Rocky IV has always been my least favorite of the series. This doesn’t mean that I dislike it, just that I think it doesn’t quite come together as well as the others. In it we find an absolutely shredded Rocky Balboa going on a mission to avenge the death of his friend and trainer, Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago during an exhibition match.
Heavy stuff, and it plays out with the subtlety of a battleship crashing into a mountain. It’s a loud, showy movie that consists of no fewer than three montages, one of which flashes back to a previous montage (which only just ended moments prior). The final fight is exciting as all hell, but as originally presented, I never found myself rooting for Rocky for any reason other than that I’m supposed to. In the time of Rocky IV, the Russians were de facto bad guys. But in the text of Rocky IV, they don’t really come off as particularly villainous. In fact, as far as Drago’s team is concerned, they just want to show off who they believe to be their country’s finest athlete (yes, I know that a lot of the Cold War was fought in the spheres of ego and perception, but our world is so politicized now that this line of thought bores me — I also don’t think that any ostensible political aims of the film are particularly fleshed out).
Met with this challenge, the Americans outwardly mock Drago and his team, refusing him the fight he wants, instead letting him fight an exhibition match with the former champ, Apollo Creed, who proceeds to have an entire James Brown concert as his entrance music while Drago is transported to the ring on a motorized platform like a cow to slaughter. I watch a fair amount of boxing in my non-movie life, and if any fighter came to the ring the way Apollo did, I’d silently be hoping to see them beaten to death in the ring just as Apollo ultimately was. Here in the cinematic world, Apollo’s entrance is mostly irrelevant (both cuts do show his cohorts rolling their eyes as he performs Living in America, however). What is relevant is that Rocky didn’t throw down the towel in time, and he thusly feels responsible for Apollo’s deadly ego trip. His mission is to make it right by fighting Drago and proving once again that he’s the best. Adrian won’t support what she sees as Rocky’s death wish, but we won’t listen to her. Rocky sure as hell doesn’t.
What follows is an action-packed adventure that feels nothing like a Rocky movie and everything like what a thousand different coked-up 1980s businessmen think of as “macho.” By the end, the Russian boxing fans are rooting for Rocky who goes on to make a vapid, uninspired speech about “change” that effectively ends the Cold War. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s so much fun that it’s hard to be too critical (he says after devoting hundreds of words to criticism).
So naturally, when Sylvester Stallone announced that he was working on a new edit of Rocky IV, now titled Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut, I was very curious to see what type of overhaul he was able to perform on a movie that already seems to be lacking enough footage to feel complete.
As it turns out, this new cut of Rocky IV is remarkably different. It’s no better or worse, but it is different, which feels impossible. To hear Stallone tell it (and you can — he released an EXCELLENT ‘making of’ video on YouTube) he added 40 minutes of unseen footage. The final runtime is almost identical to that of the original film, which means that a lot of stuff has been cut as well. Paulie’s robot (which I must remind you was fucked by Paulie so much that its programming spontaneously changed) has been removed entirely. While I agree that the robot is silly, I kinda love the oddball filmmaking energy it represents. Unfortunately, with the robot gone, we lose pretty much all of Paulie in the process. We still get his wonderful “unzip myself” speech that he gives Rocky as they approach the ring, but it’s not sitting atop much of anything in the new cut. The absence of SICO (that’s the robot’s name!) also helps the film to avoid the trappings of Rocky, Paulie, and Adrian leaving Rocky Jr. home alone on Christmas in the care of a spermed-up robot.
Stallone also worked to beef up the humanity of his remaining characters. Adrian is featured a little bit more, as is Apollo. This helps facilitate the latter’s motivations a bit better, but doesn’t do much to enhance the presence of the former. Adrian is almost always right, and the series at large regularly ignores her valid concerns (Creed corrected this problem in its characterization of Bianca). The new cut also brings back Rocky’s lukewarm attempt at validating his need to fight in Rocky II: “I never asked you to stop being a woman, so please don’t ask me to stop being a man.”
It’s a nonsensical line in Rocky II, and while it may apply more to the macho sensibilities of Rocky IV, it still doesn’t make much sense.
Stallone also wished to beef up the characterization of Ivan Drago. Originally depicted as a soulless pawn, the new cut aims to humanize him by leaning more heavily into Drago’s personal motivations over that of his countrymen. There is more material to this end to be sure, but I can’t say it fleshes him out any better than before (as the one person who read between the lines of the original cut, I may have already leaned far enough in this direction that even a substantial change in characterization admittedly might not register).
The final fight has the same rhythm, but most of the footage is entirely different. Stallone wanted to remove any instances where it’s clear that contact wasn’t being made, and to that end the new cut is a great success. The final fight looks fantastic, and offers plenty of surprises to people like me, who could act out every beat of the original brawl from memory. It’s exciting, powerful stuff, even though it leads to the same laughable closing speech.
And that’s really the takeaway here. While it is evidently impossible to improve upon a film like Rocky IV, it’s equally impossible to rob it of what makes it work. Watching the final fight in a theater packed with enthused Philadelphians is not something I’m ever going to forget. I defy you not to get caught up in the battle. I challenge you not to be moved by Rocky’s work ethic. I dare you to emerge from any iteration of Rocky IV not inspired to do as many push-ups as you can (three is my limit, four is my goal).