By the way, and call me pedantic, but bringing over an amateur fighter and beating a loudmouthed American former heavyweight champion would indeed be a propaganda coup of a sort. Bringing that same fighter over to beat this universe’s beloved analogue to Muhammad Ali to death in the ring during what was, after all, merely an exhibition match…not so much. Good job, Ivan.
Even so, with Creed’s corpse still flopping around on the canvas, the ring announcer tastefully pauses to declare Drago the winner, and to drape him over him the Soviet flag.* Drago takes the opportunity to stand and boast directly over the bloody, prone form of his opponent. By the way, if Drago hasn’t actually killed Creed by this point, Rocky sure has. He spends the entire scene cradling the prostrate Apollo’s head in the crook of his arm, making sure that Creed’s spine gets a very active workout before the EMTs arrive.
[*I guess this is to excuse Rocky later in the movie when, after beating Drago—oops, sorry—he is also literally wrapped in the American flag. Again, call me a stick-up-his-butt spoilsport, but it’s not really good flag etiquette to actually wrap Old Glory around one’s sweaty, bleeding form. The national colors are not a fashion statement.]
The scene ends, inevitably, with a determined Rocky and the icily-malign Drago exchanging The Look. You know the one I mean. Andâ€¦freeze-frame. If you’re formulating a Rocky movie drinking game, make sure to put freeze-frames on the list.
Cut to the second funeral service Rocky has attended in the span of two movies. He is giving the eulogy, and of course it’s stumbling and awkward yet wise. By the way, I’m not up on my funeral Emily Post, but should one wear sunglasses when standing by the grave and delivering the eulogy? In any case, he finishes, and drapes Apollo’s world championship belt over the coffin, and everyone marches sadly away. In frickin’ slo-mo. Apparently Stallone, who directed this as well as Rocky II and III, had aspirations to become to freeze-frames and slow motion what Jesus Franco is to the Unnecessary Zoom Shot.
As mentioned previously, Rocky knows what a man’s gotta do. Not wasting any time—at least right here—we immediately learn that he and Drago have been scheduled to fight one another. Again, I don’t want to be a party pooper, but I can’t believe this incident didn’t become a gigantic public relations fiasco for the Soviets. Drago shouldn’t be fighting Balboa, he should be stationed with an army unit in Siberia, after being stripped of his tinny Soviet car and expansive three room apartment.
In an all-too-faint nod to ‘reality,’ we are told that the American boxing authorities will not sanction the fight. In order to take part in it, Rocky must first surrender his championship. We learn this and other details via another press conference, the audio of which accompanies a parade of dummied-up magazine covers and interior articles.
Just in case the Soviets aren’t yet quite cartoonishly unsympathetic enough (and this is me talking, remember), they now toss in a soupcon of Nazi flavoring into the mix. Koloff again boasts that Drago is unbeatable, opining that Rocky has “not the size or the endurance or the genetics to win.” Hmm, I guess it’s a good thing the Soviet Union went down when it did, since it seems like they were about to join in on the old Master Race sweepstakes.
On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with Koloff when he notes, “It’s physically impossible for this little man to win.” Well, it certainly is hard to believe, in any case. It was difficult to swallow back when Stallone was matched against Mr. T, much less Dolph Lundgren. Officially, Lundgren is seven inches taller than Stallone; and as noted, Stallone’s ‘official’ height is probably two inches too generous. And if Rocky weighs in at the same svelte 191 pounds he did last time, Lundgren would outweigh him by seventy pounds. All in all, it’s a bit much to swallow.
Meanwhile, the thudding scripted idiocies continue. To the shock of reporters, Rocky announces he will make zero money for the fight. Because, you know, that’s not what it’s about. And the fight is set to take place on December 25th. (!!) Needless to say, this was stipulated by the Godless commies. The gasps are even louder when Rocky announces that the fight will take place in Mother Russia itself. Because, you know, Ivan needs every possible advantage if we’re to believe he could last even a minute in the ring with Our Rocky.
Meanwhile, the boosterish American press corps is shown literally jeering each statement of every Russian on the panel. This had me wondering if anyone connected with the film had ever seen a real-life press event during this period. It’s been a long time, if ever, since American reporters wore the flag on their sleeves like this. (Right after I wrote this, Ludmilla confronts the press on this issue, and the assembled reporters actually rise to their feet to issue catcalls and point their fingers at her and so on. Uhm, yeah.)
Things continue on in this vein, as when Koloff slurs the U.S. government and is loudly booed by the press (!). Here Paulie (not exactly the advocate for the American people I’d have picked, but there you go), responds by pointing out that the Commies are even then having to contain their own people through the use of machine gun-guarded concrete walls, a point that is sort of hard to argue with. Koloff replies that the beating of the U.S.’s “little champion” will expose once and for all “how pathetically weak your society has become!”
And let’s admit it, he’s right. No American has ever really been able to look a Japanese person in the eye since that Kobayashi dude beat us in the Nathan’s Famous 4th of July Hot Dog Easting Contest. And I don’t mean just because those guys are so short.
In any case, having acted in a manner that would make Boris Badenov blush, Koloff and the Dragos take their leave. Then we cut to later, as a lie of reporters (‘lie’ is the proper collective noun for a group of reporters, isn’t it?) swarms around Adrian, badgering her with questions. I can’t say the vulture-like activity of the press is overmuch exaggerated, but it’s much more a part of things here than in the previous Rocky movies. It makes me wonder if Stallone had had his own distasteful run-ins with the press and was getting a little payback. In any case, Adrian runs inside, shouting that she knows nothing about any fight or going to Russia or anything of that nature.
Late that night, a subdued Rocky again arrives home in his sports car. Adrian is waiting, and we inevitably get our next “I don’t want you to fight him!” scene. “I just gotta do what I gotta do,” he actually replies, which frankly I thought a little on the nose. Rocky declares he’s a fighter, that’s what he is, but the big moment comes when a panicked, tearful Adrian shouts “YOU CAN’T WIN!”
Rocky momentarily looks up in shock at this apparent betrayal. Frankly, I found that a bit weird, since the entire climax of the first movie was predicated on Rocky’s own admittance that he couldn’t beat Apollo. Of course, that was ‘Real Rocky,’ and now the series centers on ‘Comic Book Rocky,’ who admittedly is a different animal altogether.
“Maybe I can’t beat him,” Rocky agrees. “But to beat me, he’s going to have to kill me.” (Yeah, I’m sure that what your wife wanted to hear.) “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.” Actually, to kill you I think he just has to be younger and massively bigger than you. Which, you know, he is.
Needless to say, I found the thrust of this speech a tad dubious, and the syrupy music that accompanies it didn’t helping matters much. Besides, if there was ever a movie where the audience knew without doubt that the hero would end up winning, this is it. So this entire scene is pointless and basically just eating up time.
A dejected yet determined Rocky wanders back out to his car, and drives away. He then tools around, staring into space (in not, seemingly, the road in front of him) to the thundering beat of another would-be hit pop song. This scene is entirely a music video, consisting of a montage of shots featuring Rocky, Rocky’s car (Headlights open! Exhaust erupts from tailpipe!), flash-lit shock cuts of a monstrous-looking Drago looming forward in his boxing gear, flashbacks of Drago killing Apollo (that’s why Rocky is fightingâ€¦. remember?), and finally a whole buttload of clips from the previous three movies. I have to say, showing a bunch of clips from the first movie in particular really isn’t doing this one any favors.
The song itself is extremely generic ’80s pop stuff with a thundering Pat Benatar-esque drum machine beat. Apparently it’s called “No Easy Way Out,” as sung by one Robert Tepper. I have to say, the series’ luck with launching memorable pop songs definitely came up dry here. Also, this whole sequence is so nakedly a complete-in-itself promotional music video cut, directly into the middle of the actual movie, that it’s a little embarrassing.
For presumed comic relief, Paulie is joining Rocky on his trip to Russia. I have to say, one of the film’s most annoying aspects is the all too abrupt tonal shifts, which Stallone is not nearly good enough as either a director or screenwriter to pull off. Watching this film is like listening to someone shift from first gear right into fourth. One moment’s we’re watching Rocky’s best friend get killed, and then the next well cut to the moronic Comedy Relief Robot. (Again, what the hell is that thing doing in this movie? Every time I see it I want to kick something.)
Also, it’s a little late in the game to turn the historically mean, angry and bitter Paulie into a lovable comic curmudgeon, although apparently that was Stallone’s intent this time around. So as Paulie tosses a garish-looking plaid suitcase into the limo—Ha! He’s got bad taste in luggage!—we also get a wacky sendoff from Paulie’s distraught robotic lover. “Did you pack your toothbrush?” ‘she’ worries. “You know how tobacco stains your teeth.” Yeah, probably in the same way in which that damn robot has stained my mind. Do they have a brush for that? DO YOU?!!
“Hey, stop busting my chops,” Paulie ‘comically’ retorts. At this, the Robot turns ‘her’ ‘nose’ skyward. “I’m going to have her wires tied when I get back,” Paulie smirks to the driver. Waitâ€¦”wires tied”? But that sounds like…ewwwww!! Damn you, movie! Damn you!!!
Meanwhile, Rocky is having a purportedly heartwarming / heart wrenching farewell scene with a pajama-clad Rocky Jr. This sequence is no great shakes, but since the Robot was offscreen, I wasn’t feeling that judgmental about it. At least that was true until Rocky delivered a big long speech in which he confessed that sometimes even he gets a little scared, all while accompanied by music apparently rejected for an NBC “The More You Know” segment for being ‘too treacly.’
Paulie finally calls out, and Rocky takes his leave, but not before pausing for a dramatic, “Oh, look, there’s Sad Adrian up in that window there” moment. However, Rocky’s not even in the car before the sad arrangement of “Gonna Fly Now” flips to a pounding rock beat. OK, dudes, let’s go kick some Russian ass!!
From the sound of this song, which if I counted correctly was the film’s 87th, it’s effort from Survivor, although here the second time definitely ain’t the charm. In any case, we soon see a plane landing on a remote airstrip in Russia. At least I’m assuming this is Russia, since it looks bleak, is snowing, and the armed soldiers walking all over the place are wearing those furry hats.
Paulie and Rocky emerge from the plane, as well as the guy who has played Apollo’s manager in all four movies. Man, he must have loved hearing each time that they were making another Rocky movie. In any case, here the Survivor song helpfully helps clue us in on what’s happening: “Two worlds collide, rival nations…. Is it East or West, or man against man, can any nation stand alone….” Ah, now I get it. Thank you, Survivor!
A guy in a suit (presumably a KGB agent, which is so obvious they don’t even bother commenting on it) drives up and tells them to pile in. They are to be taken to their quarters, but he warns it will be a long ride. Now, earlier they had mentioned that the Russians had promised Rocky that they would furnish training facilities. Needless to say, they try to cheat by dropping Balboa & Co. off at a snowy, remote, rustic old farmhouse, complete with outdoor water pump, wood stove and the like.
Here, of course, the rascally Russians are outthinking themselves. They have completely forgotten the Scuzziest Gym Rule™. This is a Rocky movie, after all, and so there’s no better ‘gym’ they could have given Rocky to train in, except maybe one up on the moon. Let’s recount. In order to beat Apollo, Rocky worked out at Mickey’s dilapidated gym. Then Rocky faced Clubber Lang. This more robust threat necessitated a trip out to Los Angeles to Apollo Creed’s old gym, which proved a decaying slum hellhole that made Mickey’s place seem like the Trump Towers.
Now, however, Rocky doesn’t even have an actual gym! They just gave him an isolated and primitive farmstead, and a collection of rusting farm equipment with which to train. Good grief, he’s going to be able to outbox Godzilla after this. As if that weren’t advantage enough, poor Drago is training in an ultra-modern facility with the Super Science Squad all doing their thing. That guy doesn’t stand a chance!
Here we learn that the whole farm thing is not, as I had suspected, a dastardly commie plot. Instead, it prove to be exactly what Rocky requested. (Although the Soviets seem gleeful that this is so.) Of course, Balboa of all people understands the power of the Scuzziest Gym Rule™. Take that Ivan! (The generic ‘Ivan,’ not Drago.) Checkmate, tovarich!
They also mention that Our Hero will be assigned two, uhm, chaperones. “Where you go, they go,” KGB Guy smirks. Oh, boy, get ready for a hilarious gag where Super-Training Rocky with Kung-Fu Grip goes racing through the snowy mountain steppes, as his handlers collapse wheezing to the ground behind him. [Future Ken: Almost, but not quite. Close enough, though.] Meanwhile, Paulie bitches about the lack of TV and then flounders in the snow. It’s funny.
Later we see a dozing Paulie listening to the Chipmonks Christmas Album—Oh, that Paulie!—while Apollo’s Guy beats the farm owner at chess. Meanwhile, upstairs Rocky is adorning his mirror with photos, another nod to the first film. Apollo’s Guy then comes up to swear fealty to Our Hero.
“Apollo was like my son,” he confides. “I raised him. And when he died, part of me died. But now you’re the one. You’re the one that’s gonna keep his spirit alive. You’re the one that’s gonna make sure he didn’t die for nothing. Now, you’re going to have to go through hell, worse than any nightmare that you ever dreamed. But in the end, I know you’ll be the one standing. You know what you gotta do. Do it.”
Wow, this guy isn’t just good at chess, he’s a freakin’ world class savant at Clichés, the goofy game for trite-y trope-sters.
Oh, and the guy’s name is Duke. Even though he was in all four films, and I’ve just recently plowed through them all, it wasn’t until now that I caught his name. I’ve not saying they didn’t mention it once or twice, but if they did, it passed by me. Anyway, Duke leaves, and we get a cranky, reverberating Neil Young guitar note. Then Rocky looks at the picture of Drago he’s posted on his mirror. Right under the one of his kid. Yeah, that’s not weird. (On the other hand, at least he doesn’t have a picture of the Robot.)
As noted before, as much of a general suckfest as this movie is, it has a couple of dynamite scenes in it. One is the James Brown number, the other is the Obligatory Rocky Training Scene™. These are always a highlight of the films because, and say what you will about Stallone’s limited thespic talents, he knew his career rested on his utterly ripped physique. (Moreso as the ’80s rolled along, naturally.)
One doesn’t get a body like that without torturous daily workout sessions, and Stallone brings all that insane, pain-drenched focus to these sequences. Watching Stallone train at this point of his life is like watching Fred Astaire dance. You just sit there staring in wonderment that the human body should even be capable of crap like that. Adding to our pleasure here is the driving music that accompanies the sequence, which frequently flirts with sounding just like the soaring, self-parodying fanfare from Europe’s “Final Countdown.”
Our Hero starts slow, getting up at dawn to jog down the farm’s dirt road as the handlers’ car drives along right behind. You know, we never see those guys actually in the house, yet they’re always in their car whenever Rocky sticks his nose outside. Are they actually living in the car? And it’s not like there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts or anything nearby.
Meanwhile, we of course also cut away to watch Drago train, surrounded by the sort of equipment and control panels one usually sees in a futuristic spaceship movie. Soon we get a series of mirror images. Drago uses a super-stair climber, Rocky jogs through knee-high snow. (Man, that’s just a bitch.) Drago runs on a padded indoor track, Rocky runs through a snowy mountain stream. Drago uses high tech resistance equipment to train his muscles, Rocky stops to help a farmer push his trapped horse and cart (!) out of a snow bank.
So on and so on. Rocky trains on a weathered old speed bag. Rocky saws wood for the farm with a rusty old saw. Drago lifts expensive weights, Rocky tosses large rocks around. Of course, he’s also doing all this in the freezing weather and snow, pushing himself past the point of exhaustion. Drago spars, Rocky chops down trees. Drago’s sparring partner falls (in slo-mo), Rocky’s towering tree falls (in slo-mo). Get it?
Still, if nothing else, this sequence illustrates why every championship fighter in history has trained in a ramshackle working farm…
At one point, Rocky is seen running through the deep snow. A log is balanced on his shoulders, his arms looped behind and around it. He stumbles, and one can only wince a bit at such a patently obvious, not to mention grossly egomaniacal, appropriation of Christ imagery. In the end, Rocky has trained so hard and diligently that he now sports a neatly trimmed little beard. At this point, he is rewarded when he returns to the farmhouse and finds Adrian waiting for him. What, you thought she wouldn’t be on hand to rush into Rocky’s arms right after his big victory? (Oops, sorry.)
“I couldn’t stay away,” she says as they cautiously approach one another. Meanwhile, I was thinking she probably couldn’t get any closer even if she wanted to. Rocky’s been training in that same leather jacket, knit cap and, if I’m not mistaken, pants for this entire time. That dude’s gotta be rank. Even so, they embrace. If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.
Then we get another training montage with even crappier ’80s synth pop, and I have to admit, I was in hog heaven. Now personally I think this might have been even more awesomer backed by Eric Clapton’s “It’s In The Way That You Use It,” or maybe the Fabulous Thunderbird’s “Tuff Enuff,” but still. This is the sequence where Stallone really goes to town, and it’s incredibly cheesy and utterly, fabulously marvelous all at the same time. Too bad they eventually go back to the movie. (Also, by the end of this second montage, Rocky looks less muscular and fit, as he used did, and instead freakishly cut and overly well-defined. Eventually his overly stretched skin seems like it can barely contain his ropey tendons and whatnot.)
Meanwhile, though, Drago has his Punch Force Register count up to 2,150 psi, or over three times that of the “average heavyweight fighter.” Still though, he’s obviously hopelessly outclassed. We haven’t seen him lift a single rock or cut down even one tree. Plus we finally see that they are, in fact, shooting him up with steroids. So, you know, there’s no way he’s going to win now.
By the way, Stallone has his classic arms-thrusting-triumphantly-upward climatic training moment, not at the top of some paltry museum steps, but on some an actual steppes. That’s right, he literally runs up to the top of a mountain. And just to really throw any sense of dramatic proportion completely out the window, he then lets loose with a positively Shatner-esque “DRAAAA-GOOOO!” Man, they just don’t make complete and utter crap like that anymore.
We cut to the arena, and the camera quickly showcases a huge hammer & sickle wall mounting and gigantic banners of Lenin and Marx. Commentators from the (product placement!) USA Network are on hand to televise the event, “which promises to be the most-watched event in boxing history.” As well, press contingents from nearly every nation are on hand to see Russia gain this devastating propaganda victory. Following this line of thinking, I guess it was the Miracle on Ice that really won us the Cold War.
The scene is naturally the opposite of the Creed fight, with the crowd now waving little red CCCP flags and rooting, obviously, for Drago. The event is such a big deal that the place is packed with high-ranking military members, as well as the entire Politburo (!!) and a look-alike actor obviously meant to represent Mikhail Gorbachev (!!!), although they forgo the wine-stained forehead, presumably in the interest of plausible deniability.
Downstairs, Rocky is in near seclusion in his dressing room, joined only by Adrian, Paulie and Duke. Oh, and the two stone faced military guards out in the hall, who are watching them through a glass wall. They hear the crowd shouting “Drago! Drago! Drago!” and react as if this were ominous, despite the fact that this is pretty much just the exact reverse of how the American crowd acted during the Las Vegas bout.
Rocky pauses to kneel and pray before the fight. This takes place in each film, and while it’s weirdly unusual to see a character praying in an American film (especially when he’s not a heavily sweating serial killer flagellating himself before murdering his next prostitute), the increased artificially and pandering of the series kind of even makes this leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. It wasn’t helping any to have Paulie wandering around, himself literally wrapped in a large American flag. Again, that’s not how one properly honors the either the flag or the U.S. He pretty much wanders around draped in this for the rest of the movie, and each time I saw it I kind of gritted my teeth.
Meanwhile, they pause, for very little good reason (other than, I suppose, in acknowledgement that this might have been the last Rocky movie) to have Paulie tearfully confess his faults and apologize to Rocky for his behavior over the years and to finally tell him what a great guy he’s always been. This is the sort of kitsch moment that is either going to fill your eyes with tears, or your mouth with vomit. You can put me in the latter group.
This completes Paulie’s rehabilitation from being a genuine, if therefore somewhat interesting, selfish asshole to a lovably cranky he-doesn’t-really-mean-it Oscar the Grouch sort of fellow. Aside from child-proofing this established character, the scene also nauseatingly provides the opportunity for an encomium on Our Hero’s greatness. (It’s weird how much more often you get these kind of scenes in movies which are also written and / or directed by the guy playing the main character.)
“I know sometimes I act stupid, and I say stupid things,” Paulie admits. “But you kept me around when other people would have said ‘Drop that bum.’ You give me respect. You know, it’s hard for me to say these kind of things, because that ain’t my way, but if I could just unzip myself and step out and be someone else, I’d want to be you. You’re all heart, Rock.” Then he leans over—still wearing the flag like a shawl—and gives Rocky a smooch on the cheek.
Like I said, I’m sure this really worked for a lot of people, and I’m not going to rag on them for it. I can’t with complete confidence say my disdain for the scene (and much of the rest of the movie) isn’t at least partly informed by my own cynicism. What I find hopelessly mawkish and artistically strained, many others obviously find touching, and I’ll admit that. On the other hand, I can well up while watching the corniest junk, so it’s not like I’m some robotically sneering hipster who snarks at any display of positive human emotion.
The fact is, I just don’t buy Paulie’s sudden conversion. This is even so when recognizing the fact that Rocky is, supposedly, quite possibly walking to his own death here. Instead, it strikes me like another of Stallone’s increasingly shameless attempts to pander to the worst instincts of his audience. There’s a reek of opportunism present throughout this entire film, abetted by the ego-massaging of having a character proclaim at length upon the greatness of the actor’s alter-ego, that just rubs me the wrong way.
Rocky enters the arena, and as Drago was in Las Vegas, is roundly booed. Rocky, however, must approach the ring on foot, all while enduring a gauntlet of catcalls.* “We knew he wouldn’t be popular,” one broadcaster gulps, “but this borders on pure hatred!” Uhm, OK. Next they report on Rocky’s amazing self-possession. “Rocky’s face is absolutely like stone!” he exclaims. I don’t know why he finds this so remarkable, given that Rocky is played by Sylvester Stallone.
[*Again, from a PR standpoint, does it really help the Soviet Union’s reputation to have the crowd be seen heaping abuse on a visiting athlete? This is another case where the filmmakers didn’t really think any of this through, or more likely, just didn’t care.]
We cut back to the home front for a second, to see young Rocky Jr. and two of his friends watching the match on TV. “That’s my dad!” Rocky Jr. shouts. Well, duh. Standing behind them, and apparently assigned with caring for Rocky in his parents’ absence (given the lack of any visible adult presence), is the Friggin’ Robot—there’s no escape!—who is currently rigged out in a Santa suit, complete with beard. It’s also wearing little boxing gloves on its ‘arms’. Have I mentioned that I really hate that Robot?
Back to the arena. “Listen to the crowd!” one commentator says. “It sounds insane!” Uhm, OK. Then the lights dim (much like the script) and a bank of blinding illumination erupts from a hallway. “Ivan Drago,” the reporter explains—he’s the guy Rocky’s fighting, you know—”a man with an entire country in his corner.” In case you’re not getting the point, it’s that Rocky is the underdog here. I know, it’s quite a change of pace for him.
And again, I’m not sure why Rocky’s situation here is all that much different than that faced by Drago in Las Vegas, when the hall was equally behind Apollo and the latter had “an entire country in his corner.” Of course, Rocky isn’t a dirty commie, so there is that.
Drago marches out, amidst a processional that includes torchbearers. (!) The commentators pause to explain that Drago, too, looks, like, incredibly focused and stuff, which I guess is rare before a championship boxing blood match. “He’s like a volcano just waiting to erupt!” one vapors. Well, heavens to Murgatroyd! Ethel, bar the door.
Then, at a distance and with lighting that I think would make this completely impossible, the two men lock eyes and give each other Steely Warrior Looks. (Why, yes, in slo-mo. How did you guess?) Then Drago enters the ring, and bows to Premiere Gorbafaux, and the fighters remove their robes. Rocky, needless to say, is wearing red, white and blue trunks; Drago red and gold. See, they each represent their country. Are you getting that?
They begin to play the Soviet national anthem (brrr!), and everyone sings and salutes. This all seems pretty normal, until a gigantic, wall-covering crimson banner of a brawny-chested Drago, flanked by golden hammer and sickle designed, is raised into view. I can’t say that kind of iconography was off the mark in the Soviet Union, almost most of it featured Uncle Joe. (I wonder if Lundgren was able to keep any of this stuff. How weird, really.) Meanwhile, Rocky and Drago keep exchanging Fraught Glances.
They don’t play the Star Spangled Banner, of course, even though I think its pretty standard before sporting events to play the national anthems of the various participants. But you know…commies.
Rocky is announced to the crowd, which angrily jeers him. Again, this is good PR? “It’s unbelievable!” one Concerned Commentator blurts. “I have never, in all my years of reporting, seen such a hostile crowd!” I guess he’s never been to a Yankees / Red Sox game. The ring announcer, meanwhile, is naturally speaking in Russian. I assume they didn’t translate his announcements because they didn’t want to point out that Drago probably outweighs Rocky by seventy or eighty pounds. Sure, he’s obviously huge, but there’s no reason to make our our suspension of disbelief even harder.
The fighters approach the center of the ring. “The Russian towers over the American!” one commentator helpfully adds. In case we have ourselves failed to notice that Drago is nearly a foot taller than Rocky and proportionally bigger. “It’s a true case of David and Goliath!” Which would be more believable if Rocky were also planning to employ some sort of range weapon against his opponent. Even with the Lord’s help, David didn’t stand toe to toe with Goliath and beat him into submission.
Then we get one of the film’s classic camp moments, as Drago tells Rocky, in what can only be described as an Elmer Fudd-trying-to-sound-tough voice, “I must break you.” Needless to say, this is a complete waste. If you’re doing Elmer Fudd, you should say something like “I must destwoy you.” Otherwise, what’s the point? Damn Russians. Anyway, then he smacks Rocky’s gloves really hard. Just to show he’s a badass and everything. Which it totally communicates. Between that and the time when he killed Rocky’s best friend by punching him, it totally sells Drago as being kind of a jerk.
Rocky’s new mantra, as provided by Duke, is “No pain!” Gee, if only Apollo had used that, he might still be alive. Then the bell rings and Drago immediately gets Rocky into a corner and just murderously pummels him. Rocky eventually extricates himself, but is still disadvantaged by the fact that his arms are half as long as his opponent’s. “Brace yourself!” Duke helpfully cries. Good thing he’s in Rocky’s corner, by golly.
Here we get a pretty good continuity error, which are a little more funny in big budget studio movies like this. At one point we cut to Paulie and Duke, and the latter has red blood splotches all over his shirt. This is sort of weird, since Rocky has yet to return to his corner.
Rocky briefly manages to back Drago in a corner, but the big Russian just tosses him back, and then literally invites Rocky to pound away at his midsection. And so things continue. This is both the longest and the goofiest fight in the Rocky series so far. I’m not an aficionado of the sweet science, but even I’ve seen enough fight clips to know that the fighters quickly become exhausted, and that a dozen punches miss or glance off or are slipped for each one that solidly lands.
This is a movie fight, though, and pretty much every blow is a massively powerful direct hit. So as we watch Drago launch literally dozens of unerringly crushing punches to Rocky’s face and head and mid-section, it’s difficult not to dwell on the fact that the near instantly debilitating beating Creed took earlier would be a rather more realistic result of this sort of pummeling. And sure enough, Rocky is soon lying dazed on the mat, even if his face shows none of the bruising and bleeding and swelling Creed evinced by this point.
Not to blow things, but Rocky gets back up to his feet before the count finishes. Drago then comes over and continues mauling Our Hero. In the first two movies, Rocky seemed preternaturally tough. By the third and fourth chapters, though, he’s downright inhumanly tough. There’s just no way anyone could shrug off the sort of beating he gets here. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we will eventually see Drago knock Rocky to the ground at least half a dozen times, only to have him bounce right back up.
Given this, the intermittent attempts to suggest that Rocky’s in trouble are unconvincing at best. When he tells Duke early on in the fight (before he fights like 12 more rounds) that he seems to be seeing three Dragos out there, Paulie advises, “Hit the one in the middle.” Duke concurs. Again, good thing for Rocky that he has these geniuses backing him up. Of course, Rocky’s problem isn’t that he’s swinging at the wrong Drago, it’s that he can’t reach him when he tries.
Perhaps noticing all this, the film tries to sell us on chinks in Drago’s armor. “You’re not doing as you’re told!” Drago’s coach hisses. Apparently his instructions did not involve beating the holy hell out of his opponent, then. Meanwhile, Duke offers Rocky further practical advise. “Take his heart!” he shouts. “You hurt him, you’ll take his heart.” This plan seems sound, but has perhaps one fatal flaw:
Step One: Get repeatedly and devastatingly beaten by bigger, stronger opponent.
Step Three: And in so doing, hurt him and take his heart.
Rocky just continues to gets creamed, until he finally lands a blow that manages to do what none of Drago’s punches have done so far; open up a cut. Despite the fact that this is under Drago’s eye, and that even in the Soviet Union I think they have band-aids, everybody acts like this is some massive, momentum-changing event. Ludmilla leaps up in shock, the commentators yell even more, and even Drago looks briefly panicked.
This allows Rocky to go on a bit of a rampage himself. Drago is literally on the ropes (!), when the bell rings. Rocky continues to hit him, though, which is apparently OK because he’s the hero. Then Drago grabs his throat (kind of hard to do when wearing a boxing glove, you’d think) and returns the favor; which is mean, because Drago’s not the hero. So Rocky responds by grabbing Drago by the waist and hoisting him in the air. (!!) I think he learned that move from when Solomon Grundy fought Superman on the old Challenge of the Superfriends show.
The two fall to the mat, still exchanging blows, until the corner men rush in and break them up. You’d think the Russians would be protesting Rocky’s breaking of the rules, but apparently not. “This is shaping up to be a personal war!” one announcer gasps. I guess he’s really surprised by this, which again seems weird what with the dead best friend and all.
I guess the idea about why the cut is so important is that that it shows, as Duke insists, that Drago “is not a machine, he’s a man!” Actually, I think everyone knew that Drago was a man. The point was that he’s a vastly bigger, stronger and younger man. I have to say, the idea that the Russian boxing champion (who has presumably spent the last several years performing horrendously painful workouts to build up his mighty physique) would completely freak out if he should be caused to bleed strikes me as a little dubious. I’m pretty sure fighters have bled during matches before.
But sure enough, Drago is spooked. And why not, since again, Rocky has already taken enough punishment to have killed any three men. “He’s not human,” Drago mutters. “He’s like a piece of iron.” Well, at least they explained Rocky’s amazing resistance to damage. You could punch a piece of iron for a long time and not hurt it. Even worse, a piece of iron of any size would be functionally bullet-proof, which means that Drago can’t even shoot his opponent. He’s kind of screwed, when you think about it. Maybe he can hide an acetylene torch up his glove, or something.
We go into montage mode, and watch as the round numbers flash across the screen, all while Rocky continues to take the lion’s share of the punishment. It doesn’t matter, though, because of the piece of iron thing. That’s really a pretty good advantage in a prize fight, I’d think. After a while, I started thinking too that Drago might be a hemophiliac. He’s stronger and has hit Rocky in the face a dozen times for every blow Rocky has landed in return, but he’s bleeding much more profusely. It’s kind of weird, actually. Rocky’s face isn’t even really swollen up.
Oh, yeah. He’s like a piece of iron. Never mind.
This sequence continues on and on, and I guess it has struck many as incredibly cool, although I doubt I’m completely alone in finding it comical. Eventually, apparently having concluded that it’s pretty macho to get completely punched out for 11 rounds and barely show any effect of it, some of the crowd suddenly starts cheering for Balboa. “Suddenly,” one commentator helpfully explains, “Moscow is pro-Rocky!”
This is, and there’s no other word for it, retarded. This wasn’t Stalin’s USSR, but it was still a totalitarian dictatorship. First of all, nobody would have been invited to attend this thing unless they were some sort of connected party bigwig. In other words, an assortment of fanatical true believers leavened with others who, at the very least, would know on which side their bread was buttered. Moreover, they’re sitting there watching this gigantic propaganda deal in the presence of the entire frickin’ Politburo. The idea that they would suddenly start rooting for the American, therefore, is utterly, completely ridiculous. I’m not saying they’d be taken out and shot, but it would certainly have an impact on their apartment and vehicle and job assignments and suchlike.
And so it goes, on and on and on. Both fighters, who by this point one must literally assume are indestructible zombies, continue to bash at one another, with Rocky taking the majority of the hits. Meanwhile, Duke keeps him going with continued shouts of “No Pain!” and “Take his heart!” I guess you’ll consider me less of a man for admitting this, but I eventually did start leaning on the fast forward button a little to help me through all this.
With the last round about to begin, the crowd is now audibly chanting, “Rocky! Rocky! Rocky!” Whatever. Seriously, that’s insane. Gorbofaux gives Koloff an Ominous Look, and that guy, I believe, might actually find himself relocated to Siberia the next morning. Koloff runs down to berate Drago, and the infuriated fighter grabs him by the throat and literally lifts him up in the air. “I fight for me!” Drago yells, both to the crowd and to a glowering Gorbafaux. I’m not sure whether that’s supposed to make him more or less likeable, and frankly, I really don’t care. I really just want this to end.
The bell rings. Here Drago launches and lands about, and I’m not exaggerating, thirty or forty blows. Along the line, Rocky just puts down his gloves and invites Drago to freely punch his face. He can do this, you see, because this is a movie and the script says he will win. Drago could run a tank over him at this point and it wouldn’t really matter. What’s insulting, though, is that the movie isn’t even trying to hide this anymore. It’s got all the dramatic gravitas of a WWF match.
Eventually, if for no other reason than it’s finally time for the movie to end, Rocky starts landing all the punches. But then Drago comes back, then Rocky again, and so on and so forth. At this point, we’re told, “It’s a matter of who wants it the most.” Yes, when the script has magically negated the huge size and power differential Drago should enjoy, I guess that’s the result. And needless to say, I think we all know who wants it more.
Anyway, at the last second (because if they reach the end of the round the fight would officially be a draw) Drago goes down for the count, and even falls out of the ring as he struggles to reclaim his feet. (!!) Everyone goes nuts, the crowd of Soviet hardliners goes crazy chanting the American boxer’s name, and the Rocky theme plays triumphantly in the background. At this point all that was missing was a scene of Gorbofaux and the politburo members themselves leaping to their feet and enthusiastically applauding the spunky American. I mean, if you’re going to get this stupid, you might as well just open the throttle and go for it.
Even so, the film’s most nauseating moment is yet to come. After pimping a rah-rah Americanism of the crudest possible sort for the entire movie, and giving us evil Soviet steroid-using murderous boxers and their bitchy wives to hiss at, Rocky—in what I can only assume was Stallone’s bid to mitigate what to several of his Hollywood friends must have seemed the alarmingly ‘simplistic’ patriotic tone of this movie—now pauses to deliver a Speech of Hope to us all.
“I came here tonight,” the (sort of) battered fighter begins, “and I didn’t know what to expect. I seen a lot of people hatin’ me, and I didn’t know what to feel about that, so I guess I didn’t like you much none either. [Thank you, Huntz Hall.] During this fight, I seen a lot of changing, the way you felt about me, and the way I felt about you. In here, were two guys killing each other, but I guess, that’s better than twenty million.” Here we do cut, and I’m not kidding, to a shot of the Politburo members looking all thoughtful and stuff. (!!)
“So what I’m trying to say is,” Our Hero concludes, “that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” The crowd erupts in applause at these hopeful words, and luckily, Rocky proved half right. It turns out we didn’t need to change that much, but the Russian government did. Eventually, the people rose us and threw the bums out.
I’m not sure that’s what Stallone had in mind when he wrote this disgusting little piece of hypocrisy (which again, sticks in my craw almost entirely for the way it on a dime just flat out contradicts the entire movie’s base jingoism). After all, the idea of the Soviet Union actually going onto the ash heap of history must have seemed chillingly Reagan-esque at the time. Still and all, and even though Russia has hardly become a new City on the Hill, the Soviet Union is gone and the world is at least a better, fundamentally safer place than it used to be.
But wait! There’s more! For sure enough, after Rocky finishes his inarticulate but sincere Message of Hope..no!…yes!…a stunned-looking Gorbofaux solemnly stands, followed by the members of the Politburo, and gives Rocky a hearty standing ovation!! Seriously!! You know, I may have seen two or three other things in the movies as completely moronic as this, but I can’t think of any them right off hand. I’m not sure even Tom Laughlin ever topped this one.
The only thing that could beat this scene would be to refilm it, so that Jesse Owens gives this speech after winning his fourth gold medal at the 1936 Olympics, whereupon we would cut to an ennobled-looking Hitler and the members of the High Commands rising to their feet and applauding him. I mean, when you think about it, you could use nearly the exact same speech. (Although Owens probably spoke better.)
Then Rocky wishes a Merry Christmas to Rocky Jr., and a shining-faced Rocky Jr. is seen mouthing “I love you!” and Rocky embraces Adrian, and the crowd of Soviet apparatchiks continues to madly cheer Rocky’s victory, and Rocky is draped in the American flag (STOP THAT!), and, yeppers, we get the inevitable freeze-frame, and finally, finally, at long, long last, this stupid movie ends. Or at least kicks off its solid four minutes of end credits.
By the way, a few years after Rocky’s hopeful speech about us All Getting Along, Stallone (following two hideous flops, Cobra and Over the Top) made Rambo III, in which he helped kick the once more evil Russians out of Afghanistan. Way to stick to your guns, Sly.
Rocky and Rocky II basically ran two hours. Rocky III was a leaner hundred minutes. Rocky IV, meanwhile, was a stripped-down 91 minutes. To some extent, obviously, this is because much of the expositional heavy-lifting, introducing the main characters to the audience and such, was already accomplished. So the shortened running time, in itself, is not really an indictment.
Even so, there’s no doubt that the shorter Rocky IV is the flabbiest of any of the initial quartet of Rocky films. And I’m not even counting its opening three minute recap of Rocky III‘s climax, the James Brown production number, the music video scene of Rocky driving around in his car featuring a lengthy montage of footage from the previous films, the several smaller quasi-video scenes, or the four entire minutes of closing credits.
It think its fair to say that, its general jackassery aside (including most definitely that friggin’ robot), the Rocky series was clearly just out of steam by this point, even with the addition of giant evil Russians and the star’s recently acquired trophy wife. As the series progresses, the films became more and more about the increasingly outrÃ© boxing matches, at the same time that the star was growing older and less credible as a prize fighter. Rocky was more or less obviously intended to be a self-contained movie, and its not surprising that the series increasingly floundered, at least artistically, as they kept churning out new chapters.
You can see why Stallone, especially with his career starting to fade, so desperately tried to bring the series back to its more naturalistic roots with the fifth and sixth entries. From a critical standpoint, Stallone pretty much blew his wad with the first Rocky, flicks like Copland aside. Looking back at his filmography, it’s amazing that he sustained his stardom as long as he did, giving the long series of generally awful movies he offered audiences. The Rambo and Rocky films were all that kept him afloat commercially, when you get down to it. And only Rocky, the first movie in which he played the lead, gave him any sort of artistic credibility as a filmmaker.
On the other hand, it was Stallone himself that pissed away the credibility of the Rocky series. He wrote the entire entries, and directed the second, third and fourth film as well. He was handsomely paid to prostitute the one really good movie he had ever made. I guess it’s only natural that when the money eventually stopped coming in, and the years started weighing more heavily on his shoulders, that he would look back and feel a little wistful about what he had wrought.
This review was the special request of March 2007’s
Jabootu Sponsor of the Month, Thomas Krug.
(So blame him.)