“If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!”
Yes, the Comedies broke me. While Oscar was not nearly as bad as I’d expected, the mind-numbing mediocrity of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot left me in doubt about this project. Almost as much doubt and uncertainty as Stallone himself has faced many times in his life. It may have been longer than I intended, but I need a break. And so, after a year away, I open a new chapter of the Stallone Diary. Oddly enough, it brings us to one of the defining anchors of Stallone’s career: Rocky IV.
I’ve spent a good long while defining the timeline based on lesser lights: the Comedies, the Action Movie Apology, and the Wilderness Years, but Stallone’s success also have three distinct segments marked by Rocky installments. The first anchor is obvious … so much so, I won’t get to it for some time. The last was Rocky Balboa, in which Stallone was able to find his way out of the Wilderness by reminding moviegoers why they liked him in the first place. He’s still riding that wave with films like Grudge Match and the Expendables series.
But today’s film, the middle anchor, was the moment Stallone’s passions coalesced into a single vision. This was the moment his narrative triumph met his superhero aspirations and, for a one brief moment, Rocky Balboa, John Rambo, and Sylvester Stallone became one entity reaching for apotheosis.
This is the film in which Stallone defeated communism.
Beginning with an explosion of fists lifted from the classic AD Council drunk driving public service announcement, the film loudly states its intention: each fist is clad in the boxing glove of the respective Cold War superpowers. The Stars-and-Stripes and the Hammer-and-Sickle engage in the only combat that truly matters: box office commerce!
Though I joke, it occurs to me just how difficult it might be to explain being a small child in the waning years of the Cold War to a generation who never knew those specific fears. Which, in and of itself, is different from the generation that experience the Cuban Missile Crisis. By 1985, Ronald Regan successfully scared millions of impressionable children with a campaign ad the promised certain nuclear devastation if he was not re-elected. Trust me on this, I became an avid news-watcher following the 1984 elections and for reason not entirely clear to me, I knew the names of key members of Regan’s cabinet in his second term.
Little did anyone know that in just six years, the map and the rules would be so different.
But for Stallone, Communist aggression, by way of Soviet iconography, was still a true possibility as he began to consider where Rocky should go after defeating his own inflated celebrity. His John Rambo was already reversing the end of the Vietnam War, so it was only far that Rocky do his part.
Too bad Marion Cobretti never ended up in Nicaragua.
After the now traditional recap of the last film’s ending, Rocky IV opens with a birthday party for Paulie. Besides defeating Communism, Rocky IV is also famous for the robot Rocky buys to keep Paulie company and, um … just watch:
It’s unclear how much time has passed since Rocky defeated Clubber Lang, but things seemed to have settled down. He and Apollo spar regularly and Adrian only gives him a little guff for continuing to fight.
But a new challenge comes in the form of Ivan Drago, a Soviet officer with hopes of fighting Rocky in an exhibition match. The news lights a fire in the soul of an aging and bored Apollo Creed, who visits Rocky, gets freaked out by Paulie’s robot, and announces his intention to fight Drago.
Now, let me stop for a moment to discuss Apollo’s reaction to the robot. I’m not entirely sure that Carl Weathers, who plays Apollo, knew this thing would be on set. In the scene, Paulie’s programmed the thing to speak with a female voice and flirt with him, so Apollo has several reasons to get freaked out. In fact, after asking about it, he kind of refuses to acknowledge the robot and moves the conversation back to fighting Drago.
In a rare moment of equal opportunity nay-saying, Adrian tells Apollo he can’t win.
The Creed/Drago fight takes place in Las Vegas. As his entrance song, Apollo hires James Brown to sing “Living in America” live. Well, maybe it was the promoter, but Apollo’s with it whole hog. Just in case you missed the fact that no one was taking Drago seriously, Stallone, as a director, makes it pretty damned clear when Apollo is lowered on a platform with a giant crumbling rams head behind him and join Brown and his dancers on a stage before jumping in the ring. One can only imagine what this did to his heart rate and stamina. I’ve been training for the last several months and I still get freaked out when my heart rate gets above 160. I can’t even imaging how Apollo must feel after Brown’s crazy ass live show.
All this excess leads to fight that shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of you. If you don’t know where this is going, go watch the movie right now. No, really. I’ll wait.
So after, Apollo’s funeral, Rocky quits his title to fight Drago. When Adrian straight up tells him that he can’t win, we’re treated to the first (real) montage of the film: a series recap. It’s a long recap. In fact, I’m tempted to call it padding.
No, yeah, it’s padding. Boy, is it padding. Granted, it probably didn’t seem that way in 1985, when watching an older Rocky movie wasn’t as easy as pulling a Blu-ray off the shelf or waiting for the regularly scheduled airing of Rocky II on TBS every Saturday later in the decade. Also, I get that Stallone needs to reveal Rocky’s thought process with his best cinematic tool, but it doesn’t quite work for me because it loses focus halfway though. It goes from thoughts of Apollo, to Mickey, to Adrian, back to Mickey, to Rocky’s defeats, to … hey wait, trains of thought really do work that way! Maybe I’ve got this montage all wrong.
In any event, it’s placed in an interesting spot: it’s halfway through the film and the halfway point of the entire series. Granted, Stallone didn’t know that at the time, but it has that distinction in retrospect and serves as the perfect summation of Rocky’s life up to Apollo’s death. On this film, I’m not sure if Stallone, as a writer, was trying to write a finale to the series or not — indeed, the montage is soundtrack to the song “There’s No Easy Way Out” — but I’d hazard this montage suggests Stallone, the director, knew he’d eventually return to the characters.
It also eats up something like seven minutes in a 90-minute film.
Rocky arrives in the Soviet Union where Apollo’s old trainer Duke supervises the Stallion’s training montages and Paulie is along for the ride because Paulie endures. Rocky trains by chopping wood, towing a sleigh, and climbing mountains. We also see the high tech training of Drago. There is an anti-science aspect to this, but I don’t think is Stallone’s intent. It’s more about Rocky’s folksy way of training, a theme that returns in the Rocky Balboa training montage. We also get confirmation that the Soviets have been doping Drago; something he’s not entirely happy about.
Because this is still a Rocky movie, Adrian eventually comes to his side and he fights Drago in the presence of the Soviet Premier (who may or may not be a pastiche of Gorbachev as he’d just come to power some months before the film’s release) on Christmas Day and you can probably guess how it plays out: Rocky defeats Communism with his fists.
This half of the film — dominated by montages and the fight — loses a lot of steam. The fight is rather predictable at this point in the series, but there is one curious thing that happens as it runs its inevitable course. The scientist supervising Drago’s training is called into question when Rocky starts to gain an upperhand in the fight. The Soviet Premier himself is annoyed as the pride of Russia fails to send Balboa into the afterlife and the lead scientist starts to sweat.
This is the beginning of a theme that explodes into the text when Rocky gives his ending speech. It’s the defining moment as Rocky reveals that he’s learned Soviets are people, too. I’m not entirely sure how he did this as he spent all of his time with Duke and Paulie. No, he goes on to say that he was moved by Dragon’s sportsmanship and the way the crowd became sympathetic, cheering on the man from the USA. He also thought it was better that two men fight in a ring than 100 million fight with guns and bombs. He ends with the film’s defining quote, a message for Moscow that people can change. Often, fists are involved.
In real life, six years and a day after this fictional fight, the Soviet Union dissolved. Coincidence?
It is interesting that in one year, Stallone reversed the Vietnam War and de-fanged the Soviets in films staring his best loved characters. If you’re into Grant Morrison chaos magic type stuff, these were powerful talismans warding off the appeal of Communism and undermining the iconic power of the Soviets. Whether or not this was part of Stallone’s intent, there was certainly a patriotic streak in him at the time and he waved that flag to box office success and a re-definition of his screen persona. With Rocky IV, Stallone’s transition to action star was complete. His best known dramatic persona fought a dude who looked like He-Man and won, securing democracy and capitalism for all along the way.
Where could he possible go from here?
Stallone By The Numbers:
Montages: Four (Five if you count a very brief newspaper montage explaining Rocky giving up the title)
Songs by Frank Stallone: None!
Times Drago says “I must break you.”: One
Dramatic close-ups of people nodding in agreement: Ten