In which Rocky Balboa spreads world peace through superior boxing skill and mumbled, confusing sentiment.
My knowledge of the Rocky films was pieced together from parodies, video games and conversations with my mates. I knew the basic formula of each film and while watching each one I would have flashbacks to having seen certain scenes on TV when I was younger. Some things I did know was that Rocky IV took on Communism and that it had one of my favourite Rocky songs in it (Hearts on Fire) also after three films I felt as though the Rocky series had run out of ways to shock or perplex me.
Shame on me for thinking such things.
Rocky IV begins in traditional Rocky fashion with the end of the previous film…no, oh wait, it does break tradition with its beginning. The first trilogy of films had each started with the title scrolling across the screen in huge letters. No, that wasn’t good enough for Rocky IV. Rocky IV begins with two boxing gloves, one a US flag and one a USSR flag, speeding towards each other and exploding on impact. The subtly of the imagery is almost too exquisite.
Anyway the film begins with Apollo and Rocky throwing punches at the same time and then freeze frames again so we don’t find out the winner. Then we see Rocky going back to his mansion with a black eye which might be from the Apollo fight or might not, the timeline on these films is hazy especially when it comes to the age of Rocky’s son. So Rocky’s son, or Rocky Jnr as I was calling him since he hasn’t actually been named yet, accosts with a giant video camera and it turns out he’s filming Uncle Paulie’s birthday.
This film is known mostly I think for Dolph Lungren’s awesome villain and the whole Rocky fights Communism thing so I was pretty shocked that no one had told me that it began with Paulie’s birthday at which Rocky gives him, as a gift, a robot. A fully functioning robot who can talk and, as the film progresses, we see it can play music, has a telephone attachment and after a few scenes starts to speak like a woman and flirt with Paulie. It also appears to babysit Rocky Jnr when the family go off to Russia. I can’t fathom how the two worlds collide of Rocky and robots. I can only assume it’s an eighties thing.
After the party Rocky surprises Adrian in bed with a cake and a terrible bracelet that’s like a gold serpent entwining its way up her arm because that’s an image people like. It was while I was watching this that my fiancée peaked over my shoulder and said, ‘Wow, Sylvester Stallone is a unique looking man isn’t he?’ Truer words have never been spoken my love.
Enter the Russians.
While Apollo Creed is languishing in his swimming pool throwing tennis balls for his dogs to catch he sees a news report on TV about this new Russian fighter, Ivan Drago, who has come to America to fight. Undefeated in Russia he has been allowed to fight internationally and has set his sights on American fighters.
This causes Apollo to want to step up and fight the Russian in an exhibition fight. He asks Rocky to train him in a nice inversion of Rocky III and, over some reservations from Adrian, Rocky decides to train him.
And there’s no training montage. He agrees to train him and then there’s a heated press conference and then its fight night. What the shit, Stallone? Later on in this film there are two montages broken up by a single scene and you couldn’t give Apollo a training montage.
The fight is being held in Las Vegas and it’s the full cabaret show. Drago is raised into the ring on an elevator and sees dancing girls and a band and a massive crowd and behind him on a raised stage are Apollo (dressed like Uncle Sam again) and James Brown. Yes, that James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, the hardest working man in show business. So James Brown sings Living in America and everyone has a good dance and a sing while Drago stands patiently in the ring, seemingly confused/disgusted by all this pomp and showiness. And to be fair it is all a bit gross.
Once the song has ended and the fight can begin proper Rocky gets some attention from the crowd, I guess to remind us of his hero status or something, and the two fighters square off. One of my favourite bits in the movie is when the ref says to touch gloves and Apollo brings both hands down onto Drago’s and the hands don’t move and they have ADR’d the sound effect of ringing metal. The look in Apollo’s eyes of finally realising what’s about to happen is great.
This is about twenty minutes into the film give or take and I was ready to quit watching. The opening twenty minutes had just been whimsy and robots and James Brown and silly dialogue and snake bracelets and Russian dudes being basically robots and Stallone in a weird bed robe and nothing of any interest or consequence.
And then Apollo Creed gets beaten to death in the ring.
If you wanted to teach a master class in how to replace whimsy with horror I give you Rocky IV. Drago destroys Apollo and though Rocky wants to throw in the towel Apollo makes him promise not to so instead Rocky lets him get pummelled to death. It’s a bloody brutal beat down that ends with Apollo getting hit and falling face down on the canvas, his body shaking while blood covers his face.
It was like watching Toy Story except after twenty minutes Buzz Lightyear gets crushed beneath the wheel of a car.
Drago shows no remorse, even casually remarking to the assembled press, ‘If he dies, he dies.’ And Rocky, cradling Apollo in a pose mirroring Mary holding Jesus’ body when he was taken from the cross in the Michelangelo’s sculpture Pieta, swears revenge.
Except Adrian doesn’t want him to fight a Russian superman and get beaten to death. Rocky makes a confusing speech to her about having the Heart to face him and dying with enough Heart to stand toe to toe with his Heart or something and goes out for a drive in one of the most spectacular montages ever. Ever ever? Ever ever.
He gets into his car and There’s No Easy Way Out by Robert Tepper starts playing and as he’s driving along in the night he has a series of flashbacks to the previous three films and also scenes that happened five minutes ago. It’s basically a Rocky greatest hits and has stuff in it about Mickey (who, sorry Mickey, is not relevant here) and Apollo dying (which we literally just saw happen) and all the times he argued with Adrian and all the times they made up and stuff from scenes that Rocky wasn’t part of and therefore can’t be flashbacking to them. The weird part of this is that he’s already decided to fight and is definitely going to Russia. He’s not going for a drive to decide to do this. It’s basically a man going for a drive remembering loads of good and bad stuff from the past ten years and not changing his expression for the entire time and then it ends and the movie continues. It’s like the Previously On…at the start of a TV show. Or a nightmarish fever dream.
And yet they couldn’t give Apollo Creed a training montage before he died.
So Rocky, Paulie and Duke (Apollo’s former trainer) fly to Russia. Another music note here, the song playing when they arrive is Burning Heart by Survivor and the song basically spells out the plot of the film like the narrator in a musical. Here’s a taste of the lyrics:
Two worlds collide / Rival nations / It’s a primitive clash / Venting years of frustrations / Bravely we hope / Against all hope / Seems our freedom’s up / Against the ropes / Does the crowd understand? / Is it East versus West / Or man against man / Can any nation stand alone?
Whoever thought the line about freedom being up against the ropes was a good idea should be murdered with a rope…like in Cluedo.
Anyway they arrive and are put in a cabin in the tundra with a secret police guard and shitty equipment and we have the first training montage. At this point, if you’ve been watching these films with me as I assume you have been, montage fatigue has set in slightly but they spice it up by juxtaposing Rocky training using logs and rocks and shit with Drago in a super high tech lab surrounded by scientists and lights and such.
I did read that this film is studied as an academic text when students are looking at popular culture depicting a suspicion of technology and the ideas of man versus machine, nature versus technology. This is all well and good but this film does start with a fat drunk being given a robot for a birthday present and then, somehow, reprogramming it to be his wife. I wonder how much of that intro is mentioned in academic essays.
An odd thing about this montage is that Rocky seems to be training just fine. The usual formula for these montages is one bad montage where he has some sort of problem then a good montage after he has overcome that problem. Here he has a good montage then his wife arrives in Russia and apologises for her being afraid that he’ll be beaten to death in the ring by the same man who beat Apollo Creed, a pretty good fighter in his own right, to death in the ring about a week previous to all this. He forgives her and another training montage starts. To clarify its not that the first one has stopped halfway and then picks up. No, it’s a new song and another three minute montage and again it doesn’t seem like the first montage was him struggling and the second was succeeding. Both montages depict him being awesome but the second one shows Drago struggling a big (and taking performance enhancing drugs – boo, hiss etc.)
Fight night and it’s in Moscow and its full of Russians in military uniforms and a Gorbachov stand in watches from a VIP box. They all sing the Russian national anthem, the only national anthem in the world that sounds like it was written by John Williams for The Empire Strikes Back, and the fight begins. It’s made very clear from the start that Rocky has no fans in the audience and as with the Vegas fight; it’s very biased towards one fighter, Ivan Drago. Ah, Drago, the remorseless killing machine of a boxer. A not very finely sketched character who has maybe eight lines of dialogue. Still Stallone liked him so much he was considering making the sequel to this film be about him. But he didn’t and instead we got the cinematic abortion that is Rocky V (more about that next time).
So Drago punches the ever-living shit out of Rocky but, as the previous three films have proved, Rocky can take a punch. And eventually he lands one on Drago, cutting the Russian’s eye. This spurs him on and they punch the shit out of each other for a while.
As the fight goes on the Russian fans begin chanting Rocky’s name and start cheering him on. In the end he knocks Drago down and the crowd goes wild and the Russian premier who sorta looks like Gorbachov stands up and applauds.
Rocky gets hold of a mike and gives a speech about if the crowd can change their opinion and he can change his opinion then everyone can change and the world can be a better place. He adds, ‘I just wanna say to my kid watching at home, Merry Christmas, kid.’ Oh, yeah the kid doesn’t have a name. Go back to Rocky III and I don’t think he’s a character, Rocky II and he gets born and Adrian and Rocky discuss names but don’t settle on one. And here he is only called kid. For a bit I actually wondered if his name was Kid and that Stallone was just messing with me this whole time. Especially when a cutaway shows Kid watching the fight with two other nameless children and the robot seemingly acting as a babysitter to Kid and these two strangers.
Also why is Rocky talking about changing opinions and making the world a better place? He went to Russia to avenge Apollo, not on a mission of peace. He was there to knock out a man who killed his friend. He was there to commit violence on a person to avenge the original act of violence. To quote Magneto, peace was never an option.
After I watched all six I said, ‘Yeah the Rocky films are great, there’s a few missteps but overall it’s a really good set of films.’ This is true so long as you don’t try to write blog reviews for each film. So far every film after the first one crumbles under the slightest scrutiny. With Rocky IV I thought it was a pretty good film that had some good parts but now I’ve realised that this film starts a cheesy comedy, then has a violent death, then the greatest montage of all time, then two more lesser montages, then an uninspired, ridiculous fight and then ends. No character stuff, no growth, no arc.
Stupid movie. Though the robot thing did make me smile a bit. Then it was alluded to that Paulie was having sex with it. Then I didn’t smile no more.
To be continued…