Rocky IV

Rocky IV is a strange, unsatisfying but undeniably memorable example of a film series flying off the rails. It's easily the most bizarre film of the Rocky franchise, borrowing the basic narrative framework of the beloved Rocky III and filling it with all sorts of stuff that doesn't fit within the confines of the previously established world at all. All three of the previous Rocky films have different tones and different virtues, but they're all basically boxing dramas. This one is alternately a shallow meditation on American arrogance, a Reagan-inspired Cold War fantasy and a melodramatic revenge movie. Also, there's a talking robot. What the hell, Rock?

The chief antagonist of Rocky IV is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, Masters of the Universe), a Russian fighter who has come to America as a symbol of Soviet Russia's superiority. Ivan doesn't actually have much experience as a boxer, but he makes up for that experience with raw physical strength: he hits harder than any other fighter on the planet. When Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, Happy Gilmore) learns of Ivan's arrival, he sees an opportunity for a return to greatness. Sure, Apollo hasn't been in the ring for years, but Ivan doesn't have any technique. Apollo decides to challenge Ivan to a fight, confident that his years of experience will give him a serious edge. The retired Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, First Blood) expresses his concerns, but Apollo shrugs them off. He's got this.

The build-up to the Apollo/Drago fight is an almost cartoonish display of all-American excess. Apollo not only enters the ring in that clownish Uncle Sam outfit he sported in Rocky, but does a whole song-and-dance routine alongside the legendary James Brown and a legion of sparkling backup dancers. The film spends a good five or ten minutes cutting back and forth between this bombastic display and Drago's perplexed face – outlandishly overconfident showmanship vs. pure athletic focus. Suffice it to say that the fight will not end well for Apollo.

The thing that bothers me about this portion of the film is that it doesn't seem to fit comfortably with the version of Apollo Creed we saw in Rocky III. That Apollo was a man who had learned from the mistakes of his past, made peace with who he was as a person and felt comfortable with the fact that his time in the ring – grand as it was – had passed. The inexplicably fame-hungry Apollo of Rocky IV makes sense if we're picking up from the end of Rocky II – it might have even been a compelling miniature tragedy on the consequences of pride – but as it stands, it seems character's ongoing growth has been sacrificed for the sake of a cheap (if crudely effective) narrative jolt.

In a way, Rocky IV makes the same mistakes as Rocky II – trying too hard to imitate the structure of the film that immediately preceded it. The mid-act failure, the tragic loss of a major character, the montages set to pounding rock anthems, the victorious climax, a few scenes of Paulie's goofy antics (this time accompanied by that ridiculous robot) – in a certain sense, it's the same movie, albeit one that fails to tie these elements together in a satisfactorily organic way.

In another sense, it's a very different movie, because Rocky III certainly wasn't a bonkers political fable. This film was made at the tail end of the Cold War, and it simultaneously manages to capture America's panicky fear of Russia's might and our nation's hope for a brighter future. The third-act sequence in which Rocky basically manages to end Communism with a few punches and a Reagan-esque speech plays like a right-wing delusion on par with the left-wing silliness of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.

It's unsurprising that Lundgren's Drago isn't given any redeeming qualities (this movie would never dream of humanizing a filthy commie), but it is surprising that he isn't really given any qualities at all beyond his sheer physical strength. It's a little amazing that the movie made Lundgren a star, because he does almost nothing other than look strong and imposing. Rather than forcing him to deliver actual dialogue, Drago's sentiments are conveyed by his wife/spokesperson Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen, Beverly Hills Cop II). However, there's no actual romance between Ludmilla and Drago – not onscreen, anyway. Look into the film's production history, and you'll discover that the film's most pointless elements are there for personal reasons: Nielsen was Stallone's girlfriend at the time, and talking robots had proven instrumental in helping Stallone's son deal with his autism. That's nice, and that's nice, but neither belongs in the movie.

After his slick work on Rocky III, Stallone's direction starts getting messy again in this fourth installment. While montages were effectively employed as energetic adrenaline shots in the previous effort, this time they're used as a lazy narrative shortcut. After Rocky arrives in Russia to fight Drago himself, the film basically transforms into a fancy workout video. At least those scenes benefit from catchy rock songs – the rest of the film is afflicted with a mediocre Vince DiCola score that sounds painfully dated. Not until watching this film do you realize just how essential Bill Conti is to the success of these movies.

The one major character I haven't mentioned yet is Adrian (Talia Shire, The Godfather), and that's because Rocky IV essentially makes her a glorified extra. The shy, tender pet shop employee was a huge part of what made Rocky such a special movie, but her role in the series was gradually whittled down until it nearly disappeared. I suspect that's because Adrian represents a part of the series that was basically dead by Rocky IV – the quiet, thoughtful, human part. The film's most moving scene sees Rocky flashing back to memories of his past as he takes a late-night drive. We see flickers of lovely moments between Rocky and Adrian – a decade of life flashing before our hero's eyes. Alas, there's no time to make new romantic memories when you're busy ending the Cold War.

Rocky IV

Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 91 minutes
Release Year: 1985