This November, it will have been 30 years since the release of Rocky IV. Heavy-handed in its symbolism and a serious contender for the title of feature-length fiction film with most montages per hour (even by ’80s standards), this was clearly a fantasy people wanted to see. According to IMDB, Rocky IV is the highest grossing film in the Rocky series, taking some $300 million worldwide. It captured the zeitgeist, with each testosterone-heavy punch in the face of Russian boxer Ivan Drago becoming a proxy punch across the Iron Curtain. Yet Rocky IV is as much about Rocky helping to solve the Cold War as it is about the Cold War coming to the rescue of the Rocky franchise.
The first thing we see are two huge boxing gloves. One features the flag of the United States, the other the flag of the Soviet Union. On the soundtrack, we hear a boxing match and the opening riffs of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”. The two gloves collide and explode with a bang!
From this, we know the film we are about to watch is designed to be a Cold War allegory. We also immediately know it will not be a subtle one.
The fourth entry in this sports drama series is best remembered as the one in which American boxing champion Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) travels to Moscow in order to fight against Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). In the story, Rocky is avenging his friend and mentor Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who died fighting Drago in Las Vegas earlier in the film. As a consequence, it is hard to miss that the tale is above all a vehicle for national wish-fulfillment. In the same year that Stallone could be seen killing Vietnamese and Soviet commandos while rescuing American POWs in the awkwardly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II, audiences were granted the added chance to see him humiliate the USSR by physically subduing its greatest fighter in front of Soviet leaders. To quote “Burning Desire”, which kicks into the soundtrack halfway through, it was a primitive clash between two worlds, venting years of frustrations.
Politics, it should be noted, are not the protagonist’s stated motivation, but they help viewers invest in the final fight, since by this point in the series, writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone was visibly running out of tricks or narrative devices. In the first Rocky, the so-called “Italian Stallion” was a likeable deadbeat given the chance to prove himself against the champ. Rocky II saw the main character in deep debt, with a baby to feed and a wife to support. In Rocky III, our hero realized he was not as good as he thought he was; he even lost a fight to James “Clubber” Lang (Mr. T). As such, the final rematch was about restoring pride, but the movie also sought to ensure you despised the brutish, arrogant Lang and wished to avenge Rocky’s sympathetic coach (Burgess Meredith), who died of a heart attack after being violently shoved by Lang. Rocky IV, then, is more of the same mechanical formula, sticking to the defeat/funeral/rematch structure of its predecessor, with the slight variation that it’s now Apollo who is defeated and dies.
What truly elevates the stakes this time around is the Cold War dimension. In fact, not only does boxing serve as a metaphor for war; war also serves as a metaphor for boxing. Apollo justifies to Rocky his decision to come out of retirement and face Drago:
You and me, we don’t even have a choice. See, we’re born with a killer instinct that you can’t just turn off and on like some radio. We always have to be in the middle of the action ’cause we’re the warriors. And without some challenge, without some damn war to fight then the warriors might as well be dead, Stallion.
After almost four decades of tension between Washington and Moscow, by 1985 the conflict was reaching a turning point. Ronald Reagan, who earlier in the decade had escalated hardline confrontational rhetoric (labelling the USSR the “Evil Empire”) and policy (the “Star Wars” defense initiative), began shifting towards a more conciliatory attitude. Mikhail Gorbachev was preparing political and economic reforms aimed at enabling “openness” (glasnost) and “restructuring” (perestroika) in the Soviet system.
It was at this watershed moment that Stallone delivered Rocky IV, in which the hero achieves a quadruple Cold War catharsis. He defeats Soviet national pride, as the initially hostile local audience abandons its support for the Russian heavyweight and starts cheering for Rocky once they realise the latter has a better chance of winning. He defeats collectivist ideology, as Drago pushes away a concerned member of the politburo and embraces individualism by shouting: “I fight to win! For me! For me!” Having broken the Soviet spirit, Rocky triumphs more formally by knocking down his opponent and officially winning the match.
The movie ends with a Russian crowd (including members of the politburo) applauding for Rocky, wrapped in an American flag, after he condescendingly, and with typical eloquence, tells the locals that he doesn’t find them so bad now that he has heard them cheer for him, so there is hope for peace:
I came here tonight and I didn’t know what to expect… I’ve seen a lot of people hate me and I didn’t know what to feel about that, so I guess I didn’t like you much none either. During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than 20 million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!
The result is so on the nose that it hardly qualifies as a parable — subtlety being yet another fatality of the Cold War. The whole movie is built and shot around the contrast between the two sides. The American boxers have joie de vivre, and are either charmingly cocky (Apollo) or passionately loyal (Rocky), while the Soviet fighter is grim, cold-hearted, and laconic — in the few lines he speaks, Drago sounds like the Terminator (“I defeat all men”). At that point in time, European actors clearly had cornered the acting market for monosyllabic brawn.
Rocky, who embodies the rags-to-riches American dream, is shown to have a luxurious lifestyle, surrounded by family and friends, while Drago is only seen in training, in press conferences, and in the ring, without exchanging a single affectionate glance with his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen). In Russia, Rocky makes do without previous creature comforts: his training is telluric, gaining strength from nature as he runs through the snow, chops wood, lifts rocks, and climbs a mountain, surrounded by the “real Russia” of 19th century peasants and even growing a Dostoyevsky-looking beard himself. In comparison, Drago’s training is mechanised, relying on computers, exercise machines, indoors facilities, and a vast technical support team who, among other things, provides him with steroids.
The dichotomy is reflected in the settings as well. The USA welcomes Drago with an entourage of excited reporters and extensive media coverage, while the Soviet Union assigns two KBG agents to follow Rocky around — he appropriately runs them into a ditch during one of his training sessions. The first fight takes place in a glittery Vegas arena, with over-the-top decoration, dozens of dancers, and a live performance by James Brown singing “Living in America”, while the climatic match is set in a Moscow ring surrounded by communist iconography, introduced by a sombre rendition of the USSR’s anthem as an enormous banner goes up with a portrait of Drago in the style of Soviet cults of personality.
The Vegas sequence is one of many elements to unmistakably associate Drago with the forces of evil. Before Apollo descends from above the stage wearing a coat and top hat with the pattern of the American flag, Drago can be seen emerging from a hellish, underground cage. Drago has a non-Russian sounding name, but one that rings vaguely threatening and ominous. He is a giant with demonic spiked hair who looks like an indestructible fighting machine but, like the USSR, in the end he can be brought down by American strength and determination (Drago eventually acknowledges that Rocky is “not human, he’s like a piece of iron”). A sports commentator refers to the Rocky vs Drago match as David vs Goliath, playing into the recurring American mythology — wholeheartedly embraced by Hollywood — of the USA as an underdog, no matter how preposterous this sounds in geopolitical terms.
Subtext becomes text during a press conference in the USA where Ludmilla rejects accusations that her husband is a killer. Showcasing Stallone’s flair for cardboard dialogue, she tells the American public: “You have this belief that you are better than us. You have this belief that this country is so very good and we are so very bad. You have this belief that you are so fair and we are so very cruel.” Drago’s manager, Nicoli Koloff (Michael Pataki), helpfully adds: “It’s all lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government.” This is where Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) jumps in and finally justifies his presence in the movie…
PAULIE: Whoa. Violent? Hey, we don’t keep our people behind a wall with machine guns.
NICOLI: Who are you?
PAULIE: Who am I? I’m the unsilent majority, bigmouth.
Yet the ham-fisted Cold War angle cannot disguise how uninspired the movie is. It feels like a soulless cash-grab written by a computer. Like each of the other sequels, Rocky IV starts by replaying a lengthy chunk of the preceding installment, which means that, exploding gloves aside, we are almost four minutes in before we get any new material.
Running time is further padded by a deluge of montage sequences, a cinematic technique that can be used to compress a film’s narrative, giving glimpses into a long process. Here, however, they clearly serve as filler. The most outrageous example occurs during a full rendition of Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out”, as Rocky drives a car with no particular destination in mind and we see flashbacks of scenes from the previous films, plus flashbacks from Rocky IV itself, including from the scene that took place just before he entered the car a couple of minutes ago. If you add to this the James Brown performance in Vegas, there is a case to be made that the movie is a quasi-musical. At one point, after an extensive training montage, Rocky’s wife Adrian (Talia Shire) shows up for a brief exchange, and then the movie immediately jumps to another, longer training montage, this one to the sound of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band’s “Hearts on Fire”.
The character of Adrian also speaks to the series’ overall depiction of gender roles, with women confined to the realm of emotions while physical activity and determination are assigned to men. Adrian has the same arc as always: at first concerned about her husband’s health, she begs Rocky not to fight, but she ultimately comes around and lends him emotional support. Apollo’s wife is shown in states of anxiety, distress, and grief. Ludmilla voices her silent husband’s feelings and motivations. By contrast, masculine physicality is expressed not only through aggressive training and fighting, including countless close-ups of glistening muscles, but also through Rocky and Apollo’s homosocial relationship: the two friends box playfully with each other (in a scene borrowed integrally from Rocky III) and later Rocky holds the dead Apollo in a Pieta-like position.
Curiously, more than a movie which looks as if made by robots and which features robotic characters, Rocky IV also includes an actual robot. In a puzzling attempt at comic relief, early in the film Rocky offers Paulie a bizarre human-sized automaton for his birthday. This robot serves absolutely no discernible purpose in the plot but it receives plenty of screen time, including a creepy sequence in which we find out that Paulie has programmed it to sound like a woman and to bring him beer. The robot, in fact, seems able to engage in spontaneous conversation, which would imply it has ’80s sci-fi worthy levels of artificial intelligence. This introduces an element of “magic” that makes the movie resemble even more of a Cold War-themed fairy tale, one with a hero who overcomes monumental trials and defeats evil monsters so that we can all live happily ever after.