By 1985 with Sylvestor Stallone arguably at the peak of his Hollywood influence he generated this fourth and most audacious entry in the series. While immensely successful it was astonishingly scant of any storytelling bones. But such is the underrated filmmaking skills of Mr. Stallone to make an entertaining film essentially made up of two story beats, two dialogue scenes, two fights and glued together by montage scenes.
Rocky IV (1985) dir. Sylvestor Stallone
Starring: Sylvestor Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Brigitte Nielsen, Talia Shire, Burt Young
By Alan Bacchus
Rocky IV has so much wrong with it, it’s an easy film to pick apart, chew up and spit out. But it makes it so difficult to do that when the film is so damned fun. Why is that? First of all, the film is a huge cheat on the part of Stallone. There’s barely a film here, almost no story whatsoever. As usual, in the opening moments we see a flashback to the end of the previous Rocky film – Stallone coached by his former nemesis, Apollo Creed, fighting and defeating the snarling Clubber Lang (Mr. T).
Cut to Rocky Balboa, once a street-level hood who walked around in baggy, ill-fitting clothes on the streets of Philadelphia, now a multimillionaire living in a swanky mansion with a robotic waiter (nice try Sly, the household robots never did catch on). Rocky is now retired and so is Creed, who, like Rocky, has nothing to do but relax alone in his backyard swimming pool. But when Apollo hears about a champion Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), splashing himself all over American television he decides to take on the bulky blond for a comeback fight in the name of Cold War patriotism.
Despite Rocky’s protests that Apollo is too old, the show must goes on, and after a ridiculous and embarrassing musical sideshow introduction by James Brown, Creed gets his butt whipped and is actually killed in the ring. Rocky won’t stand for it and wants revenge against the evil Commies. Thus, he challenges Drago to a match in Russia on Christmas Day. Despite Adrian’s fears, Rocky has to do it because he’s a man and a fighter. And without the fight, he’s not a man.
Cue a series of musical montage scenes, which contrast the scientific training methods of Drago with the old fashioned organic method of training – push-ups, sit-ups, log lifting, snow shovelling and wooden cart pulling. The fight starts and Rocky wins and earns the respect of the Soviet people.
The film is a cheat because Stallone actually gets away without telling a story. He fast forwards through the most difficult part of writing and essentially crafts two fight scenes sandwiched between half a dozen montage scenes. One after another, we’re shown the same match-cut edited training sequences. Each piece of music is bigger and grander and more inspiring than the next. There’s ‘Burning Heart’ by Survivor, then ‘Hearts on Fire’ by John Cafferty, then ‘Man Against the World"’ by Survivor (again) and the appropriately titled ‘Training Montage’ by the film’s composer, Vince Di Cola.
But it all works beautifully. The montage scenes are crafted very well and shot and composed perfectly by Stallone. Even though it’s a glorified music video these scenes create great anticipatory energy. Stallone has earned his right to use the sequences. He was already at the fourth film in the series, each one as popular and successful as the one before it. So he’s just giving the audience what it wants. Sure it’s a sell-out to the spirit of the original film, and Stallone indeed would attempt to reboot the series – twice!
Rocky IV is disposable franchise filmmaking at its best, an invigorating guilty pleasure, impossible not to love, at least on some kind of juvenile level.