Every Thanksgiving, I have a Rocky-thon. Starting whenever I get up, it’s all Rocky, all day.
Except it’s a curated marathon. It includes Rocky I-III, Rocky Balboa, and now Creed. There’s no Rocky V, which no one seems to question. But how, folks ask, can I leave out Rocky IV?
Well, lemme tell ya.
I reviewed Rocky IV for my college paper when it came out in 1985, and I still remember my lead: “Rocky IV is a betrayal.” I still feel that way. The characters may be played by the same actors, the movie may be written and directed by Stallone, but there are virtually none of the qualities that made the first three movies so wonderful. Rocky IV is a comic book, and a dumb one at that: all montage and cheesy hair-band music, two-dimensional characters, and a hero who, based on the personality established in the previous movies, would simply never do what he does here.
Consider the all-important question of why he fights. In Rocky, it’s to prove he’s not “just another bum from the neighborhood” by going the distance against world champion Apollo Creed. In Rocky II, it’s to prove the first fight wasn’t a fluke, and that he’s capable of being a champion. In Rocky III, he has to reclaim his self-respect after learning that his manager has hand-picked all his opponents. In other words, in each case he’s fighting himself. The boxing match is just the vehicle for it.
In Rocky IV? He’s fighting for revenge. And ‘Murica. And I’m sorry, but the Rocky Balboa of the first three movies would not seek revenge. That’s just not him.
Still, I just picked up the complete Rocky set on blu-ray. And Apollo’s death in this film is the jumping-off point for last year’s wonderful Creed. So I thought I’d give Rocky IV another shot. Perhaps I remembered it wrong. Perhaps is does deserve to be added to my annual Rocky-thon.
Here, then, are some observations I jotted down, in chronological order.
—No Bill Conti music; instead, we get Vince DiCola. Mr. The Soft Drink has such classics on his CV as The Tranformers Movie (the animated one) and Staying Alive, the Stallone-directed sequel to Saturday Night Fever (if you haven’t seen it, I’ll leave it as a jewel for you to discover on your own).
—Rocky arrives home for his son’s birthday following the private fight with Apollo Creed that ended Rocky III and begins this movie. So his schedule book for the evening read: Fight with former world champion, 5 PM. Attend son’s birthday party, 6:30.
—Oh, wait, it’s Paulie’s birthday. Now it makes total sense. Pray to be beaten senseless by former world champion, 5 PM. If not, attend drunken obnoxious brother-in-law’s birthday party, 6:30.
—The robot. Dear God, I’d forgotten the robot. Redeemed somewhat by Adrian’s line to Paulie, “Since you don’t have any friends, we thought you’d like it.”
—Oh, dear. Apollo is frolicking with his dogs in his swimming pool while a fried chicken commercial plays on a poolside TV prior to a newscast about Drago. Well, it was 1985.
—Dear God, the robot again. It even has a phone in it.
—Dear God, the robot again. This time blasting awful 80s synth-pop. And it has a new sexy voice when it brings Paulie a beer.
—When Adrian leaves the room, Apollo stands but Rocky doesn’t. That is the most subtle moment in this entire movie.
—“Stallion, maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about now, but you will when it’s over.” Pause. “Believe me, you will when it’s over!” Foreshadowing WITH A BRICK.
—Even if you don’t know the plot ahead of time, the whole “Living in America” number, coming 25 minutes into the movie, would clue you in. Again, foreshadowing WITH A BRICK.
—Apollo, just prior to the fight: “God, I feel born again.” ANOTHER BRICK.
—Hm. Could be a miscalculation when your comic-relief robot has more personality than your villain.
—“You don’t stop this fight no matter what.” Pause. “No matter what!” HOW MANY BRICKS, SLY? HOW MANY BRICKS?
—Drago: “Soon I defeat real champion.” ANOTHER BRICK. (Oh, Sly, how could you have missed the opportunity to have Paulie dare Drago to say, “Is always moose and squirrel”?)
—“I know I didn’t understand then, but…” Pause. “Now I understand.” BRICKS PILING UP, SLY. BUT WHAT ARE YOU BUILDING?
—First full-on montage, at the 35-minute point.
—The Russians pontificate about the evils of the decadent west. And who stands up for the US? Paulie. Because ‘Murica.
—The scene between Rocky and Adrian on the stairs is supposed to explain Rocky’s rationale, which it does, but it completely contradicts everything established about these characters over the last three movies.
—OH, GOD, A MUSIC-VIDEO MONTAGE. Full song. But not of training or fighting, but of Rocky driving around, thinking about things we’ve already seen. We’re only halfway through the movie, Sly, I don’t think we’ve forgotten. Also, the clips from the previous movies are not just Rocky and Apollo, which would at least make sense; they’re random, and cheesy.
—Within the montage: both times we hear the lyric, “Some feelings never die,” we’re shown Apollo and Rocky triumphantly frolicking in the surf from Rocky III, a scene that, at a distance of some thirty years, seems to have a subtext that couldn’t have been intended (much like all of Top Gun).
—Dear God, the robot again. Now it’s scolding Paulie for his smoking, still in the sexy voice.
—The goodbye scene quotes Bill Conti music. Here’s a tip: don’t have your soundtrack composer quote better music than the stuff he’s been providing.
—ANOTHER MUSIC VIDEO MONTAGE. Full song again, and the lyrics describe exactly on the nose what the movie is about. The movie’s tagline could be, SUBTLETY IS THE FIRST CASUALTY.
—Okay, so Paulie grew up in Philly, and is freaked out by snow?
—Ooh, bad call. A training montage without “Gonna Fly Now?” Oh, and: ANOTHER MONTAGE.
—Rocky’s growing a beard while he trains in Siberia, which actually makes sense. But it’s a neatly-trimmed proto-metrosexual beard, which does not.
—Adrian: “I’m with you, no matter what.” Rocky: “No matter what?” Adrian: “No matter what.” DOUBLE SECRET FORESHADOWING, since this foreshadowing was foreshadowed by other foreshadowing.
—Bad call redux: another training montage that doesn’t have “Gonna Fly Now.” But the song does get credit for the line, “The cave that holds you captive has no doors.” Because if it did, that would make it a cellar, I guess. Oh, and: ANOTHER MONTAGE.
—I understand why Rocky’s sweating while he works out. But why is Duke the trainer sweating? And why is Paulie not?
—Paulie getting all teary before the fight and kissing Rocky on the cheek, all the while draped in an American flag? Weird. And overkill. That moment played much better in Rocky Balboa, without the flag.
—Dear God, the robot again. This time wearing a Santa beard, because it’s Christmas. And Rocky Jr. hanging out with other kids his age, written like movie kids as opposed to actual human children.
—Wait. Okay, so Rocky, Paulie, and Adrian are all in Russia. Did they leave the robot in charge of Rocky Jr.? And the robot let the kid invite friends over? The hell?
—Gorbachev! Well, Gorbachev-ish. Guess they couldn’t get the real deal like Faraway, So Close. (Will I ever think of him without recalling the scene from The Naked Gun when Leslie Niesen wipes off his birthmark? Probably not.)
—The first long shot that fully shows Rocky and Drago in the ring is the moment the movie loses all credibility. Before, against Apollo and Clubber Lang, Rocky might have been the underdog, but that was more a matter of skill and history; physically, they were pretty equal. But asking us to believe that 5’10” Stallone is an actual, physical threat to 6’5” Dolph Lundren is just too much. More than the sexy-talking robot, this puts us in the realm of science fiction.
—Wow, this synth music during the fight sounds like a video game. Was there one? I’ll have to check… (Apparently not until 2002.)
—When Rocky punches Drago in slow motion, the sound effect is like a soaking-wet rag smacking the floor.
—Somehow Paulie rubbing Duke’s bald head for luck seems…un-PC.
—And now Rocky, draped in the American flag, makes a speech. I know Adrian is supposed to be overcome with emotion because of the fight, but Talia Shire looks like she’s totally embarrassed to be in this scene.
—Gorbachev leads the standing ovation. Because of course he would.
—And the final image, of course, is Rocky’s bloody face in front of an American flag. Because ‘Murica.
So, no: Rocky IV will not join my annual Thanksgiving Rocky-thon. I lived through it, and I can honestly say this movie is a distillation of everything that was wrong with the Eighties–knee-jerk patriotism (or just jerk patriotism), the Russians as vile automatons who lie and cheat without remorse (Apollo and Clubber Lang were villains, but they were honest in the ring; Drago is just a dick), black-and-white morality, and most importantly, not a single moment of honest, earned emotion. The Rocky films have always been full of mockable elements, but what made them forgivable was the emotion, that undeniable, original heart.
Rocky IV has no heart. Not even a burning one.