This might be a bold statement as a fan of the Rocky series, but I’m not a fan of Rocky IV. I love to talk about its strange quirks and ham-fisted approach to Cold War politics, but it’s a mess that I can’t get behind. It did well with the fans of the series at the time of release (certainly better than Rocky V did), and it is the most successful entry at the box office, but I want to ask: is it a good “Rocky Movie”?
What staples are commonly associated with the Rocky series? American flag shorts, montages, “Eye of the Tiger”-style anthems, patriotism, the final fight. These are all present in these films, but they are not even close to the most important aspects. I think of the love story between Rocky and Adrian, I think of Rocky’s sweet nature and patience, I think of Apollo’s boisterous charm, Paulie’s tortured soul and Mickie’s regrets. These are the things that make me love these movies, and those aren’t the images I was given before deciding to watch them all. There has never been anything interesting to me about jingoistic, repetitive films full of montages, films that predictably lead to two guys wailing on each other. Still, that is the imagery that surrounds the series, and it all seems to come from Rocky IV. I was shocked at the indie sensibility of the original film, the emotional weight of its sequel, and the pure joy of the third film – mostly because I had been sold that this was a dumb franchise with little to offer. If anyone ever rolls their eyes when I mention my love for these films now, I believe it’s down to the shadow this entry casts.
That’s not to say I hate the movie, I’m a big enough fan that I will follow Stallone’s character anywhere, and there are definitely pleasures to be had. Carl Weathers is on top form; Apollo gets some of his all-time best scenes here. His flamboyant entrance to his fight with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), his frustration at the press conference, and his conversations with Rocky are all full of wonderful character moments. It’s a shame when his character is removed completely, in a scene that’s clearly meant to be setting emotional stakes and yet doesn’t elicit anything other than disappointment. The rest of the film feels empty without him, but it’s not something the characters deal with at all. Rocky gets a little sad, gets a little angry, has flashbacks to earlier in the movie and the series for a significant amount of time – but there is no development, none of the humanity that has made him such a great protagonist before.
By this point, Rocky has become a fairly standardised Stallone action hero rather than the lovable and sincere man that we know. He has become a lot smarter, and he doesn’t make goofy jokes or talk too much. This shift began in Rocky III, but that movie succeeds by its focus on the budding friendship between him and Apollo.
I would posit that the most important element of the series is the relationship between Rocky and Adrian, and the way her character is treated often reflects the quality of the film. She’s not in a coma here like in Rocky II, but she might as well be. Rocky and Adrian’s central disagreement is nearly identical to the one they had in the previous movie – he wants to fight, even if it means losing everything. It’s not an interesting starting point, but there’s no reason that there can’t be a repetition of themes or a continuation of a dispute. The problem here is that it’s only resolved in a line of dialogue, Adrian turning up to suddenly change her mind so that she can be there for the final fight.
The villain of the piece is, of course, Ivan Drago. He’s memorable because he’s Dolph Lundgren, who is effectively typecast as a Russian virtual-cyborg. I believe Stallone was trying to have Drago be a real person hiding behind a ruthless, cold villain. While he literally kills Apollo in their fight, commenting “If he dies, he dies,” he is functionally just a puppet of the state, standing ahead of the real vitriol that comes from his wife and his backing goverment. Unfortunately, moments where he is humanised are too few and far between, to the point where it’s hard to remember that this is a real person and not a blunt American representation of the USSR. Lundgren handles it pretty well, but the few lines that make him stand out aren’t really picked up on again.
Not that anyone was expecting a nuanced take on the tense politics from the fourth installment in a boxing franchise, but Rocky IV has a particularly awkward and wrong-headed approach the complex Cold War. While the press conference with Drago and Apollo shows the hostility and competition between the two nations, it worked mostly as a character moment. Apollo literally wears the American flag as an outfit, and so takes on everything it represents. Carl Weathers perfectly displays his cocksure behaviour quickly giving way to insecurity in his expressions, which tells us a lot more about what the exchange means to him than any dialogue could. With his death, we are now set up for an emotional change to occur in Rocky – can Rocky turn his anger into compassion, and not hate someone who is driven by the same patriotism Apollo was? Sadly, by time we get to Russia, Moscow is represented by medieval peasants with horse-drawn carts, while Rocky is assigned mysterious “official chaperones” to follow his every move while he’s there, culminating in a showdown in front of the rich and evil Communist leaders.
The victory in the final fight is Rocky forcing Drago to fight him as an individual (“I fight for me! FOR ME!!”) rather than a puppet of Mother Russia, something that requires delicate character work that is fumbled. Instead, he whole climactic battle is reduced to our hero punching the communism out of the Russian. His line “If I can change, and you can change, then everybody can change!” only highlights the fact that Rocky hasn’t actually had any kind of an arc. He effectively postulates that Russia should just chill out and have a beer with America, as we’re all the same deep down. It would be sweet if Rocky had any emotional development in the story, but instead he’s here simply because the plot needed him to be. Rocky makes his speech wrapped in an American flag, and the Soviet General Secretary stands and applauds, his aides following suit. It’s baffling. Rocky has always been about acceptance, sincerity and kindness – so dressing up confused xenophobia (“This is US versus THEM!”) in the guise of the beloved character feels dishonest.
Putting aside whether this approach works specifically, another issue is the idea that Rocky is being brought into this playing field at all. The general humanism of the first three films are applied to a global political conflict, stretching it so thin to cover the cultural flavor of the moment that it loses any of the original emotional pull. While they are not wholly serious movies, the original trilogy, particularly Rocky, are notable for their restraint. It’s hard to believe that Rocky went from simply hoping to “Go the distance” in his first outing, to taking part in a fight to potentially save the world, to then winning over the hearts and minds of a different nation with a few words. There is an understandable, precise logic to most of the Rocky series. While it might not always be 100% accurate, it is mostly believable as a cinematic portrayal of an actual boxing career. Putting him up against an almost-inhuman villain, with the world on the line, raises the stakes far too high without any kind of emotional through-line. And the question isn’t whether Rocky IV is fun, or allowed to be fun. Rocky III is immensely funny, joyous, and crowd-pleasing, but didn’t need to take the same narrative shortcuts to get there.
Again, I do not completely hate this movie. The decisions made for the ongoing story are ones I can live with, even if I don’t believe they work on their own merits. The first twenty minutes or so are perfect, and live up to the world that Rocky III established. Drago has at least a few interesting moments of humanity that added a little depth, and every single scene with Apollo has a wonderful energy to it. It even introduces artificial intelligence in the form of Paulie’s robot, a sub-plot that is so weird I can’t help but love it. But I believe that every Rocky movie brings something new and interesting to the table, except for this one. There’s little achieved beyond simply collecting all the iconography of the series, placing them within a structure made familiar by films far simpler than the earlier Rocky entries.
Rocky IV shifts the series even further away from the character drama of the original film and into a new plastic mythology with little emotional resonance, which comes across as pandering to the fans; something that I think partly explains why it did so well at the box office. It hyper-charges the recognisable parts of the first three movies into something inoffensive, conventional and ultimately facile. In a way, it makes me love the series more, for proving that there is an essence to it beyond the associated imagery, that there is an inner quality through which these films can succeed or fail. There is more to the Rocky life story than the montages, and there is more to the character than a pair of American Flag shorts. Rocky IV is not a good film, and aside from the clothes it wears, it’s not a particularly good Rocky movie. We may have wanted this story, as fans of the world Stallone created, but it was never what we needed.