The “Rocky” Series: A beginner’s guide (part III)

Rocky IV (1985)

Ah, the fabled fourth film. Perhaps the second-most iconic film, Rocky IV cements Rocky’s legacy as a franchise of its time. It could not be a more ’80s film. The movie sees Rocky completely stripped of everything which made him Rocky – he has no personality, no charisma, no charm, nothing. The conflict, too, has been boiled down to a simple, nuance-free, blatantly obvious propaganda. He has beaten all his greatest foes. He stands atop the boxing world, ready to retire. Who does he have left to defeat? Soviet Bolshevism! The Dirty Reds, in the form of their favorite son, Ivan Drago – Communism, the perpetual ’80s bad guy, personified. Drago also has no personality. He is a machine – created in Soviet laboratories with the sole purpose of beating the shit out of bourgeois western elitists. The conflict is set from the very beginning of the film, when we see two gloves – one clad in the stars and stripes, one bearing the hammer and sickle – clash. An explosion. Boom! We set the stage for a showdown. Apollo and Drago, upon personal insults, agree to an exhibition. We want to see our great American champion take down this blonde-haired, iron-chinned Russian lump. But he’s too powerful. His force is unstoppable. Creed is old, past his prime – he cannot prepare for his enemy.

A FANTASTIC sequence is the infamous musical prelude to the fight. Drago is about to be lifted into the ring – about to be introduced to the cheering throngs of Americans in the crowd. This is his introduction to Western Capitalism. And who better to welcome him? James Brown. Yes, the actual James Brown, singing “Living in America.” Stars and stripes engulf the screen. Our hero, Apollo Creed, rocks out in full Uncle Sam attire. Drago’s pea brain cannot handle the lights – the exuberance – the freedom! And every 1985 audience pumped their fists along with the beat. But wait… oh no! It’s too early in the film. Something’s wrong… are they gonna let this dirty commie beat Creed?

What follows is the most tragic moment of the franchise – the still beating heart of a series in decline. Rocky, ringside, helplessly watches his friend be mercilessly pummeled by Drago. After a few rounds, it’s clear this fight is over. But Apollo is a proud man. He insists on continuing. Rocky could throw in the towel, but doesn’t, even at the beckoning of Duke, Apollo’s trainer. The champion takes a fateful punch. He falls, never to rise again. Guilt racks Rocky’s conscience, as it often does. As if Rocky needed more motivation to beat the Russian, and get a win for the “western way of life” – now, it’s personal. He just killed his best friend.

Rocky IV is not a movie. It’s a 90-minute training montage. Again, Stallone’s best work as a director is in showing the differences in preparation. Rocky prepares himself in the snow of Siberia – their fight is to be on Russian soil – while Drago, with the help of steroids, trains in a sterile Soviet facility. He pumps machines, hits pads which trigger computer sensors, has himself strapped into monitors – it is from technology that this man derives his power. But not Rocky. Rocky pulls a plough that is caught in the snow. He hikes up a mountain – eluding his KGB watchdogs. He uses simple farm tools to train his body “the old-fashioned way” – entirely naturally, without any outside assistance. His entourage – Adrian, Paulie (again…why?), and Duke all encourage him to exact his revenge. Rocky is focused. The movie wastes no time in moving us along to the fight. Only a few early scenes (Paulie’s dumb robot) feel out of place. The rest of the film is a trim, lean, concentrated exercise in the montage effect – in the way images, when juxtaposed, become more meaningful. Russian sport has never been able to elude accusations of doping – rightfully so, given revelations made in the 2017 documentary Icarus. And this stereotype of the communist machine-as-man is all the more effective when it has our homegrown hero Rocky to play off of. But in reality, both characters are somewhat robotic. If this were still the Rocky we know and love from the first film – then these scenes would have some true power. Alas, he is a shell of a heroic figure, and the entire movie is not much more than an unwitting parody of itself. But damn, is it fun to watch.

The end of the film unfolds exactly how one would expect. Rocky somehow withstands the beating Apollo could not. “He’s not human. He’s like a piece of iron.” complains Drago. How right he is. And in front of the entire Soviet politburo, Rocky sticks one to Ivan Drago. He beats the Russian and wins over the hostile Soviet crowd through his sheer display of will, while Drago succumbs to self-pity. The movie goes by in a breeze, and is so simple as to almost be poetic. In reality, this entire summary hitherto has been more complex than necessary. This is the movie (and possibly, a first draft of the script): Drago bad. Drago kill Creed. Rocky train hard. Rocky beat Drago. Rocky beat Communism!

Stallone was, at this point, equally famous for his role as Rambo in the First Blood series. The first film in that series is a serious, meditative action drama. It is a character study, and Stallone plays a real character in it. But it’s hard to find anything redeemable about his performance in later Rambo installments. His ’80s characters increasingly fell into the trap of Schwarzenegger’s body of work – monotone, muscular guys who punch/shoot a lot of people for America. And while Stallone was always the superior actor, he squandered his talents, chasing a career as an action hero, when he should have been a dramatic hero. Rocky and Rambo converged into one. And it would take a lot of hard work to bring either character back to life. Rocky IV was a success and is beloved, but that model of success became unsustainable. After all, once he’d beaten Communism – where to go from there? I suppose they could have sent him into the past to box Hitler. Come to think of it… I think I have an idea for a script.

Rocky V (1990)

This film is the first film of the franchise I would consider to be a “bad” movie. That is, when balancing its merits and its flaws, it fails to make a case for itself as a necessary installment. One can simply remove it from the canon and still be satisfied with their view of “Rocky” as a whole work. After all, despite all that Rocky IV lacks in artistry, it is emblematic of the franchise. Not so for Rocky V. It preceded a decade of decline for Stallone, a decade in which consumers grew tired of the old guard, the old action stars, the stupid blockbusters. After Die Hard (1988), it became more important for the characters in action movies to have fully fleshed-out development. Bruce Willis’s John McClane was not a beefy superman. He made nothing look easy. Tension was restored to the tired blockbuster genre. And the Rocky franchise tried (and failed) to catch up.

Rocky V is, in part, about reliving the past. We see a cameo from Burgess Meredith, reprising his Mickey role in flashback (Meredith died in 1997). Age becomes a theme of the franchise, to be picked up in later installments. Rocky loses all his accumulated wealth (Paulie’s fault, of course) and he is set back to square one. A few big prize fights would fix this, but then he’s diagnosed with brain damage. We don’t see Rocky fight a sanctioned match in the ring. Stallone attempts to convert Rocky from the student into the teacher, giving him a boxing pupil – Tommy Gunn, played by Tommy Morrison. It’s an old trope, but the movie subverts its own themes. A film about Rocky’s complete bottoming out, about his fading into obscurity – that could have been interesting. But the film squanders this chance by making Rocky beat Tommy Gunn in an embarrassingly triumphant street-fight finale (is this Rocky, or West Side Story?) and by focusing too much on Rocky’s son, Rocky Jr. Ah, we get it – the passing of the torch? No, not so. The kid is only 14 (played by the late Sage Stallone) and Rocky essentially neglects his son in favor of mentoring Tommy Gunn. This could have been an interesting thread – our flawed hero is also an absent father. It is better handled in later installments.

This film, directed by original Rocky director John G. Avildsen (well past his prime), is a big ball of “unnecessary.” Stallone was too young to make a meditation on aging (as he would later do in Rocky Balboa), too young to reflect on his career, but too old to still be playing the boxing champion. It’s one film too many – it never needed to be made. They tried continuing off the success of Rocky IV, but the ’90s had no room for aging ’80s action stars. Stallone had many failures following Rocky VOscar, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, The Specialist, and Judge Dredd revoked Stallone’s superstar status. He became a joke, a punchline – far removed from the original glories of Rocky. His limitations as a bankable star became all too obvious. These were dark years for Stallone. He had lost the trust of audiences and lost his credibility. Rocky V is a forgettable movie, and not worth discussing on its own. It is not ambitious, nor is it striking. It is simply symptomatic of the impending downfall of an American cinema icon. Stallone would have to step back, retreat into the shadows, and reemerge years later in an attempt to salvage his image. If anyone could do it, it was the man who envisioned an entire franchise about perseverance. Rocky is flawed, as is Stallone, and Rocky V signaled that it was time for both to take a step back and reevaluate.

Read about Rocky Balboa and the Creed franchise in Part IV.

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