Rocky IV turned 30 in January this year, and it still stands up as much more than a collection of divine montages scored by an adrenaline pumped 80’s rock soundtrack. For me, the second highest grossing sports film of all time (2nd only to The Blind Side) is a subtle political commentary of the Cold War that harrowingly still applies in 2016 with Putin’s Russia – thanks to the annexation of Crimea, the Syrian conflict, the state-sponsored doping of Olympic athletes and whispers of a Cold War 2.0.
Stallone’s Oscar winning Rocky, released 40 years this November, was the definitive underdog story. Real life replicating the fantasy, it also propelled Stallone to the Hollywood elite. Generally regarded as one of the greatest sports films ever made (the American Film Institute voted it No.2 in 2008, behind Raging Bull) no one could have imagined it would lead to five sequels and a spin-off in the shape of 2015’s Creed.
Despite the deserved critical acclaim for the debut film, I will always regard Rocky IV as my favourite in the series. It’s the one I have watched the most, it’s the one that looks the best and it’s the one that sounds the best. It found the perfect balance between drama and action, fused together with a glossy 80’s Hollywood shine.
Added to that, it was the film that launched the legendary Dolph Lundgren, whom I personally believe should have his own ‘facts’ similar to Chuck Norris – but thats another article.
Following Lundgren achieving his Masters in chemical engineering (I know!!!) from the University of Sydney, he was hired as a bodyguard for Grace Jones in early 1983, eventually leading the pair into a romantic relationship. This resulted in Jones securing a minor part for her beau in Roger Moore’s Bond swan-song, A View to a Kill, released in 1985. This was followed with his breakout as the stoic and merciless Ivan Drago, a part he campaigned profusely for after initially being turned down due to Stallone initially believing he was too tall for the part.
With Wyoming and Vancouver substituting for the Soviet Union, it is all too easy to forget just how breathtakingly beautiful this film is visually. Using cutting edge filming and sound effects of the time, the visual appeal still holds up today. Everyone loves a good montage and Rocky IV mastered it, with each scored to a different track under the supervision of Vince DiCola, replacing Bill Conti who had scored the previous three films. DiCola would later go on to work on Transformers: The Movie; another truly iconic rock soundtrack from the 1980’s.
Robert Tepper’s adrenaline pumping “No Easy Way Out” set the tone as Rocky pondered his fear of facing the monstrous, murderous Drago with a late night drive in his Lambourghini Jalpa. Arriving in Russia, a scene setting montage was presented with “Burning Heart” by Survivor – who provided the iconic “Eye of the Tiger” for Rocky III. Finally, the cream-of-the-crop – the training montage that climaxes with Rocky screaming Drago atop a mountain, scored perfectly by “Hearts on Fire” by John Cafferty, eventually merging in Bill Conti’s original Rocky theme “Flying High Now”.
If all that weren’t enough, James Brown “Living in America” was recorded specifically for this movie.
At its core, the film is a story of revenge, of facing your fears and standing up for what you believe in. The brutal in-ring death of previous franchise villain Apollo Creed sets a darker tone than any of the previous films and ultimately sends Rocky on a collision course with the fearsome Ivan Drago in a good versus evil quest for justice.
Upon release, Rocky IV was met with mostly negative reviews – many claiming it was a rinse and repeat of the previous two films in the series. Amazingly, it won five Golden Raspberry Awards including a Worst Director and Worst Actor double for Stallone. If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, it also won worst musical score – absolute sacrilege!
However, the film has been more legitimised by the analytical studies it has encouraged over the years, mainly focusing on its Cold War context and wider meaning within Russian and American perceptions of the time. Apollo explains to Rocky that its “us against them” following the press conference to his fight, yet the press conference gave the Russians an opportunity to humanise themselves to the American public: “You have this belief that your country is so very good and we are so very bad. You have this belief that you are fair and we are so very cruel” and “we don’t keep our people behind a wall with machine guns” are a few statements Drago’s entourage provide that challenge the actual real life perception of many American citizens of the time.
Despite being a mainstream blockbuster release, the narrative of Rocky IV is one of the first big budget Hollywood films to break the stereotypical perceptions of the Cold War; on both ends. The high contrast in the film between Drago and Rocky – such as with training methods, their personal lives and wealth, their motivation and their support – is symbolic of the gulf in culture between American and Russian at the time – the American Dream vs state sponsored technological supremacy and hard work and determination versus cutting edge sports science. However, it reduces this division between two powerful nations to two men. Drago’s “if he dies, he dies” is not symbolic of Russia – it’s symbolic of his character. It becomes a campaign for revenge for Rocky against an individual, not a nation. Agreeing to the fight being held in Russia and all the other terms that comes with it, such as forfeiting his championship belt, supports his motivation. It is no longer “us against them”.
Upon winning the fight, Rocky’s “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change” sums up the the message of the film. Russian citizens are now seeing the courage, bravery and heart of an American individual – which turns a very hostile crowd into a supportive crowd. It humanises the Cold War and reduces it to a transparent level where the individual is free to make up their own mind. Drago’s “I fight for me” again challenges the perceptions of the Soviets that over 40 years of Hollywood propaganda had actively encouraged. During the Cold War, the Russians were always perceived as “the big bad” in Hollywood films. While Rocky IV didn’t actually stray from this path, it must be applauded for breaking down the idea and actually looking at the reasons – starting with the Russian evil empire as the enemy as normal, and subtly morphing that to an individual as the sole antagonist, who just so happened to be Russian.
Surprisingly, it was not banned in the USSR upon release and was generally well received by Russians. The film was actually advertised and edited slightly to focus more on Drago and his story of one soviet citizen standing up against the system to face the heavyweight champion of the world – again questioning the conformity of the Cold War only this time from the opposite side.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Hollywood films switched their lair of all things evil to the Middle East. Rocky IV perfectly demonstrates the power cinema has to influence, and in some crude roundabout way, it played its part in building bridges in the last few years of the Cold War.
However, with Russia back at odds with NATO since their actions against Ukraine in 2014 and their involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria, the last few years have seen the traditional Hollywood bad guy reverting back to a Russian accent and Rocky IV’s political message is now once again very relevant in today’s terror fearing, internet obsessed, political conscious world.
The simple fact that a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster film about boxing is discussed in such a manner at all, never mind more than three decades later, is testament just how iconic and poignant the 4th instalment in the Rocky franchise actually is. I’d argue that it is probably regarded as the best in the series by the majority of the 80’s generation, who grew up watching this and Rocky III over the slower paced and more dramatic Rocky I & II.
I’ve seen it so many times I could probably recite it word for word, not just Drago’s classic lines. With great action, drama, beautiful cinematography and a killer soundtrack, it allows its characters to shine: it’s everything you would want from a blockbuster film. The underlying themes are wonderfully crafted and challenge the general opinion of the world at the time, simply reducing how ridiculous the Cold War was – something that is very much worth taking note of today. Most importantly of all, in another 30 years time, I will still feel the same about Rocky IV as I do now because it is simply a timeless classic.
And there is no better way to sign off on this politically heavy nostalgic feature than by turning your volume up to 11 and basking in the absolutely undeniable glory of the greatest montage ever to grace the big screen…