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Review: Rocky IV (1985)

Rocky IV (1985)

Directed by: Sylvester Stallone

Premise: In the midst of the Cold War, Russian fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) enters professional boxing. Drago, a genetically enhanced fighter with incredible punching power, kills Apollo Creed in an exhibition match. Rocky agrees to fight the Russian in a bid for vengeance.

What Works: In the 1980s the music video became an important part of American media. The proliferation of cable television and the rise of MTV put this new form into American living rooms and it altered the sensibilities of the audience. Moviemakers responded by adopting music video techniques into feature films as seen in Footloose and Top Gun. The speed of the editing increased, effects like freeze frames and slow motion were used more frequently, actors took to posing for the camera, and the soundtrack became an increasingly important part of motion pictures both as an artistic choice and as a piece of the merchandising campaign. Rocky IV was one of the early examples of that MTV-style and it was among the most effective. The picture has several musical montages that are set to fun 1980s pop songs like “Hearts on Fire” by John Cafferty and “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper as well as incorporating “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor and a performance of “Living in America” by James Brown. Rocky IV is pure spectacle and on that score the movie succeeds. Its musically inspired editing is infectious and it plays like a ninety-minute workout video. That’s most evident in the final fight in which Stallone pulls out all the stops to create a delirious fever dream of punching, sweating, and screaming. As a Cold War film, Rocky IV intends to be a nationalistic and patriotic piece and in that respect the film is also effective. Balboa and Drago act out the conflict of the Cold War within a boxing ring and the film reinforces American values of independence and individuality. But as jingoistic as it can be, Rocky IV is considerably more conciliatory than other Cold War pictures such as Sylvester Stallone’s other 1985 release, Rambo: First Blood Part II.

What Doesn’t: Rocky IV is a strange sequel that doesn’t quite fit into the rest of the franchise. Allegedly, Sylvester Stallone had originally conceived Rocky III as the end of the series and the conclusion of that picture brought the characters’ stories to a satisfying conclusion. Rocky IV does not grow organically out of the previous films. It feels tagged onto the series, a movie made for the purpose of exploiting a popular brand name. As a result, there are a number of things in this film that don’t make sense, chiefly Rocky’s decision to pursue vengeance. It is inconsistent with his character. The weak motivation is apparent in the dialogue. The dramatic moments that are supposed to be inspiring are full of generic masculine nonsense. Perhaps owing to the character’s lack of motivation, Stallone’s performance in Rocky IV is the weakest of the series. He has none of the charm of the earlier (or later) Rocky movies and he’s barely recognizable as the character. Everyone else is marginalized as well, especially Adrian who arbitrarily disappears and reappears from the story. The one respect in which Rocky IV does follow its predecessors is in the continued villainizing of Rocky’s’ opponent. This movie follows that trend to its logical conclusion and Ivan Drago is a nearly-mute cartoon character. That clashes with the film’s halfhearted suggestion that there is a camaraderie among sportsmen that transcends politics and nationality. This is not really a sports picture. At best, Rocky IV is a political film that paradoxically has no interest in politics. It taps into the zeitgeist of 1985 to stage a fight that seems vaguely important but actually signifies nothing. And in this respect, Rocky IV is exactly what Rocky III was making fun of.

DVD extras: The edition of Rocky IV released in “The Heavyweight Collection” has a number of special features but none that are particular to this installment.

Bottom Line: Rocky IV is an example of a movie that isn’t very good and yet is thoroughly entertaining. The plot is thin, the performances are unremarkable, and the overall product is stupid but Rocky IV is a lot of fun. It’s kitschy fun but it’s still fun.

Episode: #623 (November 27, 2016)