There is nothing inherently wrong with it Rocky IV, a film of ultra-commercial beauty from the 1980s. Sylvester Stallone cleverly took advantage of the anti-Russian boast of Rambo: First Blood Part II to give the Western audience a high-profile underdog story of the Cold War. The enemy: Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the pulverizing, combative savior of the Soviet Union. “Whatever it hits, it destroys it,” brags Dragos ashtray spokesman. When the Russian-turned-best friend Rocky’s former adversary kills Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in a show match, it’s clear he’s going to have an All-American knuckle dinner and Stallone serves it up with loads of MTV flash ( what the style at the time).
Rocky IV is an important film of its time. It’s still the top-selling entry in the franchise. It’s nobody’s favorite Rocky movie, but nobody in the history of the world has ever started watching it and turning it off. This is a scientifically proven fact. And it is a generally accepted truth that not a single person in the world has ever lacked a director’s cut.
Except for Stallone.
Given its remarkably lean narrative of 91 minutes, Rocky IVIt’s more of a training montage than a film. When Stallone announced an “extended director’s cut” last September, the idea sounded like water for an SNL digital short. But the actor-director was dead serious, and now it is Rocky IV. That once gaudy touchstone of 80s cinema has turned into an oddly grim reflection on the warrior’s code. Visually and sonically, it’s a completely different experience. And let’s get that straight: The “42 minutes of new footage” promised in the press release is in, but at 93 minutes (with credits) it also means a third of the film that has been a mainstay since the cable started The Glasnost Era past. This is not your bearded Gen X uncle’s Rocky IV.
The original Rocky made Stallone a global superstar. It won an Oscar for Best Picture Over in 1976 network, All gentlemen of the president and taxi driver. The sequels were all snapshots of Stallone’s career at the time of their creation: Rocky II is about an overnight success struggling with the demands of sudden fame; Rocky III struggles with the loss of hunger that plagues champions / stars at the top of their game; Rocky V records the inevitable demise of the champion; Rocky Balboa refutes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life; and the Faith duology deals with the importance of heritage. Rocky IV … it’s actually not about much. Apollo and Rocky stare at their upcoming retirement, but the former’s implied fears that Russia might take over the boxing world with lab-created supermen contradict any kind of meaningful introspection. There’s a whiff of John Henry’s folk legend, but at its core it’s a streak of revenge soured by some sweet lip service to Americans and Russians learning to see themselves as fellow men (which the entire Politburo stands up and cheers at the end of the Films).
So is Stallone’s new version, dubbed Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago, an improvement? In some cases, absolutely. As illustrated in a re-making-of documentary currently available on YouTube, Stallone is appalled at the number of missed punches that made it into the 1985 theatrical version. He takes pride in the ferocity of the last fight (as he should keep in mind that a series of punches from Lundgren left a swollen heart on his chest that put him in intensive care), but in today’s inflated HD world, these are those the occasional whiff blatantly obvious. In the re-cut, almost every hit lands with a realistic bang (although part of the absurdly cranked sound design was actually scaled down).
Stallone has also declined, adding numerous alternative shots that completely change Apollo’s tragic arc. Accepting Drago is no longer an act of stupid hubris, but an obligation that becomes clear in Duke’s eulogy, in which Creed’s trainer and standard father eloquently defends his fighter’s fatal decision. “The warrior has the right to choose his way of life and death.” This is reminiscent of a newly added moment in Creed’s fight with Drago, where Rocky pleads with his friend, “Don’t do this to me.” “I’m doing this for myself,” snaps Apollo. This gives Rocky’s inevitable battle with Drago a deeper meaning than revenge; he, too, obeys the warrior’s code, and doesn’t care if everyone, even Adrian, believes it is an act of suicide.
How this fits in with Drago’s newly configured bow is difficult. In the theatrical version, Dragos rebellion in the late fight against his handlers felt like the act of an irritated child (“I fight for myself!”). In this version, Drago is portrayed as an awkwardly willing participant in Russian propaganda. At the press conference, he tries to answer questions, but is quickly interrupted by his Chatterbox manager. There’s a human under the robotic facade, and thanks Creed II, we know what his resistance will ultimately cost him. Unfortunately, Stallone has put a stop to Brigitte Nielsen’s outraged outburst, which sees her sincere-sounding allegations of death threats against her husband being laughed at by the media. Drago may have a slightly more human dimension in the Director’s Cut (his confused perspective during James Brown’s “Living in America” performance is like a five-year-old lost in carnival fun), but Nielsen’s apparatchik was reduced to a cold-hearted caricature. That feels like an unfair compromise.
What Stallone can’t fully clear up is the fundamental stupidity of a movie that was shot and edited to appeal to music video enthusiasts. He convincingly defends the power of montage in the documentary and hasn’t played around too much with these sequences in this cut (the biggest change would be to give the flashbacks in the “No Easy Way Out” sequence a sepia hue). He beats himself up for leaving out the meatiest elements of the drama, but the scenes he breathes in in this rework are at odds with the adrenaline-pumping aesthetic of the film he has created. He washed out the comic life force of Bill Butler’s cinematography, which only makes this oversized entertainment film dead inside. And most controversial is that he has removed all traces of Paulie’s robot Sico. In doing so, he has reduced Burt Young’s performance to next to nothing, which weakens the effect of Paulie’s silly, touching expression of gratitude to Rocky before the fight (“If I could just open up and get out and be someone else, I would be you”) . Paulie is an integral part of the Balboa saga, and he deserves better.
Stallone’s passion for the character of Drago is infectious, and it is an unexpected thrill to watch him meticulously refine 35-year-old scenes in a Sunset Strip editing suite. The warrior spirit is very much alive in the 75-year-old author. And when it is announced in the coming months that Drago his next film is no one should be surprised. He still has a few laps left.
Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago Premieres on Hulu and VOD on November 12th.