As appropriate for a series that was never afraid to recycle what had worked in the past, Rocky IV kicks things off with the chords of Survivor’s “The Eye of the Tiger,” the mega-hit song that helped propel the previous chapter in the Rocky Balboa saga to new box office heights. This means that it’s the first film in the series to forgo opening with the title marching boldly across the screen to the notes of the Rocky trumpet fanfare. With these changes, the stripped-down, 91 minute, gooftackular Rocky IV once and for all severs all ties with the quintessentially ’70s heart of the original Rocky.
Instead, two shining silver boxing gloves rise into view against a stark black background. Each then turns, and we see that the rear of one is emblazoned with an American flag design; the other with that of the Soviet Union. These are presented for our loving gaze as they rotate, almost like fetish items, before rushing towards each other. On impact, they literally explode. From this, I think we can safely assume that subtlety will not be Rocky IV‘s hallmark.
Following this, and presumably because it’s hard to come up with an actual hour and a half of new material, we get the standard “show the climax from the previous movie” that all the Rocky sequels, at least through this one, open with. Aside from eating up some running time and reminding the audience of where in the saga we are, it also cautions the viewer that if he once had bought Rocky beating up on the obviously far more muscular Clubber Lang, his triumph over even a significantly more enormous Russian isn’t all that much sillier.
So Rocky again knocks down Lang down to the mat, and then we get the patented Triumphant Rocky Freeze-Frameâ„¢, and then we finally beginâ€¦.. Or no we don’t. Nope, Flashback Fever is still the order of the day! For here they next append the third movie’s epilogue, in which new bestest buddies ever Rocky and Apollo Creed climb privately back in the ring for a little non-public rematch. Hilariously, this ends with its own freeze-frame (as it did originally), so that we witness two climatic freeze-frames from the previous film, and all before this movie really even kicks off.
Anyway, three and a half minutes in, new footage is actually seen. In this Rocky arrives home in an expensive sports car. Rocky Jr. emerges from the house, wearing a party hat. He greets his father with what was presumably, back at the time, a cutting edge video camera. By which I mean one the size of a small suitcase and sporting a blinding attachable searchlight for illumination.
The two head inside, where the family is holding a birthday party for Paulie. He’s wearing a funny hat because he’s a comedic figure, albeit often a supremely nasty one. In any case, Rocky is very excited about his gift, which turns out to be a robot (!) that wheels out carrying Paulie’s birthday cake. I don’t really remember any wacky comedy robots in the original Rocky. However, I watched it like over a week ago, so perhaps I’m misremembering.
Despite the fact that this is a ludicrously sophisticated robot for 1985—it’s not Short Circuit-advanced, but it’s not far off—Paulie is nonplussed. (With, it must be said, good reason. What the hell is he supposed to do with this thing?) “This is extremely psycho, Rocko,” he kvetches. The robot responds by telling him to “make a wish” in a mechanical ‘robot’ voice, further creeping his new owner out.
The scene progresses like something from an extremely lame sitcom. I’ve no wish to further abuse a deceased equine. Still, even after spending about a week watching the first four films in succession, and seeing a marked drift in tone unfold before my eyes, it’s yet difficult to comprehend how we got from the original Rocky toâ€¦this. I realize it’s hopelessly naÃ¯ve to expect actors to protect the integrity of their characters when Dame Success slathers on the lipstick and comes to call*, but damn, Rocky Balboa really was Stallone’s creation. I hope he was at least a little embarrassed when he got home from the set every night.
Although I doubt it.
[*And let’s give one more round of applause to Roy Scheider, who turned down an easy paycheck when they wanted him to again play Sheriff Martin Brody in the atrocious Jaws: The Revenge, but for just a couple of minutes before getting eaten to kick the movie off.]
That night, Rocky appears in his and Adrian’s bedroom bearing a cake decorated with a bride and groom in a boxing ring. “In case you forgot,” he marbles to Adrian, “it’s almost been nine years since you been married to me.” He then gives her a “prize” and exhorts her to open it. It’s kind of a wrap-around gold bracelet / watch combo, in case you care.
“You know what’s amazing?” Rocky asks. “That after all these years, everything still seems kinda new.” Well, that’s probably because you weren’t fighting murderous seven-foot tall communists in the earlier films. Frankly, I’m not really sure how it came to pass that Rocky V didn’t involve Balboa boxing one of those enormous four-armed Martians from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter novels, all with the fate of the entire planet resting on his shoulders.
Rocky and Adrian tenderly kiss, whereupon we fade to a bank of magazine covers featuring the stern profile of the fearsome Ivan Drago (!), headlined with “RUSSIANS INVADE U.S. SPORTS”. At this, needless to say, the soundtrack blares a sustained, ominous note. Well. Boo, sir! Boo to you! Hiss. Etc.
On the other hand, you’ve got to give a goodly amount of credit to Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, the ongoing producers of the Rocky series. Aside from garnering mega-hit theme songs (“Gonna Fly Now”, “Eye of the Tiger”), they also excelled in casting as Rocky’s opponents largely unknown actors who would go on to have comparatively successful careers as b-movie and TV heroes. Carl “Action Jackson” Weathers. Mr. T. And here, none other than 6′ 5″ competitive karate master and Fulbright Scholarship winner (!) Dolph Lundgren.
With the press waiting in full force, Drago arrives in the States. (On TWA, to boot. Rocky IV wasn’t good for either the airlines or dictatorships it portrayed, I guess.) Drago is in an army officer’s uniform, and accompanied by a hot chick who’s a classic ’80s Russian. She’s equally Aryan in appearance, possesses an inevitably icy mien, and is almost as tall as her hulking husband. This is Ludmilla (!!) Drago, as embodied by the 6′ 1″ Brigitte Nielsen.
Nielsen, trivia buffs will recall, came to Stallone’s attention when she sent him a nudie picture. (This is before she unnecessarily augmented herself with fake boobs.) They were married later in 1985, made the arguably even more atrocious Cobra together, and then divorced in 1987. Adding to the fairy tale romance of this tale, both took up with the other after having recently left a previous spouse and children behind. Brings a tear to the eye, it does.
Being Damn Russians, the two are naturally completely bereft of any sense of humor. Meanwhile, their state-assigned manager, b-movie fans will be pleased to learn, is played by Michael Pataki. Mr. Pataki had a long list of ludicrous genre entries behind him, notably the lead (human) role in the horror classic Dracula’s Dog. He also guest starred in just about every network TV show of the ’60s and ’70s, nearly always as a heavy. Since they already had a character named Ivan, Pataki’s character is one Nicoli Koloff.
Cut to the mansion of Apollo Creed, who is messing around in his pool with a pack of large furry dogs. His attention is seized, however, by a news story about Drago, who following years of “red tape” (how apt) is to be the first Soviet allowed to fight for the world heavyweight championship. To make Drago even more ridiculously robotic, he doesn’t speak during the press conference, as his Olympic athlete-wife Ludmilla takes on those duties.
Koloff expresses their hope for an exhibition match with Rocky. When a reporter asks how an amateur can hope to survive opposite such a “seasoned fighter,” they oddly don’t answer, “Well, Drago is half as old and twice as big.” (OK, to be fair, Lundgren was, in actuality, more like 33% younger and larger than Stallone.) Koloff instead replies, “There is no one who can match his strength, his endurance or his aggressiveness.” Drago is, Koloff asserts smugly, “indestructible.” The segment ends with the newsreader opining, “Whoever he fights first, it’ll be one hot ticket.” Creed looks on thoughtfully as we cut away.
Cut to a Heartwarming Domestic Sceneâ„¢ with Rocky & Co. Rocky is waxing his car, and Rocky Jr. is waxing the Robot. Rocky Jr. expresses an interest in learning how to fight, whereupon his dad inevitably explains that he wants something better for him. Their cutesy banter is luckily cut short—well, not short—by a phone call from Apollo. Rocky begins to head inside to answer it, but the Robot informs him without prompting that it comes equipped with a phone attachment. (Er, that’s a remarkably sophisticated AI program for a 1985 consumer product.) Rocky grabs the receiver and invites Apollo to drop by.
Over to a gym, where we see Drago training amidst an almost insane array of super-technological devices. Now, as you may have notice, the film is pretty naked in the way it pushes the idea that Rocky and Drago personally represent the Good Ol’ USA and the Bad Old USSR, Cold War-era. Given this, one of the oddest notions on display here is the suggestion that it was the Soviets who had the vast, albeit heartless, technological edge, and that this could only be overcome by pure American strong-heartedness.
To be fair, there was admittedly even a germ of truth in this, as least as far as sport were concerned. While both sides quite obviously saw the propaganda value of sporting victories—witness the legendary Miracle on Ice—it was unsurprisingly the Eastern Block nations, notably the Soviets, who directed an insane amount of their severely limited resources to train (and in many cases, artificially pump up) their athletes. Sure, maybe the ordinary citizenry needed to stand in line for six hours in hopes of getting some sandpaper-grade toilet paper. Still and all, if millions of rubles were spent elsewhere, at least it might result in another Olympic medal proudly won for the glory of the Motherland.
Even so, the constant sight of the Soviets surrounded by banks of extraordinarily cutting edge computer equipment (which naturally looks laughably dated by now), all while millionaire celebrity Rocky inevitably ends up following the now-venerable Scuzzy Training Facility Ruleâ„¢ and prepares himself with literally homemade equipment,* is in a larger sense bewilderingly off. The Soviets could by this point barely make a toaster oven smaller than a washing machine, and yet here we’re expected to quail before their insidious scientific superiority.
[*OK, I’m getting a bit ahead of things here. More on this later.]
In fact, as the scene continues we see that this aspect is even more epically ridiculous than I had at first imagined. Soon we see not a couple banks of ‘high-tech’ equipment, but a huge room full of the stuff, attended by dozens of Russian scientists decked out in pristine white lab coats. I haven’t seen anything quite like it since The Andromeda Strain. In the end, considering all this gear revolves around a so-far amateur boxer, this would presumably less dazzle and awe the Western viewer than provoke catcalls inspired regarding their pathetically severe case of overcompensation.
All this equipment, Koloff boasts, “makes a man a better man, a great athlete a super-athlete.” They have the technology. They can make him better, stronger, faster. On the other hand, the line about how “most of the world is ignorant in body chemistry” is actually sort of sly, playing off the fact that the Eastern Block nations had a well-earned reputation for shooting up their athletes with steroids and other drugs.
On the other hand, talking about ‘body chemistry’ seems like an invitation to questions that Koloff presumably wouldn’t want to answer. Sure enough, a reporter quickly asks about reports of “blood doping” and steroid use. At this, Ludmilla and Koloff exchange Significant Glances, which is obviously all the proof we need that the Russkies are in fact guilty of this. (Well, that and the fact that this is the sort of movie it is.)
Ludmilla assures the Press that Ivan is a product of “natural training.” (Well, the sort of natural training that involves a $100 million dollars worth of computer equipment, anyway.) The reporter then queries the boxer’s freakish strength. We cut to a close-up of a sweaty Drago looking uneasy—Subtlety, Thy Name is Rocky IV—while Ludmilla distracts the press with a quip about Popeye eating spinach. (!!)
As if to dispel any conception that this movie must itself be more realistic than a Popeye cartoon, Koloff points out one particular piece of equipment. “A normal heavyweight,” Koloff says (whatever that means), “averages 700 pounds of pressure per square inch.” Drago hauls back and slugs a padded register unit. The computer tabulates the results, and the reporters gasp. “As you can see,” Koloff boasts, “Drago averages 1,850 pounds!” (!!) The results are obvious, he concludes. “Whatever he hits, he destroys!”
Back to Rancho de Rocky, where Apollo is explaining his personal wish to box Drago. I have to admit, I pretty much bought into this. Apollo always was kind of a publicity hound. Therefore his wanting a bout like this, with all the attendant publicity, pretty much fits. He also has a history (obviously) of underestimating his opponents. Thus we pretty much automatically discount his appraisal of Drago from when he saw him fight during an earlier fight. (Besides, there’s a reason the movie isn’t called “Apollo IV.”) “He’s big and strong, but clumsy,” Apollo maintains. “I can beat him.” I think we can all see where this is heading.
Paulie objects (while eating some product placement Baskin Robbins ice cream) that the public expects Rocky to fight Drago. Apollo agrees that he will, when it’s a real fight. “This is just an exhibition game,” he argues. “Kid stuff.” (Of course, if Drago can’t beat Apollo, I’m not sure how he would rate a match against reigning champ Balboa.) However, Adrian is concerned. I have to say, Talia Shire wasn’t really well served by the later movies. In Rocky II, she never wanted Rocky to fight again. Then in Rocky III, she was the one who encouraged Rocky to fight again. Now she’s back to being a worry-wart again. Not only does she come off a trifle schizophrenic, but as a bit of a nag, as well.
Coming to the rescue of Apollo, if definitely not the audience, is the Robot, who wheels into the room of, apparently, its own volition. I mean really, WTF? “What the hell is that?” Apollo asks. This strains credulity a bit. While he might most definitely be speaking for the audience, it’s not like Creed could have possibly been unaware of what a robot was. What, he never saw Star Wars?
Meanwhile, a further bit meant to be ‘funny’ turns out to be just creepy. Paulie answers Apollo by noting “that’s my girl.” The Robot delivers him a cold beer. “Thanks, honey,” he responds, whereupon we learn that the Robot has been reprogrammed with a female voice. (!!) Paulie compliments it on the song it’s playing on its built-in audio system. “Thank you,” it gushes. “It’s my favorite. You’re the greatest.” The Robot turns to leave, and Paulie explains to Rocky, “She loves me.” I don’t think I have to describe the weird vibe I was getting at this point. Frankly, I was just hoping that tentacle sex didn’t come into play.
This ‘hilarious’ interlude by the boards, Apollo turns back to business. It turns out that he’s primarily motivated by good, old fashioned, Reagan-era patriotism. He doesn’t want the Russkies to get one over on us, a view Rocky seems to agree with. “I think it’s wrong,” Adrian replies. I’m not sure why it’s wrong, assuming she means in some sort of moral sense. Dumb, maybe. I assume she means she’s getting a woman’s intuition about Something Bad Happening.
She reminds Apollo that he’s been retired from boxing for five years now. One of the sort of interesting things about the series is that they more or less occur in real time. Meaning that this is, as far as I can follow, this is nine years after Rocky first fought Apollo, corresponding to the nine years between the first and fourth movies. Of course, that means Rocky is nearly forty, and really probably should be thinking of hanging up his gloves, too, even if there’s a big damn commie to fight.
I have to say, it’s kind of weird that Apollo’s having this conversation with Adrian. What happened to his own wife? I guess the idea is that Apollo is getting Rocky’s permission to challenge Drago first. However, the feel of the whole thing is that he’s hashing it over with Rocky’s family, including Adrian and Paulie, instead of consulting his own wife and kids. It’s just kind of weird.
Later, Apollo and Rocky sit in the den and watch film of their first fight. I have to say, if these two are going to start acting like a pair of old coots like this, Adrian’s probably right that they should stop fighting. As Apollo’s eyes shine with memories of this glory days, a thoughtful Rocky interjects a Lifetime Channel moment.
Rocky: “Apollo, can I ask you somethin’?”
Apollo, eyes glued to the film: “What?”
Rocky: “Well, you know, this fight you’re having against the Russian? Do you think maybe it ain’t against him?”
Apollo, chortling: “If it’s not him, Stallion, then who’s it against?”
Rocky: Well, do you think maybe it’s, like, uh, you against you?” (WOW!)
Confronted by this Teller of Uncomfortable Truths, Apollo takes umbrage. “You’re still on top!” he accuses. “But what happens when you’re not on top? Then what?” I have to say, I’m really not buying any of this. The idea is that Rocky is accepting of growing old, while Apollo still refuses to do so.
However, that kind of violates the logic of the third movie. Proud Apollo, when taunted by punk upstart Clubber Lang, doesn’t don gloves himself for a direct confrontation, but instead helps Rocky train to fight Lang. That seems a pretty obvious acknowledgement by Creed that his boxing days are behind him. If Apollo misses the fame and glory of the boxing world so much, he should do what he did with Rocky, and become a trainer and manager for younger fighters. (Actually, what he would really be doing is becoming a network sports analyst, keeping his face before the public while making a crapload of money without putting his neck on the line.)
I don’t really like what they’re doing with Rocky here, either. I realize he’s the series’ central character, but Stallone seems to have been falling into the error of wanting to smooth off all of Rocky’s rough edges. I saw one reviewer note that Rocky is the only boxer in history who got smarter the more he was punched in the head. Indeed. Unlike Apollo, Rocky is wise enough to know when to step down. Unlike Adrian, he’s wise enough to know when you have to take a risk to Do the Right Thing.
With Mickey dead (and Paulie borderline retarded), Rocky is now become the source of all wisdom in the series. He’s turning into the sort of moronically perfect figure that William Shatner made of Captain Kirk in Star Trek V, and Steven Seagal made of his character inâ€¦well, everything he ever made. But especially On Deadly Ground, I guess. Rocky’s gone from the first film’s good-hearted but none too bright mook to a lovable, sage combination of Stanley Kowalski and Yoda.
Still and all, when Apollo asks Rocky to stand by his side “this one last time,” obviously there’s no other answer to be given. Especially since, you know, Apollo stood by his side in the previous movie. In any case, Rocky puts aside his doubts and agrees.
In the next scene, the arrangements have been made for an exhibition bout between Creed and Drago in Las Vegas. We cut to a press conference with all the various participants in attendance. Creed goes to town, playing up the USA vs. USSR angle, which again admittedly fits his character. This is the man, after all, who during his original July 4th Bicentennial fight against Rocky, appeared in the arena dressed in a garish George Washington outfit.
A veteran promoter, Creed quickly has the press eating out of his hand. Despite the fact that Drago is about half Creed’s age, that Apollo hasn’t fought in five years, and, oh, yeah, that Drago’s as big as the Frankenstein Monster, the reporters play up the idea that the Russian doesn’t have a chance against the seasoned professional. For his part, as Apollo mugs for the camera and provides a steady line of jocular chatter, Drago sits stoically stone-faced (because, you know, he’s a Ruskie), offering at best an occasional pained grimace at Creed’s showboating antics. Koloff, in contrast, smiles smugly from the sidelines. Creed is giving him exactly what he wants.
Ludmilla continues to speak for Drago, which by now sort of implies that the big Russian is hiding some kind of Big Secret. [Future Ken: If so, we never learn what it is.] In contrast to Apollo, Ludmilla is exaggeratedly respectful, although of course this is all a big commie plot to make Drago’s symbolic victory over the West even more humiliating.
Even so, the reporters gasp in shock when she quietly declares her belief that Drago will win. Apollo goes off, serving up a boatload of trash talk. And in doing so, once more inadvertently playing into the Soviets’ hands. “Why do you insult us?” Ludmilla angrily asks, whereupon Creed finally gets what’s going on. “Don’t you make me out to be the bad guy,” he thunders, but it’s too little too late. Creed’s mouth has already written a mighty big check, and now he can only hope to can cash it.
[By the way, the Soviets were seldom actually this good at the public relations game. If they did well with the press, it wasn’t because of their lumbering attempts at propaganda. Their real advantage was that much of the Western press, especially in Europe, viewed them with more sympathy than they did America during the Reagan administration.
This was also true in, shall we say, certain pockets of the U.S. It’s a weird fact that a lot of ’80s era movies and TV shows dealing with the Cold War often took Soviet superiority over us for granted. The Soviets invade and take control of the American homeland in both Red Dawn and the TV mini-series Amerika. In the hilariously cheesy Chuck Norris meller Invasion U.S.A., commie forces are eventually rebuffed by our man Chuck, but not before going on a general rampage through the land. And here, again, they are shown leading naÃ¯ve Americans around by the nose, and using their devilish technology to imperil good ol’ American sports.
If there was a movie or TV project in the ’80s that actually predicted that the USSR would fall before America did, I can’t think of it off the top of my head. Of course, the CIA during that period was similarly off base in predicting anything along those lines, so Hollywood wasn’t alone.]
In the end, things end with a tussle. As Apollo leaves, we learn that his indignation was an act, although it’s clear that he still doesn’t recognize the threat Drago poses. Still, just to make sure we in the audience ‘get’ it, we are shown Drago ‘violently’ pushing over a cardboard cutout of Creed, an act accompanied by a chilling musical sting. Oooooh!
We cut to the MGM Grand casino in Las Vegas, where the fight is to be held. Outside, Wayne Newton is also listed on the flashing neon marquee. Glad they decided to forego some sort of clichÃ© there. Then we cut to Creed’s dressing room, where we get some hilarious stuff between Apollo and Rocky. Like, at one point a jubilant Apollo remarks that he could eat nails, while Rocky thinks he said ‘snails.’ See? It’s funny. Anyway, Apollo gets insulted when Rocky asks him to play it safe. This is to help us believe that a more cautious Rocky will have a better chance against Drago later on in the picture, as opposed to how Creed will shortly fare. (Oops, sorry.)
Still and all, Rocky’s sudden suggestion to postpone the heavily promoted match, mere minutes before it’s to begin, is obviously a complete non-starter. This leads to another argument between the two. I must say, they’re really dragging that particular plot device out far past its apparent utility.
We cut to Drago standing somewhere, and then to the crowd filtering in, and the soundtrack erupts in some sort of weird piece that sounds like it was composed on a leaky radiator being struck with a length of chain. I think it’s meant to suggest that Something Ominous is about to happen. (Well, duh.) Ludmilla stops by Apollo’s wife and says she hopes they can be friends, but we don’t trust her. Boo! Hiss!
Drago is, in fact, standing in the ring, which is currently positioned under the arena. The floor above him opens and he rises with the ring into the auditorium. He is assaulted by garish lights, pounding music and a wildly overproduced floorshow (this is Vegas, after all). Here I have to say that he has had sympathy.
Except, that is, in that said floorshow is a wonderful performance by James Brown, who sings the series’ third hit song, “Living in America.” Needless to say, this was turned into a music video sporting numerous shots from the movie, which received heavy rotation on MTV. Back then, this even meant something.
Drago is naturally bewildered by it all. While this hardly ranks with Robin Williams’ mounting panic whilst passing through the unlimited options presented by an American grocery store’s coffee aisle in Moscow on the Hudson, the boxer’s growing agitation is adequately communicated for the film’s purposes.
Meanwhile, Apollo’s appears and plays takes an elaborate part in the number, inevitably clad in his red, white and blue Uncle Sam togs from the first movie. (Hopefully those are new shorts, and not the ones he loaned Rocky in the previous movie. I mean, ewwww.)
I have to say, although this film generally sucks, it does have the occasional pretty great scene. This is one, and it actually manages at the same time to make us share Drago’s disgust at all this excess, while at the same time having us go, “Hey, if you can’t dig frickin’ James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, screw y’all.” Say what you will, the dichotomy of American greatness is all up there on the screen.
Creed turns to Rocky to thank him for his help. “God, I feel born again!” Creed exults. Uh, oh. Anybody conversant with ’80s action flicks will know this isn’t a good sign. Rocky, as reigning world champion, comes out to take a bow, and then the fighters are formally introduced. Needless to say, the hometown crowd heavily cheers Creed, who is introduced with a long series of nicknames (the best of which is “the Count of Monte Fisto” [!!!]). Small American flags are waved by everyone, etc.
Drago is introduced next (hilariously, he’s in “the red corner”), and I have to admit, the stated 40 pound weight differential isn’t as obvious as I would have thought. On the other hand, Drago’s reach is still appalling longer than Creed’s, and forty pounds is still huge. Anyway, the crowd boos Drago, which I thought was in rather bad taste. This isn’t a wrestling match, after all.
Creed is still screwing around even in the ring, while Drago is content to quietly sneer “You will lose.” Then the bell rings. Apollo dances around his larger foe, landing punches that appear completely ineffectual. Once he starts getting tagged in return, though, Creed quickly takes a fearsome beating. With Apollo nearly out on his feet, Drago continues beating on him after the bell rings, which you’d think would be a disqualification.
Although battered and bloodied, Creed naturally won’t let Rocky throw in the towel. (This is a boxing match, remember, so here ‘throw in the towel’ is meant literally.) “Don’t stop this fight,” Apollo pleads, “no matter what.” As the second round begins, Drago contemptuously stands with his hands down, inviting Apollo’s blows. Even then the larger man is able to duck and weave out of the way of Creed’s increasingly enfeebled swings. Drago then once more forces Apollo back into a corner, and having trapped his opponent, mercilessly works him over.
Rocky picks up the towel to toss it in. However, Creed sees him and signals him not to. (This is pure movie bull. There’s little chance that Creed would be in position to notice anything outside the severe mauling he is taking.) And thenâ€¦. And then, the movie launches itself straight into the crapper. Unleashing a monstrous punch, Drago not only puts Creed down for the count, but (I’m guessing) breaks his neck.
It’s hard not to have contempt for such a hoary gambit. Nobody who knows my stuff would believe that I am overmuch worried about the ‘demonization’ of Communism in general, and the old Soviet Union in particular. President Reagan nailed it spot on when it called the USSR an evil empire. Still and all, reducing a real life, malign totalitarian regime to the level of bad comic book villainy actually undermines a rational explication of Communism’s evil. The problem with the Soviet Union wasn’t that it was breeding a super-race of fighters to come here and snap the necks of our championship boxers.
Even aside from that, though, this is easily the lowest moment for the Rocky series. Gone completely is the realistic, low-key sense of personal drama that grounded the first film. On top of that, killing a supporting character is an appallingly cheap and clumsy device to introduce a note of pathos to the proceedings. Moreover, they had just done the same damn thing the last time around. At least then the doomed character was an old man with a bum ticker. Apollo’s death has no such fig leaf to hide it’s purely mechanical nature.
Like a heroin addict trying for that rush again—and this has been the problem with the increasingly lumbering and elephantine American action film from the ’80s on up to today—all they can think to do is repeat what worked before, but jack up the dosage. Boy, if Mickey’s death gave the proceedings a sense of tragedy and weight the last time around, imagine how much moreâ€¦moreâ€¦it will be when the Evil Red outright kills Balboa’s best buddy! Awesome!
Needless to say, the whole thing is also pimped in the most exploitative fashion possible. Apollo begins toppling over in slo-mo!! Slo-mo zoom of Apollo’s horrified wife!! Onlookers screaming “NOOOOO!” in slo-mo close-ups!! Etc. The cheapest moment is when we cut to Ludmilla breaking into a smile—yes, in slo-mo—as Apollo finally lands on the ground. This latter bit is intercut with the aforementioned bloody towel, presumably falling from the shocked Rocky’s grasp, as it also hits the ground. I guess it’s symbolic. Or something.