For the month of January, the contenders of Deadshirt are looking at the high highs (and low lows) of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise. For each installment, Deadshirt film editor Max Robinson sits ringside with another Deadshirt staffer to discuss the film. This time out, Max and Robby Karol tear down the indomitable Berlin Wall that is Rocky IV.
Rocky IV (1985)
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Max: Rocky III had the Italian Stallion lose, then regain, the world heavyweight belt after rediscovering the drive to win. What could a fourth film possibly throw at our hero? Try A Literal Russian Super-Soldier who murders his best friend in the ring. It’s Rocky IV, baby, and THE FATE OF A NATION’S PRIDE hangs in the balance. Robby, there’s a lot to cover here, but I want to start off by discussing the elephant in the room: There’s a fucking robot in Rocky IV.
Robby: Oh, the robot. I think the robot sort of sums up Sylvester Stallone as a writer and a director. Most people would think a giant talking robot would distract from the serious story about a true American proving the decency and strength of America to Russia at the tail end of the Cold War. Not Stallone! When Apollo Creed convinces Rocky to let him box Ivan Drago… a decision which will lead to Apollo’s death, the robot is right there in almost every shot! Stallone was convinced this robot needed to be in the movie, so goddamnit, it’s in the movie!
And that’s my favorite thing about this movie: it’s so insanely stupid, so often, but it’s got this stupid sincerity to go with it.
Max: I was surprised to learn the real-world reason for the robot is that it was in reality designed to help autistic children (Stallone’s son Seargeoh, who plays Rocky’s son Robert here). Stallone put him in since it helped his son on set, so Rocky IV gets a weirdly sexualized robot who may or may not have been having sex with Paulie. If there’s anything you can say about Rocky IV, it’s that it is the MOST Rocky. If II and III were the franchise’s transition into larger-than-life superheroics, then IV takes that craziness to its total limit. Not only does Rocky IV have a heavy-handed Cold War era political allegory, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is a remorseless, barely human for-real murderer.
Robby: And Lundgren is great in the role. It definitely plays to his strengths, in the same way the Terminator was perfect for Schwarzenegger. Lundgren’s got a great physicality. He has this way of filling space but projecting this malevolent blankness that’s perfect for this movie. He’s like Michael Myers. He doesn’t have a character, he’s just a force of nature. There’s a moment before his match with Apollo, as he rides this elevator up onto the stage, where he sees the ridiculous circus going on around him: Vegas dancing girls, James Brown, and Apollo strutting around in his Uncle Sam outfit. And he raises his eyebrow just a centimeter. That’s the biggest reaction he gives to anything until the very end. It’s like human emotion, even hatred and condescension are beneath him. He’s the most extreme Rocky opponent, but he’s also representing an entire Evil Empire. Or maybe he doesn’t? The movie seems a little confused by that at the end as well. What do you think about the message this movie is trying to send?
Max: Drago appears to be a weird messed up soviet Captain America the Russians have made in a literal laboratory in order to shame the U.S. Whereas Rocky, Apollo and even Clubber Lang got to where they did on their own natural athleticism, Drago is some kind of steroid-fueled boxing Frankenstein. I don’t know what kind of message Rocky IV wants to send other than that communist Russia blows and living in a mansion with your robot butler kicks ass.
Last movie, Rocky lost Mickey. Here, the tragedy that motivates Rocky is that Apollo dies. And not only does he die, he’s killed in the ring in a situation where Rocky could have maybe saved him. You touched on it a bit, but that entire sequence where Apollo is reveling in USA pageantry right before he completely gets his ass handed to him is really amazing. Apollo’s Achilles heel is his vanity, and he’s even wearing a variation of the Uncle Sam getup he wore in the original Rocky match.
Robby: It is a neat touch to have Apollo self-consciously embodying America when his flaw in the film is that he’s stuck living in the past. That’s probably the subtlest element about the politics of this film. Speaking of Rocky’s friends and family, I feel like Talia Shire’s wasted in this film. I totally understand why she’s pissed at Rocky. He didn’t bother to tell her he was going to fight the Winter Soldier? And that he’s going to Russia for weeks to train? Thematically, I get that it’s more interesting if his fight for Apollo’s memory (and AMURIKAH!) causes tension with Adrian. But it’s still pretty stupid, and it’s even stupider that she just shows up in Russia to support him later.
Max: Adrian was pretty underutilized in Rocky III despite one excellent scene and, yeah, Stallone clearly doesn’t know what to do with Talia Shire in this one. As much as I dig that Adrian sort of grows over time in these movies, the character is practically a different person now. Does Adrian even talk to her scumbag brother Paulie in this one? It’s not a surprise that the Rocky movies start to pare down a bit after IV given just how stretched out and unrecognizable the characters are at this point.
Robby, let’s talk about Rocky’s training scenes in Russia (which were apparently just shot in Oregon). I know Rocky doesn’t have Mickey or Apollo around to train him, but I’m not clear on the conventional wisdom behind cutting down trees or running through a babbling brook when you’re training for a boxing match.
Robby: It feels like Stallone really wanted to contrast Rocky’s down-to-earth training routine with Drago’s high-tech (and steroid-laden) one. And yeesh, that Survivor song playing over it is so on-the-nose (“does the crowd understand/is it East vs. West/or man against man?”). But it’s worth it just for that helicopter shot of Rocky on top of the mountain, yelling “Drago!” It’s another moment that’s cheesy, but sincere, and I love the hell out of it.
When I was watching this with my wife (it’s one of her favorite movies, for what it’s worth), she started counting the montages and ended up with 7. That’s a lot of montages. Did you have a favorite montage? Did you have a least favorite?
Max: My favorite montage, hands down, was when Rocky gets in his super expensive sports car and just feels really sad about Apollo dying while “NO EASY WAY OUT” blares. You get a real sense of the history between them and how much of a loss this is for Rocky. Then it transitions into random footage of Adrian and Mickey and sorta peters out. But as it stands, it’s AGGRESSIVELY ’80s (in no small part because of the hyper-1985 score from Vince DiCola, who replaced Bill Conti for this one). Did you notice we don’t even get the full Rocky theme in this movie?
Robby: It definitely loses something by replacing it with aggressively ’80s MOR rock music. But I think it goes back to what you’re saying. This is the cheesetastic uber-Rocky. It’s manipulative and shiny and fun, but empty. I think this feels like Stallone’s choice, not some focus-group decision, but it’s still weird.
Max: Let’s wrap with the natural conclusion of our conversation: Rocky’s match with Drago. I will say that after three movies, Stallone’s movements in the ring are still incredibly fun to watch. You really do buy Stallone as a boxer, he knows how to sell this. On one hand, I dig how the fight sort of sidesteps the problem of the last two movies so that Rocky’s goal here is to avenge his friend rather than accomplish a personal victory. On the other hand, this fight feels like it goes on for an hour. We do get Drago rebelling against his Soviet programming and declaring that he’s fighting “FOR MEEEE, ONLY MEE.”
Robby: Yeah, I agree. And once Drago finally drops out of robot mode, you can sense Rocky’s going to win. We know how it plays out. From that point on, it’s just a brutal test of endurance, and it just keeps repeating the same notes: Rocky and Drago getting bloodier, getting instructions from their coaches, Adrian looking concerned, the crowd warming to Rocky. They could have easily cut the fight by at least a couple of minutes and still got the same point across. But, on the other hand, Rocky makes the entire Politburo applaud him, so, maybe we’ll call it a draw?
Max: With that in mind, maybe it’s fitting that Rocky IV is the most overstuffed, overcooked film in the series. It’s a supremely fun, super silly movie that kinda struggles with an well-trod formula and compensates by throwing out distractingly crazy stuff like a robot and Rocky training in the Soviet wilderness. It’s safe to say we’ve hit Peak Rocky.
NEXT: REALITY SETS IN