Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, August 15, 2016


It’s hard to believe that Sylvester Stallone once envisioned “Rocky” as simply a three part story. The continued box office success of the boxing series, and Stallone’s inescapable connection with the character, meant Rocky would have many more matches. “Rocky III” saw the series graduate from naturalistic drama to theatrical action flick. “Rocky IV” would push the series even further in that direction. In the process, Sly would make the most notorious of the “Rocky” films, cementing the series’ somewhat unearned status as a campy relic of the Cold War era.

Rocky Balboa is happily retired from boxing, enjoying his millions with his wife, kid, and heterosexual life partners Pauley and Apollo Creed. Meanwhile, a challenger emerges from the Soviet Union. Ivan Drago is a result of Soviet engineering, the perfect boxing machine. Wanting to prove that he’s still got it, Apollo Creed agrees to an exhibition fight with Drago. During the bout, Drago beats Creed to death. Feeling responsible for his friend’s demise, Rocky agrees to face Ivan Drago in the ring. Will a rigorous training regime be enough for Rocky to defeat the towering titan of Soviet power?

“Rocky IV” was released the same year as “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” a film which put Sylvester Stallone’s Cold War politics out in the open. Inspired by the legendary Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling matches, Stallone thought up an unlikely scenario where Rocky would battle a representation of the U.S.S.R. For Stallone though, the struggle between democracy and Communism is indistinguishable from personal revenge. In “First Blood Part II,” the death of Co spurns on Rambo’s war against the Vietnamese. In “Rocky IV,” the death of Apollo Creed forces Rocky to face down Ivan Drago. This notion props up a blatantly, gratuitously jingoistic script, where Rocky’s goodness stands against the evils of the Soviet Union. His brave effort even, eventually, wins over the Russians.

Making “Rocky IV” even harder to swallow is how the film is easily the goofiest of the “Rocky” series. Within the opening minutes, Rocky presents Paulie with a birthday present: A robot. A robot which Paulie then programs to have a female personality, which raises some interesting questions. This is only the most obvious ridiculous element of the film. Apollo Creed rides into the ring atop a giant transforming golden calf. Simultaneously, James Brown sings a rousing rendition of “Living in America.” After Apollo’s death, we’re treated to a ten minute long montage of Rocky driving in his car, while flashing back extensively to the previous movies. Insanity like this makes the movie’s other silliness seem more manageable. In a world where Paulie has a robot, the montage comparing Rocky’s all natural training regime to Drago’s steroid and machine assisted training seem subtle. It makes Rocky winning over all of the Soviet Union seem plausible.

Stallone spent most of “Rambo” as a grim-faced killing machine until the final minutes, when he delivered a speech summing up the movie’s themes. This was in contrast to the humanistic qualities he displayed during his three previous bouts as Rocky Balboa. “Rocky IV” sees Sly’s other trademark character undergoing some big changes. Rocky was previously a mushed mouth simpleton. He spoke from the heart because he didn’t know any other way to say things. In “Rocky IV,” the Italian Stallion has suddenly developed a verbose side. While debating with his wife about whether or not he should fight Drago, he expounds on his side of things. (Compare this to the similar debate in “Rocky II” to show how far Balboa’s come.) After defeating Drago and winning over the evil Communists, he delivers a long speech about how anybody can change. It’s clear that Rocky can change too.

Along with the series’ general content, the villains of the “Rocky” films have gotten increasingly outrageous. Apollo Creed was just a braggart and a showman. Clubber Lang was psychotically obsessed with beating Rocky. Ivan Drago is a full-blown supervillain. We know nothing about his life other then he’s been created by the Russians to show Soviet superiority. Drago is played by Dolph Lundgren, in his first major role. At 6’5, heavily muscled, and featuring an exact Aryan appearance, Dolph perfectly inhabits the part. What makes Drago kind of interesting is his odd vulnerability. He seems frightened when asked about possible steroid abuse. When ushered into the ring with Apollo, his body language is clearly confused. After Rocky puts up more of a fight then expected, he breaks character, informing his managers that he fights for himself. Lundgren’s actin abilities rarely get praised but he does well here, playing an unstoppable juggernaut but allowing some humanity to show through.

You know what I miss the most about eighties action movies? Their economical pacing. “Rocky IV” runs a manageable 91 minutes. Its script construction is clear and concise. Once Drago beats Apollo to death, it’s not too long before Rocky is training, before we get to the fight. Stallone, naturally, also wrote and directed the film. The fight scene shows the way his directorial style has evolved. During the match, he continues to utilize slow motion and dramatic montages. An especially effective moment has both fighters being punched in the face, each face lingering in the frame. It’s still fairly ridiculous that someone of Rocky’s size could defeat Drago. (More so, once you read that a single punch from Dolph put Stallone in the hospital.) Still, that’s the magic of movies.

In addition to being jingoistic and ridiculous, “Rocky IV” is also blatantly derivative of “Rocky III.” In both, a powerful new adversary kills Rocky’s mentor, forcing him to come out of retirement to fight for revenge. In both, a powerful new training regiment leads Rocky to victory. Formula, sometimes, works. “Rocky IV” would become the highest grossing entry in the series and, thanks to its sheer goofiness, would develop a fond cult following. I think I love three a little more but four is certainly a massively entertaining flick. [7/10]

[X] Frank Stallone or Frank Stallone-esque Inspirational Music
[X] Incapacitates or Kills Someone With His Body
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[] Social Outcast
[X] Sweaty, Veiny Yelling

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