Thursday, December 28, 2017

Awesomely Shitty Movies: Rocky IV

Welcome to another edition of Awesomely Shitty Movies, here at!  Today I'll be talking about one of the most popular installments in the Rocky franchise, the one that probably most evokes 80s nostalgia, and certainly the most dialed-up of all the films.  It's east vs. west.  It's America vs. Russia.  That's right, it's Rocky IV!

After regaining the world boxing championship from Clubber Lang at the end of Rocky III, Mr. Balboa settles into semi-retirement, content to enjoy his life as a wealthy family man.  But when a monstrous Russian boxer named Ivan Drago throws his hat into the US boxing ring, Rocky's best friend Apollo Creed will not stand for it.  No sir.  Creed challenges the young powerhouse to an exhibition fight, things go horribly wrong, and Rocky finds himself in enemy territory, face-to-face with his most intimidating opponent yet.

Like the previous three installments, Rocky IV was a major box office success and everyone remembers it fondly.  Everyone except me apparently.  There's a lot, repeat, A LOT wrong with this film, and for me it doesn't hold up very well at all compared to the first three.  Sooo, let's break this sumbitch down and see what went wrong....

The Awesome

Rocky Nostalgia

I'm a big fan of the Rocky series (particularly the first three films and Rocky Balboa), so even despite all its flaws it's hard to not want to watch this movie when I get done with III.  I also have fond childhood memories of seeing this one in the theater with my parents.  We were on vacation in Newport, RI and it was a snowy November evening.  We were looking for something to do and my sister and I both lobbied intensely to see Rocky IV.  My parents reluctantly obliged, and at the time my sister and I loved this stupid movie.

The Fight

As absurdly over-the-top as the big Rocky-Drago fight sequence is, it's shot and edited with Stallone's usual slick sensibilities and for the time it made for a pretty epic climax.  Drago beats the shit outta Rocky for 15 rounds but can't put him away, Rocky's iron jaw keeps him in the fight and he manages to score the knockout right at the end.  It's basically a one-dimensional version of the second Apollo fight but it's well photographed and choreographed.

I'm thinking he didn't actually connect with that one.

Slickly Produced

Like the previous two films, Rocky IV is slick, crowdpleasing entertainment.  Stallone had a much better eye for cinematography than the director of the first and fifth movies, John G. Avildsen.  Rockys 2-4 are visually more interesting films than 1 and 5.  So there's that.


You'd be hard-pressed to find a more delightfully cheesy 80s rock soundtrack than in Rocky IV.  This film's chock-full of awesomely shitty songs from this garish decade.  Survivor followed up their timeless classic "Eye of the Tiger" with "Burning Heart," John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band supplied "Heart's on Fire," and of course the piece de resistance, Robert Tepper's "No Easy Way Out," a true classic of the 80s pop-rock genre.  On the downside, Rocky 1-3 composer Bill Conti was not asked to score this film, but his successor Vince DiCola did provide some nice music cues in his absense.  So solid stuff on the music front.

What a fantastic, terrible soundtrack....

Now for what doesn't work about this movie....

The Shitty

Same Ol' Shit

Rocky IV is basically a carbon copy of Rocky III.  Recap of previous fight, Rocky and Adrian bedroom scene, freakishly strong new bad guy introduced, first fight goes horribly wrong, Rocky's best friend dies, funeral scene, Rocky agrees to fight challenger, Rocky undergoes unorthodox training away from home, Paulie complains, Rocky defeats challenger, the end.  Same goddamn movie, but nowhere near as good.

Music Montages

This movie is 90 minutes long (Man, Stallone was just cuttin' right to the chase by this point), and legit, a full 20 of those minutes are eaten up by music montages.  There's four of these goddamn things in this film (one of which involves Rocky driving his car and flashing back to three far superior films - never a good idea), PLUS a song & dance number from James Brown before the Drago-Apollo fight.  How phoned-in can a screenplay be?  Was the final draft more than 60 pages?  "Rocky exits log cabin **Insert montage here** Cut to Rocky arriving at the arena..."  Absolutely disgraceful.

Watching this scene now, I'm embarrassed for everyone in it.

One-Dimensional Villain

Rocky III was the first of the series to have a cartoonishly evil opponent, in the form of Mr. T (playing Mr. T).  But IV takes the hollowness of the villain one step further by making him a silent, towering killing machine.  Dolph Lundgren has what, four lines in this entire film?  They couldn't have cut one of the four music montages and given us a tiny glimpse of what this guy is like at home?  He's got a lovely, svelt wife (played by Stallone's then-girlfriend Bridgitte Nielsen), so clearly he's more than just a Rock 'em Sock 'em Robot.  Maybe explore him as a human character?  Just a bit?  Apollo Creed was well fleshed out and given a clear motivation in both of the first two films and it made the fights at the end that much more compelling.  This strays dangerously into monster movie territory.

Punching, GOOOOOOD!  America, BAAAAAAD!

Lundgren Ain't No Fighter

Carl Weathers was a tough act to follow as a Rocky "villain."  Charismatic but still a threat, Apollo Creed had by far the most depth of any of the series' antagonists.  Not only that, but Weathers trained extensively for the role so he was fully believable as a boxing champion.  It helped that he was an accomplished athlete, having played in the NFL and CFL for a short time.  So the moves involved in mimicking a prizefighter must have come somewhat naturally to him.  Creed looked and moved around the ring like a real boxer, which lent the fight scenes a sense of realism.  Mr. T didn't quite look so believable in Rocky III, but his character Clubber Lang was more of a street fighter anyway.  But the Ivan Drago character is supposed to be a professionally trained boxer, yet Dolph Lundgren doesn't come across that way at all.  He just sort of lurches around and throws wild punches with no sense of precision or timing, like an untrained hooligan.  As a result the climactic fight looks more like an exaggerated movie brawl instead of a boxing match.

Fight Strategy?

Also, unlike the previous two films there's no real talk of strategy for this fight.  In Rocky II he works on speed and fights right-handed to protect his damaged eye.  In Rocky III he slims down and works even more on speed, exploiting Clubber's lack of stamina and letting him punch himself out.  Here his entire strategy is apparently based on tricking his brain to not feel any pain.  Fuckin' goofy.

US vs. Russia

The Reagan-era Cold War stuff in this movie is so heavy handed it's cringeworthy.  To compound things, the film doesn't even seem clear about what it's trying to say.  Apollo is offended that a Russian boxer would even attempt a career in the US, so he challenges him to an exhibition fight that's somehow supposed to make the Russians look bad.  The plan of course backfires, so it seems like the message there is "Prejudice is a bad thing."  But the Russian characters are all portrayed as soulless assholes who only care about one-upping the US, even going so far as to pump Drago full of steroids to gain an unfair advantage (Did pro boxing not test for PEDs back then?), and it's only at the very end of the film when Drago turns on his handlers that we're asked to feel any sort of sympathy for him.  Up to that point he's essentially The Terminator with red gloves.  Meanwhile his wife puts on a friendly face but lies to the press about her husband's training regimen and gets into arguments with Apollo.  So the question is, was Apollo justified in his fear and hatred for Russia or not?  Rocky's speech at the end seems to indicate a message of peace and understanding, but we've been conditioned to hate all the Russian characters throughout the entire movie, so the point gets lost.

Killing Apollo

Let's see, in Rocky II Adrian ends up in a coma and Rocky has overcome this personal crisis while training for the big fight.  In Rocky III Mickey dies after being assaulted by Clubber Lang (for which Lang surely would've faced some kind of criminal charge), and Rocky has to overcome this personal crisis while training for the big fight.  So in keeping with the "personal crisis" theme, they decided in Rocky IV to have Drago kill off Apollo so Rocky has to overcome this personal crisis, yadda yadda yadda.  Again, did we really need this movie to follow the EXACT same format as the last one?  The death scene is handled so absurdly too.  Apollo gets knocked unconscious and reporters flood the ring.  But there doesn't seem to be a doctor present.  Where's the stretcher, guys?  There is always medical personnel on hand for professional fights for just this sort of occasion.

Paulie is Annoying

By the third movie Paulie had already become a pointless character.  At the beginning of III he's a resentful, drunk a-hole who hates how successful his brother-in-law has become.  So Rocky gives him a job on his training staff (as a favor I guess), but once Apollo gets involved all Paulie does is complain about his methods.  I can't imagine they'd keep him around; how many scenes did we need of Paulie saying "Rocky can't train like this" while Apollo says "Yes he can?"  By this film he offers literally nothing to the story or to Rocky's training routine. He knows zilch about any sort of athletics and he bitches and moans literally all the time once they get to Russia.  Leave him at home for Chrissake!


-Why do they give away the ending of the movie, RIGHT ON THE POSTER?  It's Rocky, draped in the flag, being lifted triumphantly by Paulie and Duke.  Fuck's sake, be a little coy at least.....

-Rocky Krakoff, who plays 9-year-old Rocky Jr. (weird that in this particular film they cast a child actor with a Russian last name) is a minor character, but Jeezus he's terrible.  Like distractingly so.  It's another case of "I know it's a small part, but surely we can get someone better than this."

Don't quit your day job, kid. Oh, this IS your day job? Then quit.

-What time is the climactic fight supposed to be taking place?  It's in Moscow, which is 8 hours ahead of Philadelphia, yet little Rocky and his friends appear to be viewing this fight at night.  Was the fight at like 5am Moscow time?  Also, who's watching these kids??

-It's quite a stretch to me that it only took two rounds for Drago to murder Apollo, but Rocky somehow lasted FIFTEEN???

-Also compare the damage to Rocky's face from Rocky II and this movie.  Both fights went the distance, but after the Rocky II fight he looks like a melted Nazi at the end of Raiders, whereas here, after being repeatedly smashed in the face by a 2000 psi jackhammer for 45 minutes straight, he doesn't really look that bad, considering.

Guy looks like a tank drove over his face.

-During Drago's training they show that he can throw a punch of 2150 pounds of pressure per square inch, or roughly 8600 pounds of force.  This is physically impossible and no real-life boxer has ever come close to that.  The average in studies has been maybe 1/6 of that number.  Drago would literally be knocking people's heads off.  Get fuckin' real.

At 2150 psi he'd break the equipment!

-Are we expected to believe that Rocky climbed a fucking MOUNTAIN as part of his training?  First they tell us the russkie is strong enough to punch a hole through the Empire State Building and now Rocky can literally just run up Mount Everest one afternoon?  Fuckin' come ON.

I mean, REALLY???

-Early in the film Rocky gives Adrian an anniversary gift one week early.  Why?  Why not write this scene so it's their actual anniversary?  There's literally no point to having him jump the gun, since the scene proceeds as though it actually IS their anniversary.  Is it just to show that Rocky's a lovable moron?  Yeah, we knew that already - you've been hammering us with that point for the last nine years.

-It's good that they corrected the timeline to take place nine years after their wedding in Rocky II (which took place in 1976).  Things got all wonky in Rocky III because they set it in 1981 despite Rocky having won the championship in '76 and having lost it three years later.  Not to mention, Mickey's mausoleum door in that film says he's 76 when he was already 76 in the first movie.  Stallone must not be very good at math.

-Hold on though....So Rocky IV starts, as the previous two movies do, with the end of the previous film, which in this case includes the closing moments of the Rocky-Clubber Lang fight and the subsequent private sparring contest between Rocky and Apollo.  Now this friendly bout presumably takes place shortly after the Clubber fight, but the very next scene depicts Rocky arriving back at his house, where his son asks him who punched him in the eye.  So are the events of Rocky IV (which takes place in 1985) supposed to be right after the events of III (which takes place in 1981)?  Or did four years pass between the Clubber fight and the Apollo spar?  Or did four years pass between the scene with Rocky's kid and the next scene?  But that can't be, because once Rocky gets in the house we find out it's Paulie's birthday and the family gift to him is the stupid robot, which a few scenes later he's reprogrammed to speak in a woman's voice.  So the implication is, Rocky arrived home immediately after sparring with Apollo, and the events of that evening are present-day.  Did Rocky really wait FOUR YEARS before returning the big favor Apollo said he owed him??

-The ending of this movie is violently not believable.  No, I'm not talking about all the punching.  I'm talking about a hostile Russian crowd whose loyalty miraculously shifts 100% from Drago to Rocky.  I get the point they're trying to make - if we just stop and try to understand each other we can find a common ground and become friends, etc.  But there is NOOOOOOO way this crowd ends up cheering Rocky at the end.  He'd have been absolutely bombarded with rocks and garbage the second he knocked out Drago.  This would be like the Yankees beating the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS at Fenway and the Boston faithful suddenly going, "Ya know what?  I like the cut of that Yankee jib.  Bravo to you, good sirs!"  Fuck right off with this shit.


Yeah, Rocky IV marks the moment when the franchise lost its way.  After three good-to-excellent films, the fourth one is a phoned-in cash grab that essentially recycles the plot of the third movie and fills in the narrative gaps with unnecessary music montages.  I loved this film as a kid but holy lord does it not hold up now.  Amazingly the series hadn't even reached its nadir; Rocky V attempted to return the franchise to its roots (a gritty underdog story helmed by John G. Avildsen) but failed miserably on every level, and it wasn't until 17 years later that Stallone righted the ship with Rocky Balboa.  When I watch these films now I skip 4 and 5.  There simply isn't enough here to hold my interest.  Except the soundtrack.

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