Can 'The Fighter' beat communism? PopWatch Rewind looks back at 'Rocky IV'

ROCKY-IVToday, The Fighter joins the hallowed company of Oscar-baiting bruisefests like Raging Bull, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Million Dollar Baby. Reviews are glowing — check out Owen Gleiberman’s here. But even though we’re sure The Fighter is good, we’re equally sure it won’t be able to save America from the world’s greatest villains: Russians who look like Scandinavians. No, only one movie was brave enough to single-handedly defeat the Soviet Union in the ring: Rocky IV, the craziest entry in Sylvester Stallone’s boxing franchise. How did a series about a lovable everyman boxer turn into a treatise on global politics? Read on, comrade!

Darren Franich: Before this week, I had never actually seen a Rocky movie. I know, I know. But thanks to cultural osmosis, I know a lot about the franchise. I know Rocky II is basically a happy-ending remake of Rocky I. I know Rocky III invented Mr. T, and Rocky IV ended the Cold War. But since this is the first Rocky I’ve actually seen, I have to ask a clarification question: Did the franchise always feature sentient robots?

Keith Staskiewicz: I don’t even remember it always featuring sentient humans. I like the fact that this entry, after replaying the man-love-filled sparring scene between Apollo and Rocky at the end of Rocky III, immediately lets us know that we’re a long, long way from the Philadelphia Museum of Art by introducing a robot as a major secondary character. They buy him (it?) as a birthday gift for Paulie, who is somehow disappointed that instead of a car he got the most advanced artificial intelligence yet created. And instead of using it to save people in disaster zones or handle dangerous nuclear materials, they just have it bake cakes and serve as Paulie’s pleasure-bot. Then, in a strangely un-remarked upon turn of events, both Rocky and Adrian go to Russia and leave their young son alone in its care. Again, they leave their child in the care of a robot. I don’t think there are enough question marks in the world for my “What?????”

Rocky's lovable robot, shown here carrying Rocky Jr. to the fleshfarm.

KS: It really is amazing to chart the development of the series. Rocky is a quiet, low-budget drama. It exists in the same world as ours. Adrian is shy and nerdy. Rocky is a dumb but lovable, and, in a dose of realism, he loses in the end. In Rocky IV, we have superhuman Russians, James Brown, robot babysitters, a 2-1 montage-to-anything-else ratio, and a viable resolution to the most prominent global conflict of the latter half of the 20th century proposed by someone who has just been hit 2,000 times in the head.

DF: Like Rocky III, Rocky IV was written and directed by Stallone, which gives the movie a slightly more personal (I’m not going to say auteurist) feeling than most fourquels. Do you think that Rocky IV is literally Stallone’s guide to solving the Cold War?

Take that, subtlety!

KS: Sports was a pretty big deal in relation to the Cold War in the ’80s. There was the Miracle on Ice and then the twin Olympics boycotts. I think the really interesting element in the movie is how much (not literal) gymnastics it has to go through in order to keep Rocky as the plucky underdog. He’s the one that ends up training at a Soviet dacha, using oxen and carts and trees and rocks, and infusing himself with the spirit of Mother Russia, not Drago.

Yvan eht nioj!

DF: In the first boxing match, between Apollo Creed and Drago, Stallone presents a weird circus vision of America. You have dancing girls waving American flags, you have Apollo in his Uncle Sam outfit, and you have a complete performance by James Brown of “Livin’ in America.” It’s so over-the-top that it almost seems Verhoeven-esque and satirical, but Stallone is the man who made Staying Alive, so I think it’s actually supposed to be an incredibly positive vision. Remember: at this point, Stallone was a megastar, a millionaire, really an American demi-god. So this plays sort of like a a multi-millionaire’s vision of what makes America great: Pop Stars! Dancing girls! Democracy! Let’s face it, only millionaires really enjoy Las Vegas.

KS: The only reason I think the “Livin’ in America” bit isn’t entirely positive, besides how absurdly ridiculous it is, is the fact that we see it through Drago’s eyes. Before this, Drago is this monolithic, blank-faced wall of emotionless Soviet efficiency. But we start this scene down below, with Drago all alone, and as the ring rises up into a crazy orgiastic vision of flags, screaming and James Brown grunts, the look on Drago’s face is a mix of bafflement and genuine fear.

"Yo, Adrianov!"

DF: Frankly, I think Dolph Lundgren just slipped some emotional complexity in under Stallone’s nose. Lundgren, by the way, totally makes the movie. He has barely any lines, but he’s an incredible, imposing presence onscreen. And it’s strangely moving towards at the end of the big fight when he screams, “I win for me! FOR ME!” It’s as if Rocky has pummeled him into individuality. He’s not fighting for the Party anymore. He’s not a number. He’s a human being!

KS: It’s fascinating that for most of the movie, him and Brigitte Nielsen are the height of polite, gracious diplomacy. It’s Apollo Creed that just keeps needling them at the press conference. It’s the American press that scoff derisively whenever they say something. It’s the Las Vegas crowd that boos when Drago gets on stage. But as soon as they stand up for themselves, the Americans are all like, “How dare they?!” When the Russian crowd starts booing, the Americans are shocked, shocked! They’ve never heard so much booing since… well, that other match when they were booing. Is this a multi-faceted representation of brinksmanship and realpolitik? Is Rocky IV accidentally a brilliant satire of post-war American diplomacy? Is Stallone our century’s Jonathan Swift? The answer is yes, yes, and robots.

DF: I have another reading of the movie. Consider: What do we know about Ivan Drago? He’s married to Brigitte Nielsen. He’s beloved by the entire nation. He takes steroids. He’s facing off against Rocky Balboa, who is equally beloved by his nation, but has somehow remained a lovable everyman. He’s married to everywife Adrian and is father to everykid Rocky Jr. Of course, in real life, it was Stallone who was married to Brigitte Nielsen, and there’s plenty of evidence that he used steroid-like substances. (See: his run-in with the Aussie government, his interview on the Today show, his own website.) So, Rocky IV is really an interior conflict: the man Stallone wants to be, and the man he’s afraid he actually is. It’s like the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Luke fights Darth Vader on Dagobah, but he’s really fighting himself. The problem with this theory is that it implies that Stallone experienced some sort of life-changing epiphany, while in reality his next film was Cobra.

Mrs. Stallone, seen here with Bizarro-Stallone. Lens flares provided by the J.J. Abrams Foundation.

DF: I have another Rocky-newbie question: Was Rocky always as monosyllabic as he is in Rocky IV, or is Stallone playing him as especially punch-drunk? I swear, there are some scenes where other characters talk at length to Rocky, and his only responses are “Yeah,” “I guess,” and “Uh-Huh.”

KS: He always had Stallone’s trademark drunken, 33-played-at-16-rpm sound. But Rocky definitely gets weirder and more free-associative as the series goes on. By Rocky V, it’s as if, before every scene, Stallone ripped up the script, took two Valium, and then ad-libbed. But even here, what little dialogue Rocky has is amazingly in keeping with the idea that this guy has had his brain shaken more times than a martini made during an earthquake.

Ultimate Fighting began here.

KS: Alright, it’s almost offensive we’ve made it this far without mentioning the centerpiece of the film. Stallone made the training montage that raised the bar for all training montages, then carried that bar up a sheer mountainside, and chopped it in two with an ax. It’s essentially two montages in one; a month of training for both Rocky and Drago condensed into five minutes or so. And it’s so full of awesome that they need to insert Adrian’s arrival to Russia in the middle so that we have a minute to breath before we drown in testosterone.

DF: “Drago does lunges on a Soviet machine! CUT TO: Rocky, pulling Uncle Paulie in a dogsled!”

KS: I love the implication that there is something about doing the same exercises outdoors that makes it more effective, like running through a river and being yoked to a sled has some measurable benefit inside the ring. One would guess that Rocky might have been better served by, I don’t know, sparring with somebody during his month or so in Russia.

In Soviet Russia, sled drives you!

DF: We’re sort of making fun, but I have to say, I was really impressed by Rocky IV. There’s a total purity of vision behind the movie, even if it’s a totally gonzo vision. The key is that Rocky doesn’t just beat Russia — he beats Russia, and then he tries to convince Russia that we can all get along. In his final speech, he preaches tolerance, but he can only preach tolerance after defeating the other country’s champion in a brutal bloody deathmatch. It’s as if the American military marched through the Siberian countryside, decimated Moscow, and then hosted a free concert in the Kremlin where Elvis Costello sang “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” And this is all represented in “boxing” scenes that bear no resemblance to actual boxing, in that both fighters get punched about one gabillion times in the face, with a sound effect that sounds a little bit like an anvil hitting concrete.

KS: But with all the noticeable effect of a sack of throw pillows hitting concrete. What is it about Rocky’s fighting that ultimately wins over the Russians? I mean, I feel like if Derek Jeter leapt into the stands and saved a child from choking to death on a cracker jack while simultaneously apprehending a disguised Osama bin Laden, he’d still be booed by Red Sox fans. The Russian-U.S. rivalry was only slightly less vicious than that in 1985, and yet somehow Rocky manages to have everyone chanting for him by the end, nationality be damned! Even fake Gorbachev.

DF: Fauxbachev!

You laugh, but this was more or less the plan in Vietnam and Iraq.

Next Week: Disney is trying to launch a massive new multimedia franchise with Tron: Legacy. We’ll look back at the original cult classic Tron, and try to ponder whether the movie is an archaic videogame premake of Jumanji or a still-topical film about computers, cyberspace, and the Information Age. One thing’s for sure: Light Cycles are awesome.

Marriage! Am I right, folks?

PopWatch Rewind

Comments (42 total) Add your comment
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  • tracy bluth

    Everytime someone mentions this film (or Dolph) I think of It’s Always Sunny. In “Hundred Dollar Baby” (aka that one were Charlie takes steroids) they proclaim this the best film ever, and in “Mac and Charlie Write a Movie” they say Dolph is the most underrated actor of all time (still waiting for “Crime Stinks” to come out…).

    • Liza

      I love Dolph Lundgren. I do think he is really underrated. I mean maybe not most of all time but definitely underrated.

      • Kristina

        The “Hearts on Fire” montage is my favorite out of the ones featured in this classic Rocky film.

  • CC

    I was JUST telling my students (freshmen in college) about 80s films that demonstrate how Americans viewed the former Soviet Union and laughed reading this review while forwarding the link to my class. I always thought Rocky IV was the most over-the-top but also the most entertaining. I always interpreted the Apollo fight slightly differently. Basically, we (USA) often think we are much better (either overall or in some particular area) than other countries, and are loud and flashy about it (Apollo’s entrance). His K.O. is a reminder to Americans that we do have weaknesses to improve upon and aren’t always as strong and wonderful as we think. But obviously a month in the mountains working out in the snow is all we need to improve! LOL

    • harry

      Epic explanation!!!

  • shawn

    I am a HUGE fan of the entire Rocky series. I have always maintained that it is Rocky IV, not Rocky V, that is the odd movie of the series. This article just reinforces that idea.

    If you sit down and watch all 6 Rocky films, you will see that it is Rocky IV that has a tone, look, sound, that is different than the rest of the Rocky movies. To me, it is very much this hybrid of WWE and MTV circa 1985…more than a Rocky film.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like part IV a lot, but I always felt like V was unfairly criticized when it actually was a return to what Rocky was all about in the 1st place…being the poor underdog/streetfighter instead of a superhero.

    • Liza

      YES SHAWN! You are my people! Rocky 5 is one of the best in my mind because it’s about what it was in the first one, it was all about Rocky finding his place in the world! I think people just didn’t like it because of Tommy Gunn’s mullet.

      • harry

        ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!

    • Mr. Holloway

      While I agree that Rocky IV (and to a slightly lesser extent Rocky III, which features a character called “Thunderlips”) is the odd duck of the series…

      …I just can’t go with you on Rocky V. I think it’s absolutely depressing.

      If anything “Rocky Balboa”/Rocky 6 is the one that was a return to what Rocky was all about in the first place. (Minus the brain damage.)

      • Pan

        I think Rocky Balboa is my favorite one. Perhaps it’s because it’s newest and I haven’t analyzed it as much as the others. The story of how a man deals with aging. That final image in the credits of Stallone standing on the steps of the museum brings me to tears every time, especially if you watch it with his commentary.

      • The Truth

        Rocky 1, 2 and 6 are classic Rocky and could be claimed as great cinema. 3 and 4 are what happens when cinema is corrupted into summer blockbuster vehicles. 5 well,,, 6 gave 5 relevance. How did Rocky go from a mansion and expensive cars to a row home, Rocky 5.

  • Christian

    ”It’s so over-the-top that it almost seems Verhoeven-esque and satirical, but Stallone is the man who made Staying Alive, so I think it’s actually supposed to be an incredibly positive vision.”

    Re-watch the scene. It’s not just Drago that has an issue with the pageantry; Rocky’s face throughout is one of disappointment, not celebration. He has a similar attitude in everything leading up to the fight (press conference, conversation with Apollo). The fact that Apollo dies after all that is pretty much a sign that Stallone via Rocky views the entire “USA! USA! USA!” mentality as counter-productive as the closed Russian mentality.

    • Tank Girl

      Totally agree. Rocky didn’t want Apollo to fight in the first place and then is rightfully disappointed that it turned into a circus instead of a serious match.

  • Pan

    Every year on Thanksgiving, my family and I watch the complete Rocky series. It is on literally all day and we only turn it off for an hour when we are eating. I think they say it all in the fifth movie when the promotor said “The man fought wars in the ring.” He did. I love love love Rocky! I think that my favorite part of this movie though is when Dolph Lundgren, emotionlessly, says “If he dies, he dies.” How is there ever a debate over who the baddest one of all is. I mean DAM! I think that the 4th Rocky was kind of so-so (still awesome but not as awesome as the others) because it was a story of vengeance, essentially. Not a story about Rocky proving what he’s got.

  • Mike

    Hilarious dissection of the movie! It never seemed this weird when I watched it so many times, then again I was seven and it was in the mid-80s.

  • Ivan D.

    Pretty good article. Funny, yet thought-provoking. The analysis was something I wasn’t expecting in EW.

    I was in graduate school when this came out, and a bunch of us went to see in at the theatre. We couldn’t hear what little dialogue there is as the audience noisily cheering on Rock as he pummeled Drago. So we started to cheer for the Russian, which almost resulted in WW III as shouts of “Commie bastards” were hurled in our direction (along with Junior Mints). We almost were thrown out of the theatre until our law school friend mentioned lawsuit. Good times!!!

    Besides, “I must break you” ranks up there as some of the most amazing dialogue every written for the movies. Didn’t Rocky Intavenous win Best Screenplay at the Oscars that year?

    • Ivan D.


    • Darren Franich

      Ivan, that is one of the best moviegoing stories I’ve ever heard. You commie rat.

  • Julie

    I am ashamed to say this is my favorite Rocky movie. Every time it comes on tv I have to watch it. My favorite line by Drago “I will break you.”

    • Pan

      Drago had all the best lines.

    • Damon

      There is no shame in liking this. :)

    • Nathan

      I still remember how cool I thought that robot was when I first saw this as a kid, I was so wrong. Great movie though!

  • Kristen

    I am pretty sure that RockyIV was a commentary on American excess, politically and culturally. THen Apollo gets a smack down. Then Rocky goes back tot he basics and beats communism. The first Apollo-Drago fight is “entertainment” so the booing audience is not engaged. When Rocky goes to the USSR, it MEANS someething. Actually a pretty good series of movies to RockyIV. Very indicative of the times we actually lived through.

  • Damon

    Of the five Rocky movies(part V never happened) Rocky IV will always be my first choice.

    • sandd

      I couldn’t agree more with everything you said!

  • Damon

    And it has the greatest training montage ever. Sing with me HEARTS OF FIRE STRONG DESIRE!!!!

    • Liz

      I own the soundtrack to Rocky 4 and listen to it in the gym almost every time I go! Haha! There’s something about rounding out that last mile on the treadmill to the music of Rocky that keeps you going.

      • sandd

        My song of choice is “There’s no easy way out….there’s no shortcut home..” LOVE IT!! Best music to go with one of the best montages! Rocky IV soundtrack rules!!

  • sarah d

    Those picture captions had me losing my coffee via my nose. Marriage!

  • Atami

    can i just say that the soundtracks are as memorble as the series

  • Will

    Rocky 4 is the best after the first one. I LOVE THIS MOVIE!

  • Xander

    I pretty much loathed Rocky IV, because I loved the reality of series so much. Everything always seemed, at the very least, plausible in one way or another (and in fact, the first Rocky was based on a real Muhammad Ali fight against ‘unknown’ Chuck Wepner). But it’s like KS says above in one of his early comments. The reality of the series melts away in number IV. And personally, when it turned out that Drago had 3 or 4 times the punching power of the average heavyweight, all reality went out the window for me. Drago’s first punch should have killed Rocky. It became a ridiculous comic book. I love comic books. But I hated that Stallone took his wonderful ‘semi realistic’ character so completely into the land of make believe.

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