Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 3, 2010)
Back when Rocky IV hit movie screens around Thanksgiving 1985, Sylvester Stallone was probably the most popular actor in the world. He’d provided a huge hit with Rambo: First Blood Part II earlier in the year and was flying high. The jingoistic attitude of that Vietnam-related movie jibed well with the mindlessly patriotic tone prevalent during the period, so the time was ripe for Stallone to exploit that attitude for all it was worth.
As such, we finally get to watch Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) fight a white man. No, I’m not implying that the prior three Rocky movies took a racist approach to their lead’s foes; the state of affairs in boxing would have made it unrealistic for him to take on a white heavyweight champion, as black fighters have dominated the ranks for many years. Still, it was good to see the movie eliminate that black vs. white subtext, even though I don’t think any negative racial implications were present.
Ironically, as Rocky IV wipes out any anti-black possibilities found in the older movies, it substitutes a much more negative attitude as the film totally buys into anti-Soviet hysteria. As the flick begins, we’re introduced to Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a Russian super-boxer who pops onto the American scene as a terrifying representative of his oppressive culture. Totally handled and manipulated by his chief, General Koloff (Michael Pataki), and his wife, Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen). Bored with retirement, former Rocky opponent - and ex-champ - Apollo Creed decides to stage an exhibition match with Drago to get himself back in front of the public eye and also make himself feel young again.
However, things go tragically awry as Drago’s power is too much for old Apollo, and Creed goes down for the permanent camp. It’s bad enough that this robotic Russkie made the US look bad - now it’s become personal for Rocky! As such, he agrees to face probable death and take on Drago in an unsanctioned fight that occurs in the Kremlin Killer’s homeland on the pathetically symbolic Christmas Day. Oy!
To be blunt, Rocky IV is a very flawed movie. Actually, I hesitate to even refer to it as a movie; this is more like a 91-minute compilation of music videos. We’d get a few minutes of exposition and then bam! We’d move onto the next training montage accompanied by some crummy Eighties rock ditty.
The flick never even remotely attempted to offer any form of character development, as it stayed with stereotypes and easy patterns. The Russians appeared least well drawn of the bunch. Lundgren only says about seven words, and the other Soviets don’t get much better treatment. At least Lundgren proved to be a stunning presence in the role; he was quite intimidating and vicious as Drago, and his physical might made the part work better than it should have.
In Rocky III, Stallone’s ego really got the best of him, as he made the title character little more than a buffed-up robot. That attitude negatively affected the whole film, as I think it’s the most soulless of the bunch. While Rocky isn’t any better drawn in RIV, at least Stallone seems willing to make him appear more warm and endearing. The Rocky seen in RIII bore absolutely no resemblance to the original character, while the man found in RIV occasionally betrayed some semblance of the old Stallion. It’s not much of a performance, but it represented a nice rebound from the prior flick.
As the supporting characters continue to die off - Burgess Meredith’s Mickey got the axe in RIII and we lose Creed here - more and more of the burden falls upon Talia Shire’s Adrian and Burt Young’s Paulie. Unfortunately, the script does nothing to support them, so they turn into nothing more than simple caricatures. While she at least got to pop out a baby and fall into a coma during Rocky II, during the subsequent sequels Adrian is allowed to do virtually nothing other than support her husband.
Paulie remains the film’s comic relief, though he shows none of the pathos found in the character during the first Rocky. That’s okay, since none of the crew display their old humanity. Both Paulie and Adrian now exist in the Rocky universe just because they’re supposed to be there; they have nothing to add other than face recognition.
Surprisingly, one of the weakest aspects of RIV relate to its climactic fight sequence. While this thing should have been a war, it flits by so effortlessly that it comes across as a light soiree. For all of its flaws, at least the ending fight in RIII was gritty and brutal, but RIV ends with a whimper.
Note the elevation in Stallone’s ego represented by his post-bout make-up. Although it’s clear he took a much greater beating than in the first film, compare his bruised and battered raw meat face there with his modest damage here; it’s a telling indication of how unwilling the star was to portray himself in an unattractive manner.
While it’s the thinnest of the series, I don’t think Rocky IV is the worst of the bunch; the extreme lack of heart evident in the third film really bothered me. RIV doesn’t manage much more warmth, but it doesn’t really try to do so, and perversely, that makes it more successful.
Rocky IV offers little more than a jingoistic, anti-Soviet screed that pummels us into submission with a slew of music video-style workout montages. The symbolism is ridiculously obvious - such as when one sequence alternates shots of Drago’s high-tech regimen with Rocky’s wood-chopping and snow-running - and the xenophobic attitude seems extreme even for that Cold War era. Nonetheless, Rocky IV was mindlessly enjoyable for what it was, and I didn’t mind the brief experience.