A media throng engulfs the ring, lenses trained on the downed fighter. A man in a bloody bright white BOSS sweatshirt pushes them back as he cradles his mortally wounded friend. Watching from the edge of the ring, like a predator admiring its strike, is the perpetrator of the carnage; the bringer of Apollo Creed’s doom. As a microphone is thrust in his face, Ivan Drago remarks, almost casually in his thick Russian accent:
“If he dies, he dies.”
Rocky Balboa looks up and catches his enemy’s eye as Apollo expires. Drago’s reciprocal stare is hard, unflinching. Oh, it is on.
Four, yes FOUR flashback/training/fighting montages later and Rocky, against all the odds, stands in the centre of the Soviet ring, arms aloft in triumph as Drago writhes in agony on the deck. The American mumbles that conflict is bad, the locals cheer, and the Berlin Wall is all but down. The end.
Wait, if the script for Rocky IV is thinner than Donald Trump’s deathly orange skin, why does everyone love it so much? Blind nostalgia? Well, yes, but also because it is absolutely RIDICULOUS.
To put Rocky IV into context, it should be noted that Sylvester Stallone’s first two Rocky sequels made a conscious effort not just to replicate the basic beats of their Academy Award-winning predecessor, but to actually expand on the titular character while achieving a sense of realism and emotional depth.
Rocky III (1982), which most remember for a comedy bout between Rocky and Hulk Hogan’s Thunderlips (yes, that happened) and Mr. T’s angry, angry, ANGRY antagonist Clubber Lang, manages to do all of these things. Rocky struggles with fame, becomes complacent, has to deal with loss at the worst possible time when his manager Mickey (Burgess Meredith) dies, and is forced to go back to his roots to rediscover his form by training in the ghetto with his former foe Apollo (Carl Weathers). Even the final fight has a strategy; Apollo and his trainer Duke (Tony Burton) discuss how their methodology will see Rocky burn out after “seven or eight rounds”. Rocky too realises that Lang has to be knocked out early doors and deliberately tires his opponent out by taking his best punches, before going on the attack to win the fight in the third. The chin, physical endurance and emotional willpower Rocky utilises to pull this off were not new; they were clearly defined in Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) before being expanded upon in Rocky III.
In 1985, Stallone – writing and directing for the third sequel running – abandoned this approach in favour of a Rambo-esque dose of symbolic Cold War mayhem. Indeed, a significant chunk of Rocky IV it isn’t even about Rocky. Following a brief introduction to his family situation, including memorable addition to the class of 80s movie robots and everyone’s favourite character, the sentient Happy-Birthday-Paulie robot (in reality an autism support tool Stallone had working with his son, Seargeoh), the remainder of the first act consists solely of Apollo demanding, and somehow being allowed to fight Drago (Dolph Lundgren), leading to his grim demise.
On adult viewing the script’s sparsity is already obvious, with six and half minutes of the opening 30 dedicated to the traditional recap of the previous film, and a full live rendition of James Brown‘s ‘Living in America’ to accompany Drago and Apollo’s respective ring entries to their not-so-friendly exhibition. It’s easy to wave this additional nationalistic provocation of Drago through, but his objective of turning out Apollo’s lights was clearly in place long before the Godfather of Soul got in his face. After all, that’s his character: a wilful and unstoppable fighting son, born of the Soviet propaganda machine.
Watching Apollo play the patriotic sacrificial lamb is also strange as it does not fit his established character. Sure, he donned a George Washington getup in Rocky, but that felt more like Apollo the showman understanding and playing to his audience. People do change and, hey, that was the Carter era, now it’s Reagan; the Cold War has gone next level. Who knows, maybe Apollo was a hawk all along, but from an audience perspective it feels a tad manufactured as a means of getting Rocky in the ring with Drago.
What the Creed-vs.-Drago bout does have going for it is also the main reason folks come back to Rocky IV time and again: the action. The fight sequences are timeless; second-to-none in their execution from the direction to the cinematography to the editing to the choreography to the sound. From a technical standpoint this is where Stallone shines, and his partnership with Jaws cinematographer Bill Butler, whom he worked with on Rocky II and III, reaches a formidable peak here. The fights are exaggerated, yes – both Apollo and Rocky’s duels would have been stopped the moment Drago unleashed his first real barrage – but they look and feel real. Despite the writing being on the wall from the moment the first bell rings, there is tension as Drago holds off, as Apollo dances around, never quite finding his feet. It’s haunting and mesmerising all at once, and it makes what you know is coming all the more impactful.
The second act sees the focus finally shift to Rocky. Right away at the press conference to announce his bout with Drago, we’re given our sole glimpse of character development as the now former champ sits stone-faced while the audience is informed of the concessions he has made to make this fight happen. Seeing Rocky as a blank slate with, in his mind, nothing to lose for the first time since Rocky is a powerful moment, made all the more entertaining by the amusing concurrent verbal sparring going on between Drago’s manager Nicolai Koloff (Michael Pataki), his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), and Rocky’s alcoholic brother-in-law Paulie (the always wonderful Burt Young).
READ MORE: Sylvester Stallone’s top 5 most iconic roles
The idea of a prize fighter training anywhere within 100 miles of a buffoon such as Paulie is, of course, absurd, but somehow his one-liners, exasperated expressions, and pratfalls serve to enhance proceedings. He’s a great character whose comic relief is necessary to break up Rocky’s never-ending brooding or simply to break the tension, like when he takes one look at Drago in the ring, turns to Rocky and says, “You know what I said back there about wanting to be you? Forget it.”; the perfect callback to his emotional exclamation of love and admiration for Rocky only moments earlier.
Then there’s the montages. Three in 22 minutes to be precise. While the dual training montages are both relevant and absolutely epic to the point where I won’t hear a word against them, Rocky’s visual reflection on an event that occurred literally 10-minutes before as he races through a tunnel late at night is easily the most blatant case of “we need something to fill four plus minutes”. Granted it does give us a synthesiser-heavy belter in ‘No Easy Way Out’ by Robert Tepper, the first of many outrageously 80s tunes that make up the soundtrack alongside Vince DiCola’s excellent score. Though composer Bill Conti’s work will always define Rocky, his scheduling conflict (ironically with The Karate Kid series) was a blessing in disguise here, as the daft, increasingly over the top nature of the story needed that on the nose motivational punch up provide by DiCola and the other artists involved. A separate musical legacy comes in the unexpected form of Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire), whose dire assessment of her husband’s chances (‘It’s suicide!’; “You can’t win!”) were later sampled by rapper Big Pun on his 1998 track ‘Super Lyrical’.
Playing Rocky’s inspirational wilderness training (with rural Wyoming substituting for the harsh Russian wasteland) against Drago’s brutal technological, steroid-infused workouts is a stroke of simple genius, even with Rocky’s slightly unbelievable decision not to spar; something he explains away by suggesting: “I don’t think I need it, Paulie”. That’s right, PAULIE was the voice of reason. This is the start of Rocky’s transition to superhuman status, which is confirmed when he is knocked down countless times by Drago, taking punches that would kill most men several times over, and not only survives but actually wins.
Featuring several full rounds and, naturally, another heart-and-fist-pumping montage to get us up to 15, the final battle between good and evil is the full steak and chips to the Creed-vs.-Drago appetiser, served up as a formidable crescendo of blood, sweat, and good old American propaganda. Despite being the first fight in the series to lack a real emotional connection between Rocky and the audience, its ludicrous entertainment value will always keep us coming back for one more round.
When it’s all over the Cold War backdrop is brought to the forefront as a somehow upright and coherent Rocky humbly suggests everyone can change for the better, completely ignoring the preceding 90 minutes’ unrelenting assertion that violent vengeance is acceptable in the name of freedom. It’s okay for the homegrown individual to take on the cold and calculating foreign machine because, ultimately, they will triumph. Win first, promote peace later: the American way.
READ MORE: We look back on the Rocky films
Rocky IV certainly won, taking a staggering $300M at the box office (just shy of $700M in 2018). To this day is remains the franchise’s highest grossing entry. Seriously, Creed (2015) got nowhere near it. A sequel was inevitable, and though Rocky V (1990) is the weakest of the series, Stallone does deserve credit for immediately reversing Rocky’s superhuman strength; opening with him shivering uncontrollably as he recovers from Drago’s pounding while desperately calling for Adrian, whose worst fears are confirmed when Rocky is diagnosed with brain damage brought on from his years in the ring.
33 years later Rocky and Apollo’s conflict with Drago has come full circle. Creed II sees Apollo’s son Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) steps into the ring to face the son of… You guessed it. Must he break him? Is it time to go to school? Will he lose? To find out we’ll just have to see it through. To the end.
Creed II is in cinemas nationwide on Friday, 30 November.