1985 -The Rocky series of films created by Sylvester Stallone were arguably one of the biggest franchises in cinema. The fourth film in the series, set against and during the real cold war, was released and perfected the genre. It’s our latest Formative Film.
People may scoff at the Rocky franchise, but they forget the story of the original film. Based on the fight between Chuck Wepner and Muhammed Ali in 1975, Sylvester Stallone wrote his script of the original Rocky and faced a struggle to get it recognised and made. Failing as an actor, the only way he thought he could succeed was to write the role for himself. In doing so he created one of cinemas enduring underdogs, Rocky Balboa and the rest is history. But why is the original or one of the next two sequels not the formative film? Simply they may have been loved more critically but in the fourth the template for many struggle films was perfected. While people may love the true classic that is the original, the happy ending of the second or the maniacal performance of Mr T in the third, the fourth feels like a film that knows what it is doing from step one.
The film begins with everyone happy, Rocky is champion and is living with his son, wife Adrian and brother in law Paulie. His house is a palace and he is bathed in sunshine wherever he goes. He has made it and it seems that nothing can upset the balance. Being too good to last, his friend and adversary from the first three films, the retired Apollo Creed cannot get rid of the fighting itch. A sparring session with Rocky and the experience of training him in has previous fight has re-awoken the competitive spirit in him and he wants another match. Carl Weathers puts in a brilliant performance as Apollo and you can feel his hurt at having retired too early. It just so happens that there is a young Soviet fighter rising up the ranks, Ivan Drago.
Set in 1985 the film was during the cold war era. USA and USSR were very much hostile at government level. In the minds of the public however people were beginning to demand change. Films like Spies Like Us and others of the time were pushing the good vibe between the countries as democracy was gaining traction in soviet Russia. Ivan Drago was the stereotypical Russian athlete portrayed by the West. 6’4, made of muscle and imposing, Dolph Lungren played him straight. The Swedish actor may have had a dodgy accent when you look at it now but at the time it was foreign and fitted the character perfectly. Drago was portrayed as the perfect specimen, engineered rather than trained he was launching an all out assault on the boxing world. Apollo sitting at home saw his chance to come out of retirement and strike a blow for himself and America. The build up and fight that make up he films first act live long in the memory.
Rocky tries to talk Apollo out of the fight against the younger stronger man. He fails but Rocky agrees to be his corner man. Apollo comes across as his brash usual self but Weathers puts an underlying fear into his character. Cleverly it could either be fear of getting old or fear of the opponent he is about to face. The pre fight press conferences descend into farce and bravado, with Brigitte Nielsen being the annoying shrew of a companion to Drago. The night of the fight arrives and we get a pompous display of American pageantry. Drago comes out but is surrounded by dancing girls and a rendition of Living in America by James Brown. Apollo comes out dressed like Uncle Sam and despite the happy atmosphere there is a dark mood brewing. Stallone looks on in amusement with a likeable dumb stare to the whole proceedings. Rocky isn’t taking this seriously. The fight begins with Apollo jabbing and getting in many blows unanswered. The commentators and crowd are enjoying the American show of dominance until Drago’s coach tells him to fight back. One Blow from Drago changes the fight and the whole film. The noise and ferocity of the punches he begins to land on Apollo are well framed and shocking to the audience. After a few, you know this isn’t going to end well. Apollo makes it though the round but Rocky wants to throw in the towel. He says Drago is killing him. With a nod to his wife in the crowd and a deep growl Creed refuses and goes out for the second round. Weather’s ability to change character from the happy entertainer to the crazed, suicidal Creed so quickly is hard to watch. Drago continues his assault until a final fatal blow leaves Creed motionless on the canvas.
Killing off a major character is commonplace nowadays but then it was a shock. Mickey had died in the previous film now Apollo in this. Rocky changes as a character and threatening to mirror the mistakes of Creed sets his sights on a fight against Drago in Russia. Having just seen his best friend killed in the ring, the impossible challenge lets Stallone show a darker more determined Rocky. In a memorable montage set to No Easy Way Out by Robert Tepper Rocky goes for a late night drive in his black Lamborghini as his whole life is flashed back. We as the audience are used to these montages but this one is different. Like his life flashing before his eyes Rocky, doesn’t believe he can win the fight. He too feels he is going to die in the ring. Along with the heavy beat of the music this sets up the Russian segment of the film as a suicide mission.
Rocky arrives with Paulie and Apollo’s trainer and we get a contrast of him and Drago. Rocky has chosen a frozen cottage in the wilds of Russia to prepare, while Drago is in his hi-tech gym being pumped full of steroids and battering a succession of sparring partners. Rocky suffers in his training and when all hope looks lost Adrian arrives out and he begins to believe. The classic training montage kicks in and we get Rocky outrunning a Russian spy car in the snow and climbing to the top of a mountain. Rousing stuff before the final fight.
The final fight is typical Rocky, he begins by getting beat down before outlasting his opponent. Drago claims he is made of iron as the blows reign down and both men are reduced to bloody messes. The real story of the fight is the crowd reaction. Being set up as a hostile foreign crowd and cold war adversaries, the Soviet soldiers in the crowd begin to cheer for Rocky by the end. Drago falls out with his own team and Rocky is victorious. The only low point is Rocky’s speech at the end. Usually a moment that can be picked on by critics, the moral of the fight speech at the end this time deserves the critique. We realise that this portion of the film is about breaking down the barriers between the two nations, so we don’t need it spelled out to us. The language is cheesy and ends the film on a bit of a low. Despite this we shouldn’t let it detract from what it does well.
The film perfects the formula for a struggle in sport drama. You have tragedy at the beginning, self-doubt in the middle and redemption at the end. No matter the sporting outcome, this formula has been used in many films since.Rocky IV stands as the definitive Rocky formula film. Its soundtrack, iconography and structure were perfected by the fourth iteration and still have are a reference point in modern culture. Influenced by the pomp of boxing in the late 80’s it is remembered and referenced in press conferences now. When two boxers get dramatic in reality, it is almost impossible not to think of the press conferences in Rocky IV. Even the WWE has unearthed the Russian angle with the beautiful assistant. The wrestler Rusev has Lana as his assistant, who is Brigitte Nielson in all but name, they even feud against the American hero John Cena. Like all formative films, the ability to reference it across multiple genres and interests, seals its place in our section.
What do you think? Was this the definitive Rocky?