Mourn the loss of Paulie’s robot, but consider checking out the “ultimate director’s cut” of the most gloriously 80s entry in the Rocky franchise.
People think the Cold War officially ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. That may technically be the right answer, but the actual end of the Cold War happened in Moscow on Christmas Day, 1985. That’s when American boxing champ Rocky Balboa knocked out Russian behemoth Ivan Drago in such a humiliating fashion that even his own countrymen were Team Rocky by the end of the slugfest. It was such a blow to morale that the USSR never recovered.
Okay, maybe not. Rocky’s stirring victory speech of, “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change” didn’t bring world peace, but it made a lot of money. Written and directed by the Italian Stallion himself, Sylvester Stallone, Rocky IV came in at number 4 at the box office in 1985, just behind another Stallone-written sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II (the man had a good ’80s).
Rocky IV is the biggest guilty pleasure of the franchise. It doesn’t have the emotional weight of the original, or the filmmaking chops that Ryan Coogler brought to Creed, but every frame is an ’80s fantasia of cool haircuts, terrible fashion, and never-ending training montages. Part of its charm is also a plot that’s simple and easy to digest.
Rocky’s former nemesis and now best friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), comes out of retirement to prove himself against the giant Russian boxer, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Drago kills Creed in the ring. Rocky then trains in a frozen tundra and gets revenge for his dead friend (and the United States) by pummeling Drago in front of his Commie home crowd. It’s not the kind of movie that screams “director’s cut,” but that’s what Stallone thinks we need, so he has provided us with one.
This new version is called Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut and features 40 minutes of previously unused footage. Stallone mostly edits around the edges of the film, mostly by extending a few emotional beats and adjusting the rhythm of the boxing matches, but his worst decision is cutting Paulie’s robot girlfriend. His A.I. lover didn’t add anything to the original version except for uncomfortable confusion, but why Stallone gets rid of that yet keeps a scene halfway through the film that’s a seven-minute clip show from the previous three movies is puzzling.
The best and most surprising revelation to come out of this new version is Carl Weathers’ swan song as Apollo Creed. After being a cartoonish version of Muhammad Ali from the start of the series, Weathers is the only actor here that shows any depth in their performance. Apollo is now washed up and years away from his championship peak. Weathers shows this in the way he breaks down Apollo’s unlimited confidence into something closer to Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
For the tragic bout with Drago, Stallone re-edits it here to show Creed putting up more of a fight instead of the merciless beatdown he gets in the original cut. It also better justifies Apollo’s decision to get back in the ring with this monster for the second round. “They don’t care about you when you’re out of the ring,” an exhausted-looking Weathers says to Stallone early in the film. He’s a man who only knows how to be happy when he’s punching other dudes in the head. When Apollo tells his buddy not to throw in the towel no matter what, you can see the death wish in Weathers’ eyes, even when they’re swollen shut.
It makes you think, “I want to see a whole movie about Apollo,” which is essentially what we got 30 years later with Michael B. Jordan as Apollo’s son, Adonis. It’s insane that a cheesy ’80s relic has such strong narrative and emotional ramifications for the modern-day Creed films, but Stallone retroactively gives those movies even more emotional heft by re-editing Apollo’s death, even if Stallone now has regrets about killing off that character.
Rocky IV is a film best preserved in the amber of Reagan’s America, when economics supposedly trickled down and the biggest movie stars on the planet were walking steroids with baby oiled muscles. Some things in the film don’t shine as brightly in 2021, like when Rocky snaps at his devoted wife, Adrian (Talia Shire) “Don’t ask me to stop being a man,” after she has the audacity to worry about her husband fighting an elite killing machine. But enjoying Rocky IV is like eating Fruity Pebbles. You don’t consume it for the nutritional value, you do it to get a sugar rush.
Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut will be available on VOD starting November 12th.