Some of you may have read my recent review of Captain America, in which I lampooned him as the worst symbol of the ‘American Dream’ since Ronald Raegan’s ‘Star Wars’ initiative. Well, recently I re-watched Rocky IV and it dawned on me… Captain America needs to be more like Rocky IV! None of this brazen poncing about and senseless destruction. None of these grand ideals about winning a war single-handedly – no! What any true American hero needs to win over the hearts and minds of his admirers are simple heroic qualities: humility, virtue, determination and most importantly a realistic sense of self. Rocky has all these qualities and more.
Come the fourth instalment we know full well how the game goes: Rocky faces an insurmountable foe, Rocky overcomes personal dilemma, Rocky trains hard, Rocky fights, Rocky wins (at least in sentiment, if not in literal terms). After following him for three glorious victories, Stallone rightly sensed that this next film needed an extra layer to give it a bit of a push. Ever the astute writer, and it being 1985 and the height of the Cold War, Stallone took Rocky to the Pentagon by pitting him against ‘the most perfectly trained athlete ever’, the USSR’s Ivan Drago, sportingly played by the man-mountain that is Dolph Lundgren. In a role which would pave the way for Lundgren, at the time an unknown Chemical Engineering student from Stockholm, to become one of the world’s most renowned action stars, Ivan Drago required Lundgren to embody the steely powerhouse of the Soviet Union with every ounce of his 6’5” frame.
In one of the most memorable shots of the film, Drago and Balboa stand face to chest, fists at the ready, prepared for the fight of their lives and it is at this moment that Lundgren’s sheer physical brute force is fully appreciated: anyone who can make Stallone look like a short-stop is pretty damned big. And as much as this is still an intimate character piece, Rocky IV perfectly sums up the American fear of the pulverizing battleship which was the Soviet Union, and the American sentiment of triumph in the face of the greatest defeat.
Rocky IV is oft berated as being, according to one reviewer, “montages and violence: that’s it”. There is certainly a degree of truth to this appraisal, applied to a 91 minute film which includes four montages, each around five minutes long. Certainly montages and violence are key to the film but they are by no means its driving force. Lest we forget the death of Rocky’s dear friend Apollo Creed at the hands of Drago, the heightened tension between Rocky and Adrian, the heart-wrenching goodbye between Rocky and his son (does he have a name in this film!?) and then there’s the fight itself! All wonderful examples of writing and directing, aimless reflective/driving montages aside.
As per usual, the film opens with a flashback to the climax of the last film, Rocky’s spectacular defeat over the truly terrifying Clubber Lang. He’s on top of the world, but for long time friend and sparring equal Apollo Creed, there’s no option of growing old gracefully and going down without a… err.. fight. So when word comes from the USSR that their prized amateur boxer Drago wants to make it in the professional leagues, Creed seizes the opportunity as his chance to go down in a blaze of glory whilst showing those damned Reds what the USA is made of! An exhibition fight is planned, which Apollo gears himself up for with a sense of casualness reminiscent of Rocky’s debonair attitude towards his match with Lang at the beginning of Rocky III.
The match itself a sight for sore eyes from beginning to end. It begins with such ‘USA-A-OK’ brashness that we feel for Drago, truly a stranger in a strange land if ever there were one. As he rises through the floor on a mechanical boxing ring to the overpowering tones of James Brown’s ‘Living in America’, scantily sequin clad ladies prance about and everywhere is full of the celebrations of capitalism, glitz and glamour; everything that austerity-driven Drago and his communist regime comrades stand against. Ever the showman, Creed descends from the ceiling on some gold monstrosity dressed as Uncle Sam whilst Drago stands, a lone figure in this capitalist nightmare, confused and aghast before proceeding to punch Creed’s lights out in two short rounds.
Perhaps it’s all over too quickly from an audience point of view, but it is the swiftness of Apollo Creed’s death which takes your breath away and brings not just this film, but boxing as a sport, firmly back down to earth. During the first three films we’ve almost become de-sensitized to the absolute carnage and physical ramifications of each boxing bout. I remember the first time I watched the Rocky films (which I’m proud to say was in one sitting. Yes, all six of them) I could barely sit through the climax of Rocky because of its violence but within three short film’s I was lusting for the challengers’’ blood and goading Rocky to “knock his face in”. When we see Rocky continually getting up after each levelling and asking for more, fresh as a daisy by the beginning of the next film, it becomes easy to forget that each punch is enough to send a regular Joe to Mars and back. Each broken rib is weeks and months of pain. Each fight is another day or two longer to recover. Apollo’s death puts all this carnage back into perspective and back into our heads, so come Rocky’s decision to challenge Drago we fear not only for his success but for his very life in a way which I certainly hadn’t experienced since that first blow came to him in Rocky.
It’s following the death of his dear friend and trainer (since Mickey’s tear-jerking death in Rocky III, it was up to Creed to whip Rocky back into shape) that we see Rocky at his lowest and in turn, the film at its lowest point with the aforementioned aimless/reflective driving montage. Driving through the streets of Philadelphia after dark, remembering all those great moments from the previous three films to the cock-rock tones of Robert Tepper’s (whoever he is) ‘No Easy Way Out’ is hardly film making at its best but I’m happy to sit it out for the sake of the rest of the film.
Meanwhile, despite a talking robot for company, tensions are high at home. Long suffering but ever the devoted wife, Adrian pleads with Rocky not to get drawn back into the ring to avenge his fallen friend and for the first time tells Rocky he can’t win. It’s a difficult moment to watch – there’s a strong sense that deep down, Rocky knows she’s right but the fighter in him can’t lay his demons to rest so easily and as he delivers one of the strongest speeches in the film (“to beat me, he’s going to have to kill me. And to kill me, he’s gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me. And to do that, he’s got to be willing to die himself”) and at once I’m behind Rocky all the way, till death us do part. Or something.
Rocky’s back to his sombre, downbeat self at the press conference where he announces his intention to challenge Drago in Russia on Christmas day, no less. The political insulting/banter is at an all time high thanks to Paulie’s remonstrations about being “the un-silent majority. Bigmouth.” Paulie is perhaps at his wise-cracking best in Rocky IV – if he thought training in a LA slum in the last film was bad, training in the barren sub-zero terrain of Russia is about a million times worse. “Are you planning to grow reindeer or something? How the heck are you supposed to train here? What a depressing vacation. What about the Rose Bowl game? I hope they have my comics here” he moans before falling arse over tit in the hip-height snow. Classic comedy moments…
Watching Rocky become bigger, better, faster and indeed stronger than he’s ever been is a joy to behold, even if it does take the form of yet another montage set to the worryingly catchy ‘Hearts on Fire’ [I’d recommend Gaviscon]. His determination is awesome (think more Hercules, less surfing or Oreos) – the camera flits between shots of Rocky scaling mountains and trudging through the snow carrying trees (yes, trees) to Drago training in a sterile, synthesized studio with wires taped to every sweat duct and steroids aplenty. By the end of the montage Rocky is easily matching the robotic strength of Drago. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s gonna be one helluva fight.
Christmas day looms, but you’ll forgive Rocky if he’s not capturing the spirit of the occasion. Russia may well be the creator of St Nick but festivity is far from the flavour of the moment as Rocky and his posse enter the ring in St Petersburg to the heavy tones of a staunchly pro-soviet crowd who makes it clear from the start that the best present they could want this Christmas is to see Rocky reduced to a pile of dust within the same two short rounds it took to take out Creed. In their own display of national pride, before the fight the crowd launches to their feet and belt out a heartfelt rendition of the Russian national anthem (which I’m told is an outdated version!) whilst a glorious mural of Drago set against a red background, adorned with hammer and sickles descends elegantly from the ceiling. Rocky takes it all in his stride, no doubt shrewd enough to have guessed his reception in St Petersburg would be a far cry away from dancing girls and the star spangled banner.
Round One: Drago casually makes mincemeat out of our hero, fully expecting him to drop as easily as Creed. It’s a truly uncomfortable experience watching Rocky being pounded in just the same way as Apollo. I feel for Adrian and their (perhaps too) young son watching at home and share their sense of futility and powerlessness as Rocky visibly struggles to maintain his upright standing (literally!) in the boxing world.
Round Two: Rocky brings it back with a sharp punch to the cheekbone, drawing blood for the first time and visibly shaking Drago in his boots. It may not be much compared to the pummelling he’s already taken himself, but drawing blood from the ‘invincible’ Drago is enough to spur Rocky on and it’s not long before he’s dishing out his own taste of pain until he has to be dragged off Drago at the end of the round.
As round after round gives no victor the fight becomes less about boxing and more about each man’s determination not to surrender to the other. It’s a deadlocked battle but as Drago takes on the battered and bruised appearance we’re so used to seeing in Rocky’s opponents the butterflies in my stomach settle somewhat, as I’m sure do Rocky’s. The commentators call it a ‘street fight’ and I’d be inclined to agree. There are seemingly no rules in this ring and true to Rocky-esque form this is anyone’s game to the last. We are allowed small glimpses into the inner workings of these two fine fighters through their inter-round pep talks and a particularly telling moment comes when Rocky is assured that Drago’s “not a machine, he’s a man, he’s a man” just as Drago, bewildered by his opponent’s unexpected strength, says of him “he’s not human. He’s like a piece of iron.” All in a day’s work for the Italian Stallion.
Cue the next montage. Round after round, punch after punch ensue and come the final round it seems that the tables might just have turned in Rocky’s direction. Drago, once a bastion of physical perfection, has been reduced to a crumbling, bloodied wreck. He’s still upright, but not for much longer – his face is pleading to take no more but his pride and stubbornness won’t let him fall until he can stand no more. But it’s not just Drago who’s transformed during the course of the fight – the crowd which derided him so strongly at the beginning is now chanting Rocky’s name, calling for his victory, behind him all the way.
Rocky – not exactly looking like a spring daisy himself – knows it’s not over until it’s over and the fifteenth round sees him giving every last ounce of his strength into pummelling Drago to the ground and with one final blow, the match is finished. The crowd goes wild as that ‘Rocky wins’ theme music we all know so well and love so much blasts out of nowhere as the hero himself is hoisted up on the shoulders of his enemies and swathed in the American Flag. Even though his face resembles a beetroot salad, there’s no mistaking that expression of relief and joy and pain all rolled into one which genuinely reduces me to tears. Even the Russian nobility jump to their feet in applause. No one is untouched by Rocky, not because he beat Drago but because of his emotional and mental strength. Here is a man who travelled half way across the world to settle a score with a man who killed his best friend. No one thought he would last five minutes, let alone fifteen rounds, and yet here he is now, having defeated all the odds and still standing, a true symbol of universal human determination if ever there were one.
His winner’s speech only adds to our admiration for Rocky. He doesn’t even mention the fight because to him it’s not important. As he has displayed so many times in the past, for Rocky boxing is not about watching the opponent fall but going the distance to get there:
“During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”
Rocky’s simple but heartfelt sentiment may be lacking in political nuance and historical context but it does the job in raising this crowd to its feet in celebration of a hero who happens to be an American but who most of all has shown us that it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about how you grow as a person along the way.