Alpha to Omega: Rocky IV

Alpha to Omega

The film franchise is an inescapable part of the modern movie landscape. In this series I will address a series of films from the first to the last, looking at each film as a standalone and how it fits into the series.

Rocky IV

Jean-Luc Goddard once said that "The cinema is truth at 24 frames per second." First, I think this gets at the essence of thoughtful cinema. Any movie that has an emotional or intellectual investment on behalf of the filmmakers will, in some regard, be a representation of how that person sees the world. Things don't always work out the way you want them to, people don't win when they should, and things aren't always connected.

Second, how great is it that I found a way to quote Goddard in an article about "Rocky IV?"

Why would I do such a thing? Well, in not everything that happens to a person is part of the same story. Our lives are more segmented than we think they are. Yes, you are a constant but not everything is thematically tied together.

Such is the case with "Rocky IV." This movie, wonderful though it is, has very little to do with the rest of the series. As I said in my "Rocky III" piece:

If you look at the first three Rocky films as a thematic trilogy it goes as follows:

Rocky- Heart and hunger vs Pride

Rocky II- Pride and destiny vs Hubris

Rocky III- Hubris and Fame vs heart and pride

Rocky IV falls more into Heart and Pride vs... Russia.

It really does stand apart. Yes, there are common themes and there are events that are wildly important in the Rocky universe, but it's very much an episodic, standalone movie.

Plot rundown, just to refresh...

It's the middle of the cold war and the Soviet Union decides that it is time for them to show their superiority by entering the world of professional boxing. And they don't just throw any old ham and egger out there, instead they bring a 6'5" 261 pound (which I guess is impressive to everyone in the world but me, who stands 6'8", 290 pounds, but it's fun pretending that someone smaller than you are is a giant, so I went with it) paragon of Soviet superiority named Ivan Drago. First off, well played with the name. I love movies that give bad guys names like this. Somehow it comes off more mustache twirling than Boris Badinoff. I know there are people out there with names like this (hell, there is a retired Army sergeant named Max Fightmaster... so if Sgt. Max Fightmaster is a real person, I suppose Ivan Drago isn't so much of a longshot) but it comes off so much faker. Normally it's the hero with a handle like "Jack Slade," or "John Matrix," or "Bob Swagger," but they might as well just name them Rad Heroman. I think they went with Ivan Drago because "Boris Badinoff" was already taken, but...

So, the Russkies think they can just waltz into our country and be all, "We are superior. Our training is better, our people are stronger, and we will crush you puny American's like... how you say, grape?" Well, not on Apollo Creed's watch, because there is nothing that strikes fear into a pristine Russian fighting machine like a retired boxer in his 40's.

Creed arranges a massive event in Las Vegas where he will take this cocky Bolshevik down a peg or two. The fight begins with a massive, over the top entry performance featuring James Brown singing, "Living In America," and Creed dressed as Uncle Sam that would make Creed look like kind of a douche today, but in the 80's it made him look like a proud American, and ends with Creed beaten to death.

Drago seems rather cold, only stating, "If he dies... he dies," before lighting a bus full of orphans, puppies, and orphan puppies on fire and laughing as he lights a Cuban cigar in with the flames (part of that last sentence might not have happened).

Rocky isn't having this and decides to go to Russia and get a bit of the old American style revenge. Several montages later (And I do mean several. This movie is to montages what "The Wild Bunch" was to dying in slow motion) Balboa is facing off against this remorseless punching machine in Russia on Christmas day. Long story short, after being brutally tenderized for the entire fight Rocky wins, not only the fight, but the hearts of the Russian people. He gives a speech and we fade out on him draped in the stars and stripes and any man with a heart in his chest wiping a tear from his eye.

While this movie does have many of the hallmarks of the Rocky series, and does advance the characters some it is very clearly a departure both thematically and narratively. Where the first three had a defined arc both as individual and series films, this one really does stand alone.

First off, Rocky doesn't really need to go to Russia. In 2 and 3 he needed to beat the guy in order to gain, or regain his self respect. Here, he is doing it out of guilt for allowing the Creed fight to go on, and to avenge his friend. Revenge, though cool, is not really the same as heart.

Second, there isn't anything new introduced, rather the themes from the first three are expounded on. Rocky trains old school, in the middle of nowhere. While Drago is in a state of the art lab... quick aside. Knowing what we now know about the Soviet Union, how ludicrous are those training facilities? Don't get me wrong, Russia did some hardcore training, but they throw cannon balls around and beat tires with sledge hammers or work in rock quarries using only their fists... they didn't have state of the art computer analytics and temperature controlled indoor tracks and treadmills.

Drago's training would have been more like Rocky's. Living in a barn, doing intense chores, and running up mountains... gets all manner of scientific help (they don't outright say he uses steroids, but they do show him getting injected and I can only assume there was a part of that scene that was cut where they show a comically large vial marked STEROIDS that they draw the shot from).

Also, the Adrian storyline, though nice and important, wasn't really new. She refuses to support him in the fight at first, like in Rocky 2, but eventually comes around. This is almost a more predictable story than Rocky winning. Adrian has always been the most important part of these movies. She's been Rocky's heart, and Rocky is all about heart. Had she not surprised him in Russia, there isn't much chance he would have own. Without Adrian he is lost... but this isn't new. It's covering old ground, and even though it does it well, it's still old ground.

There are many things about this movie that are absolutely amazing. The biggest being Dolph Lundgren. First off, he looks like a fucking action figure in this thing. Not like a regular, but like one designed by someone who was trying to get fired. He is unrealistically big. But that just goes to my theory that Dolph exists on this planet to show every other man how he is deficient He is a former Amphibious Ranger with the Marines, karate champion, masters degree in chemical engineering, MIT Fulbright scholar who speaks 7 languages and looks like this...


So, no you are not as good as him.

But this is a problem. Just look at the matchup in this movie...


I love you Rock... but you end this fight as a skin bag full of broken bones that requires a closed casket funeral.

But of course Rocky guts it out. I'm not complaining, that was the point of the movie. It's nationalistic, escapist fun, not a documentary shot in real time.

What makes this movie stand out though is the montages. There are no fewer than 8 montages that cover about a half an hour of screen time.

They are...

Exploding gloves/Rocky 3 recap- 2 minutes

Creed and James Brown (though not a Hollywood montage, it is basically a music video that follows a more classic montage template than anything else, so it counts)- 2 min 50 sec

Rocky drives to the airport (this features "No Easy Way Out," a song that objectively rules)- this recaps the first three movies- 4 minutes 25 seconds

Three minutes later...

Rocky arrives in Russia montage (Survivor's "Burning Heart," a bit too on the nose, and a weak follow up to "Eye of the Tiger.") - 2 min 41 sec.

Four minutes of Duke telling Rock that he needs to train later...

Training Montage 1- 3 min 40 sec


Training Montage 2- 4 min 15 sec

Final Battle- 4 min 35 sec

Victory Montage- 4 min 45 sec

That is 29 minutes and 10 seconds of montages in a movie that is 91 minutes and 20 seconds long. Do the math... carry the one... and that adds up to...


I am not criticizing. The first time I saw this movie was on an Air Force base in Panama when it was new. Anyone who even thought of looking at this movie with anything short of screaming praise would have been beaten to death in the theatre... and justifiably so.

The final fight is fascinating. First off, it appears that Russia doesn't cotton to the "get knocked down three times in a single round and you lose on a TKO" thing, because Rocky spends more time on the mat than in his corner (in Russia Technical knocks out you!). Honestly, Drago hits him so hard that, if you slow it down, you can actually see the taste leaving his mouth.

Rocky takes so many unobstructed face punches from this Baltic death machine I am surprised he didn't just start punching himself in the face in an effort to stop himself from running into that nightmare one more time.

Here's the thing about Rocky 4... unlike the rest of the movies in this series you cannot bring your hip, new century judgmental bullshit into it. If you approach this movie from a "that would never happen" or "Isn't the patriotism a little over the top," then you have failed to understand this film on such a fundamental level that any further discussion will just end in me wanting to slap your stupid monkey face so hard that you couldn't do anything other than just stand there, grooving on it.

This is a fun, time capsule of a movie. Yes, there was a time when the US had a clear enemy for unclear reasons. It was amazing because it made movies like this easy. There weren't protests about how we made the Russians look bad, or that it was blatant propaganda. Both of these things are true, but nobody really gave a shit. Just have some escapist fun and realize that there is nothing wrong with it.


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