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Junkfood Cinema: Rocky IV

By  · Published on January 22nd, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; the column that has elevated me to public enemy number one with the State Department of Health! Every week I make an absolute pig of myself scarfing down heaping helpings of bad films that I can’t help but love. I will also provide the perfect, decadent snack to complement the viewing experience. Because if there is one thing that goes great with junkfood, it’s sitting on our asses for extended periods of time right? Ok, Health Department, I understand now why you hate me. So grab a seat, grab and fork, and let’s dig into this week’s entry: Rocky IV.

If you aren’t familiar with this film franchise then let me be the first to welcome you back to Earth after what was clearly a 35 year exploration of the outer regions of space. Rocky, the original, is the ultimate underdog story about a boxer with a lot of talent and a lot of heart who cannot catch a break. When he is finally given the chance to prove himself, he does so to a degree that shocks the world. The sequel, Rocky II, is the story of that same underdog chasing redemption. Rocky III is about professional wrestlers and Mr. T. By the time we get to Rocky IV, we have already taken a healthy detour from the spirit of the original film and end up in a land of Commie giants, robot servants, and montages.

The premise is that an unequivocally enormous boxer arrives on the scene from Russia. His size is formidable and his punch is said to match the destructive power of a wrecking ball. He is Ivan Drago, and he wants to prove himself in America by defeating a legend. Apollo Creed accepts the challenge; an unwise decision. Drago proceeds to beat Apollo to death in the ring before Rocky can throw in the towel. To avenge his fallen friend, Rocky agrees to fight Drago in The Soviet Union in the dead of winter. Will Rocky get revenge on Drago or will he be another victim of the Russian’s iron fist?

What Makes It Bad

Rocky IV is the the entry most affected by the 1980’s. A strong case could be made for the sequel that featured both Hulk Hogan and a member of the A-Team (Rocky III), but my vote would still be this one. Rocky IVsmells of hot, melted cheddar from start to finish. Gone is our down-trodden, hungry hero with an unshakable will, and he is replaced by a soft, comfortable playboy whose glory is already fading. Rocky becomes a representation of the excess of the 80’s with his frivolous spending and his home that looks like it was decorated on a dare by a blind gay man. I’m aware that this serves Rocky’s character arc as Creed’s death forces his attention to shift away from the superficial and back to a more primal sense of existence.

But why does that arc involve a freaking robot?! It’s like a big, metal, bug-eyed shark that the franchise is leaping over with wanton abandon! Not only that, but for all the silliness afforded to Rocky by his wealth, he never fully changes. He goes on a Siberian hiatus for awhile, which is meaningful and all, but nothing happens to indicate that he won’t come right back to the same complacency. I don’t know maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that drove me nuts. It is interesting to note that the plot of Rocky V actually seems like a response this inconsistency in character arc. But then again, Rocky V is gopher excrement so maybe this is better left alone.

This movie is rich in montage. We all remember the great training montage in Rocky that ended with a triumphant ascent to the top of those iconic steps as the underdog finally felt ready to take on the champ. Well this movie looked at that movie and ascribed to the idea that if one montage is good, 47 montages amount to a runaway success! It gets to a certain point in the film where the story elements are nothing more than montage markers. Seriously, if it weren’t for people talking to each other, I wouldn’t know where one montage ended and another began. Well that, and the cessation of the rocking tunes of course! And good gravy train if Hearts on Fire isn’t the greatest montage song of all time. The lyrics employ the rhyme scheme of a kindergarten class’ winter pageant and if ever a song used more key-tar, I haven’t heard it. 80's!

The misstep that seems to stand out most heinously for those who see Rocky IV is the very end of the film. If it isn’t bad enough that we have to swallow that the Russian crowd ends up rooting for Rocky by the end of the fight, the Russian president gives him a standing ovation after he trounces Russia’s golden boy. If for some unknown reason you are still on board by this point, wait for the moment where Rocky gives his speech to the crowd. This would be the speech where Rocky narrows the scope of the Cold War down to the two fighters in the ring and implores the people to make peace. It’s basically Rocky taking credit for the fall of the Soviet Union even before it had officially taken place! It is epically absurd and with every barely coherent syllable he utters, the crowd gets more and more charged; while my brain does its best to escape my skull.

Why I Love It!

Did I mention the montages?! I am a sucker for a great montage. How can you not love the entirety of a brutal training regimen boiled down to five minutes highlights with cheesy music? Rocky IVfeatures what may very well be the best montage of the whole series. I’m not even going to pretend Hearts on Fire is not on my iPod. The problem is I don’t regularly work out, and when I do it pales in comparison to Rocky lifting giant bags of bricks, so I use the song to empower myself to accomplish pedestrian activities like taking out the trash or lifting a dining room chair to vacuum under it. Champion!

I love the irony laid down in the montage(s). Rocky is an American training in Russia using very primitive, old school equipment while Drago, the native Russian, is using the most state-of-the-80's technology and ingesting plenty of HGH cocktails. Rocky however is the one under constant scrutiny from the Russian authorities who suspect him of using steroids. The irony is that Rocky, the fighter from the country with the reputation for laziness and easy fixes, has to reduce himself to a more animalistic existence and trains without any modern technology while the Russian abuses technology to obtain the unfair advantage. Plus, Rocky totally tosses boulders, runs through the snow, and symbolically crumples a photo of Drago!

Speaking of giant Russians played by giant Swedes, how freaking awesome is Dolph Lundgren? And I’m not just talking about in this film; the guy is a monument to machismo. He cuts quite the imposing figure and his intensity is unquestionable. His acting may be a little weak, but the filmmakers used a common 80’s trick for dealing with accent-bearing brutes: give him almost no dialogue. It’s the same principal Cameron used in 1980 when he realized the full atrocity of Schwarzenegger’s accent was matched only by his dismal acting; having him play an emotionless cyborg who barely speaks. That being said, some of the most iconic moments of the film are when the otherwise stoic Drago mumbles ominous warnings. He is stalwart in his quest to break you, that much is certain. I am a big Lundgren fan. He is just as much a product of the 80’s as anything else about this sequel. There was a time when audiences could not get enough gargantuan “actors” in action films; a bigger is better mantra that is yet another byproduct of the decade.

The final fight between Rocky and Drago is high up on my list of greatest one-on-one fights in any film ever. Stallone actually does a decent job bringing emotional intensity to the bout and you can tell he’s fueled by revenge. The amount of punishment Rocky sustains is a testament to just how rock solid his noggin truly is and it prompts Drago to refer to him as a piece of iron; another great line from Lundgren. The back and forth between them, the return of Rocky to underdog status in the ring, and the pounding score all seem to have an effect on me unmatched by any other sports film. By the time Rocky extracts a gash from Drago’s face, it’s like blood in the water and I get frenzied. When the final blow lands and our hero stands victorious, it never fails to lift my spirits. I’ll throw on Rocky IV and watch the last twenty minutes whenever I am having a bad day.

I’m not the only one who loves this film. Click [[here]] to see us further laud Rocky IV for Movies We Love!

Junkfood Pairing:

Rock Candy. Did you know that rock candy was not at all named after Sylvester Stallone’s iconic pugilist? It’s true! But his trainers do refer to him as Rock from time to time so it still works. Not to mention the fact that both Stallone and Lundgren walk like they do in fact have enormous sticks lodged inside them. Also, the hard, jagged texture of the candy is oddly reminiscent of the jawlines of the two fighters in the final bout.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.