In a revisited 2021 edit, Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago takes us back to one of the most divisive movies ever in the Rocky series.
Rocky as played by Sylvester Stallone is now the champion of the world. Yet, his former adversary turned friend Apollo Creed as played by Carl Weathers still hungers for more. So, when Dolph Lundgren‘s Russian boxer Ivan Drago arrives in America, seeking a fight with an ambivalent Rocky, Apollo sees his chance. Though, by deliberately pushing both his fitness and Rocky’s friendship to the limit, has Apollo put more than his own reputation in jeopardy? With more than just national pride in the balance, the deeper question for Rocky becomes should he even stop Apollo, let alone try?
… Far more protracted and less informed by any dramatic considerations, many of Rocky IV’s air punches now make their connection.
Well, re-entering the ring 36 years later and at the grand old of 75, writer, director and star Sylvester thinks he should. If there is an overriding comment to make about Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago, it is one of course correction. Abruptly starting without any fanfare, Stallone quickly puts this director’s cut on a much leaner diet of character conflict and consequence. Deliberately teasing us with an initial false flashback, Rocky quickly considers his life as a failure. As the seconds’ haemorrhage away in his eventually successful bout with Mr T’s James “Clubber” Lang (as per Rocky III), Stallone now clearly sees Rocky as someone with something to lose.
Running counter to this though, is a sense of risk, as embodied by Carl Weather’s Apollo Creed. With a new, more insightful handling of Apollo’s character, this new cut of Rocky IV sees Apollo aching for his old life. So, when Drago, a younger, all-conquering fighter from Russia arrives in the USA, it’s far more than just his patriotism that is piqued. Whereas Rocky can see the risks in taking such a bout, Apollo can only see the rewards – and if anything, it’s in this first half that this director’s cut is at its strongest.
Whereas the original Rocky IV was a movie drowning in patriotism bordering on hyperbole, 2021’s Stallone wants to dial it all back to just the actual fights this time. Far more protracted and less informed by any dramatic considerations, many of Rocky IV’s air punches now make their connection. Apollo Creed rightly gets the send-off he deserved and Dolph Lundgren‘s Drago this time properly feels like a beefed-up bunny in history’s headlights. So, whilst Brigitte Neilsen and Burt Young‘s roles have been sacrificed to do this, it has to be said the result is all the better for it.
Nonetheless, with Talia Shire’s eponymously shrill “You can’t win” echoing through the third act, the latter half is much more akin to the original 1985 edit. With its so-80s-that-it-hurts montages as provided by the group Survivor (who clearly wanted to sound like the band Foreigner – look them up, kids), it seems there’s just some editing decisions that not even Rocky can dodge.
So, whilst a midway 4-minute pop video might arguably drag the plot along, they still feel like remnants of a cold war that Stallone now wants to pour cold water on. Also by additionally shearing off its dubiously iconic / Iwo Jiwa-like end freeze frame, this version’s non-conclusion makes it’s pretty clear that there’s a much bigger fight than the one on the screen.
This is because in Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago, Stallone clearly wants to jettison the jingoism and embrace the character-driven catharsis of the more recent Rocky spin-offs. So, by waving goodbye to a patriotic popcorn pleaser that many found just too salty, it would seem that Sly, like Rocky, believes that: “If I can change then maybe you change.”
In watching this new version of Rocky IV, it’s clear he wouldn’t have got back in the ring if he didn’t think it was worth it. And in short, it is.