THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! ‘Rocky IV’ – The One Where Rocky Defeats Communism

GameStop, Inc.
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All oiled up like Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavík.

If we were to compile a list of things which we know for sure that Sylvester Stallone doesn’t fear, atop that list would be his inflated sense of self-importance and sequels. Combining the two is a natural fit for Stallone. He’s done it before and he’ll certainly do it again. Stallone’s ego drives him in ways that others cannot comprehend. It’s the cause of his greatest successes and his greatest failures. Whether writing, directing, or starring, Stallone carries such creative control over his franchises that it’s impossible to place authorship on others. While he didn’t direct each installment, Stallone wrote each of the sequels for the RamboExpendables, and Rocky films. Before Stallone would place John Rambo in Afghanistan to assist the mujahideen rebels in Rambo III, who unfortunately in real life would evolve into the Taliban, against the Soviets, Stallone would shepherd his most iconic role, Rocky Balboa, and have him single-handedly end the Cold War through boxing.

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I guess Apollo Creed was…expendable.

As pretty much all the Rocky sequels start, Rocky IV begins with a recap of the previous film’s ending. After defeating Clubber Lang and regaining his heavyweight belt, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is finally living the good life. He drives fancy sports cars and is able to by his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young), a robot. In a subplot that undoubtedly served as the inspiration for Spike Jonze’s Her, Paulie falls in love with his robot companion. Rocky’s former nemesis and current best friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), has grown restless in retirement. Seeking another chance at his past glory, Creed agrees to fight Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a powerful boxer from the Soviet Union. During what was meant to be a friendly exhibition, Creed is killed by Drago. Standing in Creed’s corner, Balboa hesitated to throw the towel in the ring to stop the fight.

Balboa ignores the pleas of his loving wife, Adrian (Talia Shire), and son, Rocky agrees to fight Drago in Moscow, hoping to avenge his fallen friend. To prepare for the fight, Rocky secludes himself in Siberia and prepares to fight using the power of montage. Like longstanding international tensions between the two states, the fight between Balboa and Drago is a knockdown, drag-out fight that never seems to end. Until it does. Rocky wins. USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!

As Stallone’s creative control and ego grew, so did the obstacles and abilities of Rocky Balboa. In the first film, Balboa, much like Stallone, was an underdog fighting for his chance at the title. The first sequel provided a rematch and a triumphant ending. In Rocky III, Balboa must fight Hulk Hogan and Mr. T. By Rocky IV, Balboa isn’t just battling Ivan Drago, who is said to have the most powerful punch in the known world, but battling the Cold War. He delivers a speech which touches the hearts and minds of the Soviet people, including Mikhail Gorbachev who rises to applaud. On June 12th 1987, when President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” he was channeling the greatest of all Americans – Rocky Balboa.

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James Brown before all the unpleasantness.

Part of the reason Rocky IV has stayed a fan favorite is the absolute seriousness that Stallone handles the material. What really stands out is how Stallone attempts to lampoon the showmanship between the Americans and the Soviets. When Creed fights Drago, Creed is dressed in a rhinestone encrusted Uncle Sam outfit, James Brown belting out Living in America (I prefer the Weird Al version, Living With A Hernia) as he enters the ring. When Balboa takes on Drago in Moscow, the Soviet propaganda show is presented through the same lens. Rocky Balboa is the only figure that is above these absurd theatrics. Yet Stallone has no problem making a third sequel where a meathead boxer defeats his opponent and Soviet-style communism all at once.

Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein is known as the father of montage, as employed in his Soviet films like Strike. Of course, it takes All-American patriot and lowbrow auteur like Sylvester Stallone to take montage to its intellectual apex – to the music of Robert Tepper and John Cafferty. The two major montages in Rocky IV – driving to No Easy Way Out and training to Hearts on Fire – are the source of countless parodies, and are constructed in earnest that they take on a comedic value entirely unintended.

While Stallone has a sketchy relationship with quality, he has an uncanny knack to give the audience what they want. Financially speaking, Rocky IV was the most successful of the Rocky films. The film tapped into the zeitgeist of the Reagan era with its intense patriotism and hatred of the Soviets. It endures because it oozes the essence of the ‘80s. The glistening sweat dripping from the gladiators in the ring representing trickle-down economics.

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“Mikhail, you’re not actually buying this simplistic crap?”

Stallone finally brought the Rocky saga to an end in 2006 with Rocky Balboa. Two years later, he’d release his fourth Rambo film, simply titled Rambo, and a year after that started The Expendables series. To this day, Stallone still talks about a fifth Rambo film, and though Sly has stated that Expendables 3 would be the last in the series, which was quickly recanted as Expendables 4 was just announced on IMDB. As he molded Rocky to fit its era, Stallone will likely adjust his style to exploit the burgeoning international film market. A mashup of Rambo and Rocky, called Rambocky, was written by Royden S. Ziegler, but production seems to have stalled. A film like Grudge Match proves that no idea is off limits for Stallone. Sure, Stallone is a hack, but he’s our hack. On November 9th, 1989, when the first cracks appeared on the Berlin Wall, it’s important to remember that those first cracks came from fists of Rocky Balboa when he beat the living crap out of Ivan Drago. You did it, Sly.

 

 

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