VHS Revival goes twelve rounds with Sylvester Stallone’s MTV-styled propaganda vehicle
The appeal of Rocky Balboa is his relatable status as a flawed everyman. In 1976, director John G. Avildsen gave us the perfect underdog story. Backed by an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Stallone himself and managing a further seven nominations and three wins, Rocky was about realising potential and overcoming the odds, shining a sympathetic light on the downtrodden working classes of a post-industrial Philadelphia. Post World War II, the Great Migration would lead to a housing shortage and a multicultural stew of immigrants that saw middle-class whites flee the area. Rocky was the personification of a generation born into poverty and degradation. Nobody expected the likes of Balboa to prosper, and modernisation would leave many like him unskilled and unemployable.
It was from the industrial ashes that one of cinema’s most cherished legacies would triumphantly emerge. Rocky showed us the importance of attitude and determination and the will to succeed despite all obstacles ― not just those imposed by outside forces, but those imposed on oneself as a consequence. It also spoke to family values and the importance of togetherness, a society of shared desperation coming together through the success of one of their own. Stallone was a revelation as the movie’s titular hero, a reluctant thug-for-high whose friendship with an insular store clerk set him on the path to self-discovery. The young actor was so adamant about starring as the titular pugilist that he’d turn down cold, hard cash from interested financiers while he and his pregnant wife struggled to make ends-meet. ‘Sly’ would go on to have an incredible mainstream career, battling the mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger toe-to-toe for the best part of two decades, but the foundations were hand-built and steeped in humility.
Rocky was nothing short of magic, and the inevitable sequel would follow. The original movie was smart enough to realise that a Rocky title win against world champion Apollo Creed was just a smidgen too far, detracting from the Balboa character and the film’s romance narrative with an ever-supportive Adrian (Talia Shire), who would prove the Italian Stallion’s greatest achievement. But this was Hollywood, Stallone was Stallone, and there was a primal urge, however nonsensical from an artistic standpoint, to see our humble warrior triumph in the ring over and over; not for the sake of love or humility or hope or any of those elements that makes Rocky such a timeless slice of cinema, but just to see him kick somebody’s ass and lift the gold, and with the bigger-is-better 80s fast approaching, there was no better time to fulfil those urges.
Rocky would get his title win, and a second sequel would soon materialise, flavour of the month celebrities such as A-Team favourite Mr. T and World Wrestling Federation champion Hulk Hogan adding to an increasingly gimmicky roster of stars. Ironically, whenever attendance is down in the world of professional wrestling, promoters invariably turn to xenophobia to pique the waning interest of bloodthirsty fans. Whether it’s the Russians, the Sheiks or even the French Canadians, America vs the world is a surefire way to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Rocky Balboa: Going in one more round when you don’t think you can – that’s what makes all the difference in your life.
And so we come to Rocky IV, which takes this tried-and-tested formula and showers it in a red, white and blue blizzard of Hollywood stardust. As an exercise in filmmaking, Stallone’s fourth outing as Balboa is trite and predictable and grossly formulaic, but as a time capsule into the neon hedonism of the Reagan years there are perhaps none more pertinent. Stallone has admitted to being at war with his own ego during the mid-1980s, and the movie plays out like some kind of facile onscreen redemption. Overwhelmed by material goods and taking his eye off the prize, our once-humble hero has even begun to neglect his family for the ever-burning spotlight of mainstream adulation. Written and directed by the man himself, this is Stallone at his most extravagantly supercilious.
To be fair, it was an interesting premise for a character of Rocky’s cinematic lineage. How many great sports talents have found fame and fortune and gone off the rails? It doesn’t happen nearly as much as it used to — the godlike hand of corporate sponsorship sees to that — but it’s a believable narrative for a humble kid who once had nothing and immediately has it all handed to him and then some. The movie’s ostentatious presentation kills any hope for genuine catharsis, and franchise staples such as Rocky’s battered, post-bout speech and Adrian’s teary-eyed emergence from the bloodstained rafters begin to pang of self-parody, with a plot that often seems to stumble through the motions. Based on these elements alone, Rocky IV is one uppercut away from franchise extinction.
Of course, all of that pales to the quite outrageous Cold War propaganda that punctuates affairs. Rocky IV is not a movie renown for its subtleties. In fact, it is the most blatant exercise in nationalistic stereotyping this side of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, one crammed with enough pop culture showmanship to justify its spuriously fascist tone. Here, Soviets are heartless hunks of steel beset on smashing the American Dream. They are cheats, liars and murderers, and all in the name of Communism. Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is a man-mountain with a buzzed blonde mane and icy glare; a poster boy for ethnic cleansing who sets out to crush American showmanship and anything else tied to Old Glory. As a sheer physical presence Drago is a monster, a flesh sickle with a ruthless edge who could just as easily belong to the video games that would follow.
The movie wastes no time in communicating its political views, the kind that pang of an actor who sleeps on a bed of money. One of the first images we see are two flag-painted gloves clashing with a cartoon explosion that sets the decadent tone from the offset, the film’s theme song drawing the battle lines so brazenly it makes you realise how far we’ve come in the three decades since its release. I’m not saying we are any more immune to media bias and manipulation, but watching this you are able to appreciate just how sophisticated the propaganda model has become. We no longer have to be told how to think so explicitly. By now it’s so ingrained we imagine we’re thinking independently.
I’m not advocating communism, or any ideology for that matter, but the way Rocky IV portrays political conflict and the possibility of resolution is gobsmackingly schematic, so condescending it threatens to cross over into spoof territory. Draped in The Star-Spangled Banner, Balboa is the personification of American exceptionalism, a beacon of freedom and democracy who not only topples the cheating Soviet giant, but also manages to turn a nation of indoctrinated communists into on-the-spot capitalists, a previously robotic rabble who rise to their feet on home turf and chant Balboa’s name, applauding the bravery of the foreign entity who was able to solve their decades-long moral crisis with 12 rounds of fisticuffs. Even ‘Soviet Leader’ David Lloyd Austin, a transparent Gorbachev lookalike who has presided over events like an immovable tank of systematic oppression, rises to his feet as head cheerleader.
By this rationale, all of the world’s conflicts can be solved by the actions of a millionaire superstar, and though that idea has become somewhat prevalent in an era of reality TV and celebrity culture, this one is best consumed with a hefty pinch of the proverbial salt. Balboa may be promoting unity, and his fictional excesses may half-heartedly warn of the entrapments of consumerism, but the movie’s overall presentation promotes the capitalist ideology with a hedonistic ferocity that never stops to take a breath. It’s such an audacious contradiction in terms that all you can do is watch on in awe. Fittingly, Austin would later play the same unnamed Gorbachev character in the glorious, Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof The Naked Gun, which should give you an idea of exactly what we’re dealing with here.
Nicoli Koloff: It’s all lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government.
Paulie: Whoa! Violent? Hey, we don’t keep our people behind a wall with machine guns.
The movie’s central conflict hinges on an astonishingly manipulative revenge fantasy involving one-time Rocky rival and best friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Creed is well into retirement when he takes offence to the emotionless Russian ploughing through the heavyweight division, and after some spurious dialogue about jeopardised freedoms he is decked out in Yankee attire and back in the ring, only for a steroid-pumped Drago to leave him fatally twitching on the canvas. Watching on with inhuman pride are his dastardly entourage, leggy wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) shaking the hand of Mrs. Creed before basking in her husband’s death and grinning with the kind of super villainy that stops the movie from becoming truly offensive. The fact that Weathers and Lundgren had some real-life heat, the former threatening to quit over the newcomer’s heavy-handedness in the ring, only adds to what is an admittedly powerful scene and Dolph’s authenticity as a stone cold killer. I was absolutely terrified of Drago as a watching tyke. He was evil personified.
Rocky IV‘s in-ring legitimacy doesn’t stop there. In fact, much of what transpires between the ropes is believable and gripping, providing a much welcome antithesis to the movie’s mostly stylised fantasy. Stallone has gone on record as saying that the film’s fictional sparring was actually very real, he and Lundgren genuinely duking it out with realism in mind. Lundgren, who Stallone believed had what it took to become a genuine heavyweight champion, would connect with such force in one scene that Sly was rushed to hospital with a swollen heart after his breastbone slammed against it. Stallone was actually rushed to an intensive care unit where he remained for eight days with off-the-chart blood pressure of up to 200.
Drago’s unforgivable act leads to a vengeful Rocky taping up his fists and agreeing to fight the Soviet brute on foreign soil, a place where the Stasi secret police spy on his every move and 90 percent of the population carry rifles and dress in army uniforms. In a quite improbable role reversal, communist champion Drago uses modern, high-tech equipment to train for the big fight, legitimate equipment that was actually two decades from public use, while capitalist millionaire Rocky goes back to his roots by braving the snow and humping logs around in subzero temperatures. He even manages to top an icy mountain as big as Everest in nothing but a pair of sneakers, echoing the famous Philadelphia step run with the kind of excessive grandeur that typifies the era. A beefed-up buffet of slick MTV editing and sweat-dripping slo-mo, the whole ordeal scored to John Cafferty’s irresistibly excessive power surge ‘Hearts On Fire’, it is a glorious experience to behold for fans of 80s kitsch.
Ivan Drago: [after knocking out Apollo Creed] – If he dies, he dies.
It is these instances that lend the movie a seductive charm. Despite its paper-thin politics, Rocky IV has so much more to offer. The movie is a wonderful porthole into the pop culture of the time, and most explicitly the MTV generation. One of a series of movies to adopt the popular aesthetics and contrived presentation of the 80s pop music video, a trend that began with the Oscar-winning Flashdance and included Tony Scott’s jet-burner classic Top Gun, almost every scene is saturated with the slick and seamless MTV formula. The movie’s entire second act resembles an extended music video that recaps past events from the stylised perspective of a brooding Balboa, who handles personal conflict the way Lionel Richie handles love songs, drenched in metaphorical shadows and cruising the city streets as the world’s real problems flash by in a neon Neverland.
It is the film’s pop video presentation that lifts Rocky IV from political drudgery to mindless escapism like a world heavyweight champion raised high on the shoulders of giants, and you have to think that on some level the infamous training montage, while a product of the self-obsessed fitness culture of the time, acts as a thinly-veiled message to real-life commercial adversary Schwarzenegger, who by that time had already usurped Stallone as Hollywood’s leading action star. In a 2013 interview with David Letterman, the actor admitted to once harbouring a “violent hatred” towards Arnie. The only thing missing from Sly’s cinematic wet dream is a Soviet-garbed Schwarzenegger standing in the opposite corner of the ring.
As well as its pop music extravagances, Rocky IV benefits from a quite incredible score by future Transformers: The Movie alumni Vince Dicola, who pumps star-spangled adrenaline directly into the movie’s veins. Original Rocky composer Bill Conti would reject the chance to return for the third sequel, choosing instead to work with original director John G. Avildsen on a similarly touching underdog story by the name of The Karate Kid, which would quickly become one of the summer’s surprise hits, earning the late Pat Morita an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and becoming the top rental for 1986, beating Rocky IV to the home video punch. As much of a loss as Conti must have been at the time, it’s unlikely he would have been able to produce something so aptly hedonistic. DiCola’s synth-infused score is the lifeblood of this movie, from a sublimely tweaked, jazzed-up synth version of the original theme to the divinely ostentatious, fist-pumping War, Rocky IV‘s slab of audio patriotism is an absolute knock-out.
Rocky Balboa: During this fight, I’ve seen a lot of changing, in the way you feel about me, and in the way I feel about you. In here, there were two guys killing each other, but I guess that’s better than twenty million. I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!
There are many spurious sentiments to chew on here, some of which you’ll need a bloodied spit bucket for, but in spite of everything Rocky IV is actually a very accomplished movie. As a piece of cinema it is little more than exploitative trash which does its best to put the ‘Rocky’ character down for a 10 count, but Stallone has always been ahead of the game in his understanding of what the American public, and audiences in general want, and as a slice of mindless entertainment the fourth instalment in the seemingly tireless series is as slick as they come. There is also some great acting talent on display, the utterly endearing Talia Shire lighting up every frame as the ever-dependable and effortlessly earnest Adrian. Burt Young’s eternal curmudgeon, Paulie, is also as endearing as ever, offering the movie a much needed shot of authenticity in a world of cardboard caricatures and contrived morality plays, particularly as the sober yin to the infamous ‘Happy Birthday Paulie’ robot’s wildly excessive yang. I realise cocaine was rife in Hollywood during the 1980s, but what on Earth were they thinking?!
But where Rocky IV truly excels is in its ability to appeal to the nostalgic sentiments of a generation. Now that the political dust has settled, we are able to digest the movie’s derogatory embellishments with a wry smile. Not only that, we are able to enjoy it for what it is: a mindless slice of glitzy entertainment that wows as a pop culture vehicle, giving us kitsch robots, gaudy power ballads, a louder than ever James Brown, and the worst political lookalike to ever find employment outside of a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video. Yes, Rocky IV is a twitching bicep of political flexing, but as a time capsule for period excess it is really quite special, proving an unlikely landmark in 80s cinema and achieving the kind of cult status most movies can only dream of.