After his final boxing match ever at the end of Rocky III, Rocky seems to still be reigning Heavyweight Champion of the Word, meaning he’s now come out of retirement more times than Peter Mandleson or Paul von Hindenburg. This time his inevitable return to boxing comes in the form of the vicious Soviet fighter Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).
Rocky is likeable because he’s the reluctant fighter. He doesn’t crave fame, glory or wealth. He wasn’t keen to fight Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in Rocky II, and only stepped back into the ring because he had a wife and kid to support. In Rocky III things got a bit trickier. The Heavyweight Champion of the World needs a personal reason to fight again, and the brilliant Mick (Burgess Meredith) paid the price with his life. Given the tiny number of characters in these films (see the empty pews at Rocky and Adrian’s wedding), when you have to start killing off your characters for a reason for Rocky to fight you know your franchise has a limited shelf life. This time it’s Apollo, who we just got used to as a good guy, losing his life at the hands of Drago, leading Rocky to go into full-on montage mode in a remote Russian cabin.
The death of Apollo casts a long shadow over this film, as we’re not only left without another of the franchise’s best characters, but the survivors are constantly sad and downbeat. For a film this silly to be enjoyable it should be fun, which Rocky IV isn’t. It has the worst training montage of any of the films. Not only does it massively overplay the Rocky cliché of the lowest tech training proving the most successful, it also doesn’t actually have Rocky do any boxing, suggesting fitness and strength are enough to make a winning fighter. The montage is also far longer, to stretch this meagre story out, and with utterly terrible music, which is so bad I wouldn’t be surprised if Stallone wrote that as well. It’s an assortment of terrible 80s tunes that completely fail to capture the wave of triumphalism of the main Rocky themes or Eye of the Tiger.
The previous films had lots going on outside the world of boxing, mostly with Rocky and Adrian’s relationship, or, in III, the development of Rocky and Apollo’s relationship, and Rocky’s transition to heavyweight champion persona. Rocky IV has nowhere left to go, so the focus is on the boxing and nothing else. As such its running time weighs in at a lightweight 91 minutes. Its ironic that the film with the most focus on the boxing has the least interesting boxing in it, and also the most ridiculous. It even includes an extended montage of the best bits from the previous three films as a shortcut to make us emotionally involved, but it just reminds us how far we’ve come. The charm of seeing Rocky interact with the people in his Philadelphia neighbourhood is replaced by a comedy 80s robot. Seriously.
Rocky III did away with being naturalistic, but made up for it in entertainment value. IV is just a film about a very silly boxing feud. Rocky is no underdog, and Stallone still can’t remember how to play the character. The best thing is probably Dolph Lundgren whose gawk-worthy physique dwarfs all Rocky’s previous opponents, except Hulk Hogan. And when the best thing about your film is that it was responsible for discovering Dolph Lundgren you know you have issues. The final fight isn’t even any good. Lundgren is so clearly Stallone’s superior that Rocky can’t get any punches in, and it’s utterly unbelievable that he could survive, let alone win.
This is the first film which feels like a B movie. The dialogue is crummy and clichéd, the direction is limp and lacking in creativity. There’s no agonising decision to step back into the ring. The only thing that’s agonising is to see what a great franchise is reduced to. Stallone was clearly aware of his own limited shelf life, so rushed this out to milk a cash cow before the ship sailed and he’s put out to pasture. Its just not very good.