Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Rocky Road: Rocky IV (1985)

Click here to read my retro review of Rocky III

With its fourth installment in 1985, the Rocky series hit its commercial zenith -- and its creative nadir.

Bear in mind that Rocky IV arrived during a time that can best be referred to as "Peak Stallone." The actor, who less than ten years ago was living in a one-room apartment and subsisting off of bit parts, was at the absolute top of his box office drawing power -- a situation he'd never again enjoy to the same degree. In addition to the demonstrated staying power of Rocky, shortly after Rocky III in 1982, he'd also made a little movie called First Blood, about a Vietnam vet named John Rambo who's tormented by a small town sheriff (Brian Dennehy).

That flick, directed by Ted Kotcheff and based on a novel by David Morrell, ending up becoming something of a modest success, which in turn spawned a follow-up a few years later. Said sequel, a potent mix of blood, bullets, and rah-rah jingoism called Rambo: First Blood Part II, was a genuine phenomenon upon its May '85 release, grossing an impressive $300 million worldwide and giving its star two concurrent franchises. Of course, at the same time he was making Rambo, Sylvester Stallone was also hard at work figuring out where next to take his most famous character -- and as turned it out, it was pretty in much the same direction.

Picking up just after he won back the title last time, Rocky IV (again directed by the star) has our hero settled into a life of domestic tranquility with his wife, his kid, and his robot (seriously). This all changes when Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) makes the scene. With his Soviet minders loudly proclaiming that Drago is the ultimate expression of the communist mindset, it's all a bit too much for ex-champ and American patriot Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who decides to come out of retirement for an exhibition bout with the Russian, to prove there's no substitute for the good ol' red, white, and blue.

Things don't go exactly as planned however, when the over-the-hill Creed finds himself wholly unprepared for the massive Russian. After two rounds of sustained pounding, and after he makes his best friend Rocky, manning his corner, promise he won't stop the fight under any circumstances, Apollo is mortally wounded. In order to avenge his friend, Rocky agrees to fight Drago, this time in the heart of Russia. As far as how things turn out, well, the formula was well and truly set by this time, so no surprises if Rocky ends up singlehandedly winning the Cold War.

Bear in mind, in the original Rocky, the character's big moment of accomplishment comes when he runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In Rocky IV, that moment comes when he runs straight up a mountain. Not climbs. Runs. That alone should tell you how many light years removed we are from those humble beginnings. The strident point-of-view espoused by the film is so wedded to a particular era and a particular stripe of jingoism that it's a little uncomfortable to watch Apollo preen and otherwise make a spectacle of himself, knowing we're supposed to feel bad when the inevitable happens.

I mentioned before that Mr. T's Clubber Lang wasn't really fully formed, but he practically feels like a Eugene O'Neill character compared to Lundgren's blank slate Drago, who's one step removed from Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in The Terminator (in a demonstration, Drago's punching power averages 1850 pounds of force, which I'm pretty sure is scientifically impossible, but, y'know, whatever). Drago's sole function in the story is to make us despise him ("If he dies, he dies," he says to the press after permanently pasting Creed) so that we actually give a damn how the final fight turns out.

When it comes to it, I think Sly Stallone himself realized there really wasn't a lot of "there" there for this premise, which can certainly help account for the stripped-down, ninety minute runtime. Much of the third sequel is given over to training montages, music montages, and my personal favorite, a montage of other montages. It goes through the conflict-loss-redemption framework so mechanically that it feels less like an actual continuation of the storyline then a laundry list of "to do" items. Hey, there's Adrian (Talia Shire). She's mad at Rocky. Oh, not anymore. Hey look, it's Paulie (Burt Young), being offensive. How incorrigible!

Now, with all that criticism out of the way, there's also no denying that for all the patently ridiculous, borderline absurd storytelling conceits, I kind of love Rocky IV. Just as the erstwhile Italian Stallion manages to win over the hostile Russian crowd, even getting Mikhail Gorbachev to applaud for him by the end, through sheer force of his good old-fashioned American gumption, the film itself always has a similar effect on me. I mean, it's a bad movie, no doubt, but at the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, it's also a great movie. Figure that one out.

Anyway, by the time Rocky IV hit theaters in fall of '85, critics had just about had enough of all this Rocky business. Said the late, great Roger Ebert, pretty much reflecting the mood of contemporaneous critics, "Rocky IV is a last gasp, a film so predictable that viewing it is like watching one of those old sitcoms where the characters never change and the same situations turn up again and again." And yet, formulaic though it was, audiences responded in droves, turning up at the till again and again.

Rocky IV launched the series to an unprecedented $300 million worldwide haul, matching that of Rambo earlier that same year. From million-to-one-shot to champion of the world to international peacemaker, at this point it really did feel like Stallone had said everything there was to say about his beloved character. He'd just climbed a literal mountain, and he'd scaled all the metaphorical ones too. It would be five years before he'd find a new story to tell, but whether the loyal fans that had made the franchise one of the most successful of its kind would still be there for it was an open question.

To Be Continued...

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