we’re almost watching a remake of Rocky III (albeit with a different character and world).

When you watch the first ten minutes, we go from Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) giving Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) a black eye during an exhibition (where the last film left off) to a birthday celebration for Paulie (Burt Young).  We are introduced to a talking robot.  Now I know I said that this film touches upon many themes and genres, but Sci-fi is not one that is needed.  Being introduced to Hal 2000’s doppelganger is unnecessary and doesn’t do much to advance the plot.

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From there, we are introduced to Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren), who we quickly see will be the chosen nemesis throughout the film.  And for some reason, this film cashes in on the Cold War in a boxing ring.  So I guess now, we’ve gone from Sci-Fi to a War film.  And so, because Apollo Creed represents America and Drago represents the Soviet Union, we have to pit these two against each other.

Apollo comes to Rocky’s home and decides to announce to the Balboa family that he will be taking it upon himself to fight Ivan.  (And in our little throwaway side plot, we also learn that Paulie has programmed his robot friend to become female???).  We also have learned that apparently Rocky’s wife, Adrian (Talia Shire) has grown so fond of Apollo that she advises against him going through with the match.  (When exactly did these two become so close?  Beats me…but we can’t dwell on that because we have a more fascinating Paulie-Robot love affair going on here.)

And so we turn our attention to the first fight of the film, Apollo Creed vs. Ivan Drago.  We also turn our attention to the next category this film will be undertaking – a musical!  No, really…for the next 30 or so minutes, we will be going through songs and montages and James Brown and exercise regiments that will set your hearts on fire (pun intended).  I am surprised we didn’t get Russian ballerinas performing in the middle of the boxing ring…although we do get to hear the Russian National Anthem.  And so there you have it so far, we’ve turned the Rocky series into a Sci-Fi/War Musical.

The fight between Apollo and Ivan is short and not-so-sweet, at least not for Mr. “Dancing Destroyer – King of Sting – Count of Monte Cristo – Master of Disaster”.  Just like in Rocky III, there is a death (this time it’s Creed).  And just like its predecessor, Rocky uses it as fuel for his comeback match.  And just like its previous effort, there’s a training regime out of Rocky’s element.  So if you compare the two films, instead of Mickey, we have Apollo dying and instead of Mr. T, we have Lundgren.  Instead of “in da hood”, we have “in the Siberian snow”.  And instead of “Eye of the Tiger”, we have “Hearts on Fire”.

I want to take a moment to talk about Adrian’s character here, too.  So, in the first film, she’s finally found love with Rocky and you can tell that she will stand by him no matter what, from Paulie’s abusive ways to his fights in the ring.  Even when she wakes up from a coma in the second film, the first thing she tells Rocky is to “WIN!”  Then, Rocky loses his mentor in the next film, but even then she stands by him and tells him to fight through his fears.  But yet, all of a sudden, in this film she does a 180 turn and tells her husband that he can’t win?  What happened to the motivation?  Luckily, she comes to her senses when she realizes that her words only drive Rocky out of America and into Russia and she decides to follow him…which only begs the question who is watching their son, Rocky Jr, but who really cares because we find out in the next film that he has super-aging powers beyond the scope of mankind.

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And so after all the robotic elements and musical interludes, we arrive to the final fight – Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago….in the Soviet Union….on December 25th….because if there’s one thing this film has not hit yet, it’s that it’s a heartwarming Science Fiction War Christmas Musical!  The fight between these two is actually not badly choreographed…it’s the other elements around it that is somewhat perplexing.  For example, what’s with Paulie deciding to rub on Duke’s (Poor Tony Burton’s) head?  Is Duke a secret genie?  Did Paulie break up with Robo-Maid?  And we go back and forth between a heart-pounding fight and three kids, supervised by a talking robot, jumping on a bed.  And then there’s the Mikhail Gorbachev look-alike under the dome lights…but my favorite part is the audience.  From completely booing our beloved hero at the beginning of the fight, they turn in a matter of a few rounds (or 8 minutes of screen time) to cheer him on over one of their own countrymen because….again, why?

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And then of course…there’s the heartwarming speech that ends it all where we find out that if we can change and Rocky can change…and Russia can change….and Ivan can change….and robots can change…then we can all change.  And with those words, Rocky ends the Cold War, eventually leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the presidency of the Bush Administration.

FINAL GRADE:  D

What are your thoughts on Rocky IV?  Do you agree or disagree?  Do you consider it a guilty pleasure?  Hit me with a comment either way and next week, I’ll be reviewing Rocky V.