erik lundegaard

Movie Review: Rocky IV (1985)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Blame Hungary.

“Victory,” one of two films Sylvester Stallone starred in between “Rocky II” and “III,” was filmed in 1980 in Budapest, and, according to a July 1981 New York Times article, it made Stallone a “U.S. booster”:

Stallone came home from Hungary a flag waver. He says if everybody had to spend two weeks in a Communist country, “patriotism in America would reach epidemic proportions.”

“To this day, I believe all our hotel rooms were bugged,” he says. “If you had an amorous night with your wife, you’d walk downstairs next morning and everyone would be grinning. The police have keys to everyone’s house. They can turn off all the electricity in a city if they don't like what’s going on. And every couple of months the tanks run down the streets, just to remind people that they’re there.”

Rocky IVWithout “Victory”—in which Allied prisoners symbolically defeat Germany in a soccer match—would we have had “Rocky IV,” in which the U.S. symbolically defeats the U.S.S.R. in a boxing match?

Fucking Hungary, man.

Change and change: What is change?
Here’s the joke from back in 1985: “This time Rocky beats up a big white guy.” But it was Stallone who laughed all the way to the bank. The movie was the No. 3 grosser of the year, after “Back to the Future” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” It was Stallone’s peak, top of the world, ma, but it was also the beginning of his end. His movies were becoming too stupid even for his fans.

What a dull mess this thing is. Unadjusted, it’s the highest-grossing “Rocky” but also the shortest (91 minutes); there’s not much there there. Paulie gets a robot, the Soviets enter professional boxing, Ivan Drago kills Apollo Creed in an exhibition bout, so Rocky goes to Russia to train and fight him. Cue: fight.

Poor and garrulous in the first film, Rocky has now become rich and taciturn. His mouth used to run a mile-a-minute as he struggled to entertain (Adrian), advise (little Marie) or explain (Gazzo). He wasn’t the brightest bulb (the locker combo in his hat just killed me), but he was sweet. He had charm. His charm was not knowing he had charm. Here, he’s kinda smart, counseling Apollo correctly, but he barely says anything in the second half of the film. He’s serious and charmless. I miss the old chatty Rocky.

We don’t even get impediments to the fight. In the other “Rocky”s, something always puts the fight on hold: He could go blind (“II”), he’s lost the eye of the tiger (“III”), he’ll die (“V”), he’s old (“Rocky Balboa”). Here, nothing. That’s why so short.

The movie continues the “Rocky” death cycle. We lost Gazzo after “II,” Mickey in “III,” and Apollo here. Actually, the one I miss most is Bill Conti. The emblematic “Rocky” score, as well as its signature song, “Gonna Fly Now,” is lost for some shitty ’80s songs by Survivor and John Cafferty: “Burning Heart” and “Heart’s on Fire.”  Apparently the theme is “heart.”

Wait, did I say there were no impediments to the fight? Adrian, in a thankless role, tries to be that (again). She tries to get Rocky to not fight, but it sets up an absurd contradiction. Here’s the exchange:

Rocky: We can’t change what we are.
Adrian: Yes, you can.
Rocky: We can’t change anything, Adrian!

Contrast with the speech he gives the Soviets after his victory:

During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that's better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!

So Rocky fights because we can’t change, but after the fight he tells everyone that we can change? In what round did he learn that lesson? 

Another one. In the first “Rocky,” it’s vaguely ominous that Rocky’s bout with Apollo Creed is seen as “a show,” that it’s just marketing, that it doesn’t mean anything. Of course, in the first round, Rocky disabuses Apollo of this notion. “He doesn't know it’s a damn show!” Apollo’s trainer says. “He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

In “IV,” Drago’s bout with Apollo is seen as “a show,” that it doesn’t mean anything. But in the first round, Drago disabuses Apollo of this notion. “What are you guys doing?” Apollo’s trainer yells. “This is supposed to be an exhibition!”

Rocky making the fight real in the first movie is a positive, but Drago doing the same in “IV” is a negative? OK.

Star-spangled shorts
I watch this thing now and think about how sad we were; what need we had.

We need to portray this Russian, and hence all of Russia, as stoic villains who would kill our heroes without a second thought (“If he dies, he dies.”). We need to portray ourselves as the underdogs, smaller and weaker, but naturally strong rather than chemically-enhanced. (They cheat). Then we need to show us going toe-to-toe with them for 15 rounds for the right reasons rather than their wrong reasons (Drago: “I win for me! FOR ME!”), and, as a result, not only do we win, but we win over the crowd, which chants “Rocky! Rocky!” like it’s Philadelphia rather than Moscow. (Question: Was “Rocky! Rocky!” the forerunner to “USA! USA!”? I’m serious. I’m curious.) We even get the Politburo to stand and applaud for us. But being us, we’re magnanimous in victory. We talk about change. Then we drape ourselves in the American flag. Because the star-spangled shorts just aren’t patriotic enough.

Oh, and all of this takes place on Christmas Day.

Fucking Hungary, man. 

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Posted at 06:49 AM on Wed. Oct 21, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 1980s  

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