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Rocky IV 35th Anniversary Essay
On November 19, 1985, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev sat down together for the first time. That initial face-to-face summit meeting at the Aga Khan’s lakeside chateau in Geneva did not result in any major agreements. In fact, little of substance was accomplished at all. But in the months and years to come, that opening dialogue between the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union would symbolize the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Back in Hollywood, however, all of that touchy-feely détente business with the dreaded Commies would have to wait. Because a week after Reagan returned home, Rocky IV would open in theaters across America.
Shamelessly jingoistic, unabashedly melodramatic, and outrageously masochistic, Rocky IV remains one of the greatest terrible movies to ever come out of a major studio. It’s the sort of over-the-top agit-prop that Leni Riefenstahl might have made had she been on our side back in the ‘80s and really into the sweet science of boxing. In fact, it’s both so ridiculous and glorious that it borders on the sublime. And it turns 35 years old today.
If it sounds like I’m down on Rocky IV, maybe I’m not being clear. It’s way better than Rockys II, III, and V, but not quite as good as I (I’m a little agnostic about whether to include the Creed films in this discussion of the Balboa Cinematic Universe, so let’s just leave them aside for the time being). But the point is, I actually love Rocky IV. When I was a kid growing up in the ‘80s, I was obsessed with movies (but, you know, not “good” movies yet). And the three brightest stars in my filmgoing galaxy back then were Clint Eastwood (who was still going strong in Sudden Impact, Tightrope, and Pale Rider after that whole orangutan-comedy detour), Tom Cruise (Risky Business was the first R-rated movie I ever snuck into), and Sylvester Stallone.
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Now, by Stallone, I want to be clear that I mean Stallone, the actor. Not Stallone, the director. That was a whole different kettle of fish. Whereas Stallone, the actor was (and still is) woefully under-appreciated and capable of real pathos and nuance when he lets his guard down, Stallone, the director is utterly incapable of subtlety. Whenever he steps behind the camera, he never trusts the audience to read between the lines. His themes are sledgehammer obvious. Emotions are conveyed in blinking, thousand-watt neon. Everything is on the nose. And yet somehow Rocky IV still works on me—and I’m assuming a lot of you—despite all of that.
When Stallone launched into Rocky IV, he had just wrapped on Rambo: First Blood Part II, which would prove to be a return to boffo box-office form after the ill-considered double whammy of Rhinestone (in which he plays a New York City cabbie who Dolly Parton attempts to My Fair Lady into a country music star) and Staying Alive (the infamous Saturday Night Fever follow-up that starred John Travolta, but which Stallone directed with fists of ham). After three hit installments, it wasn’t immediately clear where the Rocky franchise could go. Our hero had lost to Apollo Creed, he’d beaten Apollo Creed, Mickey had gone on to that dingy, sweatsock-scented boxing gym in the sky, and Mr. T’s mohawked, pity-the-fool Clubber Lang had come and gone. So a third Stallone—not Stallone, the actor or Stallone, the director, but Stallone, the screenwriter—landed on the timely idea of inserting his Italian Stallion smack dab into the middle of the Cold War. Now all Rocky needed was someone to beat up. Someone as alien and bloodless as our foes in the East.
Dolph Lundgren was a six-foot-five-inch Swedish chemical engineer who had recently dropped out of his MIT graduate program to move in with his pop-star girlfriend, Grace Jones, in New York City. After snagging a walk-on part as a mute heavy in the James Bond flick, A View to a Kill, thanks to Jones (who was playing villain Christopher Walken’s dangerously daffy henchwoman), he started devoting himself to acting lessons. After all, why go work with the brainiacs at NASA when you might be able to become a movie star? That’s when he found out about an open casting call for Rocky IV. Only it wasn’t being advertised as Rocky IV at the time, it was just called “A boxing movie.” Thousands of yoked-up bruisers auditioned for the part. But as soon as Stallone laid his eyes on Lundgren and his impossible physique, he knew he’d found his Ivan Drago.
Looking back at Lundgren in Rocky IV now, with his hewn-from-granite jaw, his all-right-angles blonde flat-top, and his stoic, thick-as-borscht accent, Drago is a Tex Avery cartoon come to life. But back in the mid-‘80s, his imposing physical iconography seemed to perfectly mesh with how Americans viewed Red Army soldiers coiled to spring from the far side of the Iron Curtain. They were stone-faced robotic ubermen who spoke like Boris and Natasha. Lundgren was tailor-made for the role. But Stallone told him he’d only get the part if he went off and added more muscle. Meanwhile, Stallone did the same, training with Arnold Schwarzenegger playmate Franco Columbo until he was so jacked up he looked like a cartoon himself.
Which, I guess, is kind of the point. Because the film they were about to make was a cartoon. An overly simplistic and wildly exaggerated showdown between two superpowers who had been in a mutually-assured apocalyptic stalemate since 1947. As Reagan returned to the Oval Office for a second term, it was high time to either kick off World War III once and for all or make peace. Stallone’s script would have its proverbial cake and eat it, too, by having Rocky and Drago pummel the snot out of one another in the ring and then, after it was all over, have Rocky turn to the Russian crowd and make a hoarse, marble-mouthed plea for unity and empathy. Talk about a rope-a-dope of mixed messages!
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Rocky IV. Maybe 20. Probably closer to 30. But what Stallone’s film does right, it does very right. And what it does wrong, well, it just really stinks up the joint. Let’s begin with what it does wrong. First, there’s brother-in-law Paulie’s robot butler, which looks like something that would have been more at home in Short Circuit. Then there’s James Brown’s pre-fight “Living in America” showstopper that’s really only a showstopper because it literally stops the film in its tracks. And finally, there’s Apollo Creed’s death in the ring after taking Drago too lightly. It’s a moment that’s supposed to hit us where it hurts, but it ends up feeling like a watered-down redux of Mickey’s demise, leading Rocky to wrestle with his inner demons and motivate his quest for vengeance via fisticuffs.
As for what Rocky IV does right, let’s start with Lundgren. Not only does he look the part of the lethal, state-trained Soviet automaton, his dialogue is perfect. And remarkably economical. The actor only utters 46 words in the entire film, but each one of them lands with the knockout force of an upper cut to the jaw: “I must break you”… “If he dies, he dies”…etc. Brigitte Nielsen, a statuesque Danish Helmut Newton model-turned-actress who had just made her movie debut opposite Stallone’s pal Arnold Schwarzenegger in Red Sonja, is icy perfection as Drago’s Muscovite Svengali wife, Ludmilla. Then there’s the film’s Siberian training montage (actually shot in Wyoming), where Rocky psyches himself up by climbing mountains, carrying giant tree trunks, and pulling old, decaying Soviet tractors. And last but not least, there’s the film’s rousingly brutal climactic fight sequence which, apologies to Raging Bull, remains the most powerful on-screen boxing sequence of all time. It’s certainly the most punishing.
With little acting experience under his belt, Lundgren took Rocky IV’s fight scenes a bit too seriously. He didn’t yet grasp the concept of pulling a punch. And Stallone, the director, encouraged him to just go for it (a decision he would later regret). In his initial bout with Creed, Lundgren was so forceful when he threw “The Count of Monte Fisto” into the corner buckle that Carl Weathers threatened to quit the picture on the spot. He would be a no-show on the set for four days until Stallone could eventually talk him down. Lundgren, for his part, didn’t get the message. Later, in his on-screen brawl with Stallone, the actor punched Stallone so hard in the chest that Stallone’s heart swelled up and he was airlifted from the Vancouver set to Santa Monica. He would spend eight days in the ICU.
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When Rocky IV finally opened on November 27, 1985, it was an immediate sensation with audiences. It would go on to make $300 million at the worldwide box office. But the nation’s critics were less impressed. In The Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, “Say what you like about the original Rocky, at least it was about something—a sweet pug up against the system, and in love with a dowd. Rocky IV appears to be an epic about Sylvester Stallone’s penchant for self-abuse. All the air has gone out of Rocky, something Stallone, who also wrote and directed, seems to realize.” None of that mattered much, though. Because in the end, Rocky IV would take its place as the third-highest grossing film of the year behind only Back to the Future and Rambo, making 1985 the commercial pinnacle of Stallone’s career.
A month after the film stormed multiplexes, the writer-director-star-cold warrior behind Rocky IV would wind up marrying Nielsen—an unhappy union that lasted just a year and a half. Lundgren would sign on to play He-Man in the disastrous Masters of the Universe and break up with Grace Jones, who couldn’t handle having a boyfriend who was suddenly more famous than she was. And Paulie’s robot butler, well, he would become an only-in-the-‘80s punchline sold for cheap-gag scrap in our collective pop-culture junk yard. But hey, at least we would win the Cold War thanks to, if the movie is to be taken at face value, the unlikely diplomacy of a certain southpaw from South Philly. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!
Chris Nashawaty is a writer, editor, critic, and author of books about Roger Corman & Caddyshack.
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