VHS Revival goes twelve rounds with Sylvester Stallone’s MTV-styled propaganda vehicle
The appeal of Rocky Balboa is his status as a flawed everyman. Back in 1976, director John G. Avildsen gave us the perfect underdog story. Backed by an Oscar-nominated screenplay from Stallone himself and managing further seven nominations and three wins, Rocky was about realising potential and overcoming the odds, shining a sympathetic light on the poor and downtrodden and reminding us that, given the right attitude and determination, anything is possible. It also spoke to family values and the importance of perspective. 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 actor 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 an 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 ultimately prove to be the Italian Stallion’s greatest achievement. But this was Hollywood, Stallone was Stallone, and there was a primal urge, however nonsensical it may have been from an artistic standpoint, to see our humble warrior triumph in the ring, not through love or humility or hope or any of those elements that makes Rocky such 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.
Inevitably, Rocky would get his title win, and a second sequel would soon materialise, flavour of the month celebrities such as 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 its 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: 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, this is an interesting premise for a character of Rocky’s cinematic lineage. After all, how many great sports talents have found fame and fortune and gone off the rails. It doesn’t happy nearly as much as it used to — the godlike hand of corporate advertising sees to that — but its a believable narrative for a humble kid who once had nothing and immediately has it all handed to him and then some. But the ostentatious way in which the movie is presented 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 blood-stained rafters begin to pang of 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. This 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, Russians 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 blonde mane and icy glare; a poster boy for ethnic cleansing. As a sheer physical presence Drago is a monster, a flesh sickle with a ruthless edge that borders on cartoon supervilliany.
The film wastes no time in communicating its one-dimensional 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 movie’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 misinformation, 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 our prejudices have almost become second nature.
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 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 a some spurious dialoguing 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.
Inevitably, this leads to a vengeful Rocky taping up his fists and agreeing to fight Drago on foreign soil, a place where secret police spy on his every move and 90 percent of the Russian 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, 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 period.
Ivan Drago [after knocking out Apollo Creed] – If he dies, he dies.
It is these instances that lend the movie an irresistible charm. In spite of its political aggression, Rocky IV has so much more to offer than a warped historical lens. For fans of the 1980s, the movie is a wonderful porthole into the popular culture of the time, and most explicitly the MTV generation. One of a series of movie’s to adopt the popular aesthetics and contrived presentation of the ’80s pop music video — beginning with the Oscar-winning Flashdance and including Tony Scott jet-burner 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 Rocky, who handles personal conflict the way Lionel Richie handles love songs, drenched in shadows and cruising the city streets as the world’s real problems flash by in a neon Neverland.
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 your 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 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.
Another blast of excess comes in the form of Rocky IV‘s infamous training montage, which sees our patriotic hero thrust and sweat in a spectacle of stylised hypermasculinity. It is a scene which smacks of the self-obsessed fitness culture of the time, while clearly sending a message to real-life adversary Schwarzenegger, who by that time had already usurped Stallone as Hollywood’s leading action star. It is here where the movie utilises its memorable synth-rock soundtrack, a hit-laden extravaganza which oozes period nostalgia, elevating the movie from staunch political drudgery to mindless escapism as we gear up for the inevitable finale. The only thing missing from Stallone’s cinematic wet dream is a Russian-garbed Arnie standing in the opposite corner of the ring, although something tells me this would have resulted in a different ending entirely.
Rocky – 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!
At this point, the movie becomes truly offensive for anyone living on the wrong side of the iron curtain, though you would have to be rather dim to swallow such paper-thin patriotism on any serious level. Rocky IV promotes the capitalist ideology with a hedonistic ferocity that never stops to take a breath. Balboa is the personification of ‘American exceptionalism’, a faux ideology that proclaimed America as being unique among nations based on notions of democracy and personal freedom. Not only do we have a cheating giant who ultimately turns coward, we have a nation of communists rising to their feet and chanting Rocky’s name, applauding the bravery of the foreign entity who was able to solve their decades-long moral crisis with 12 rounds of fisticuffs. 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 rather hefty pinch of the proverbial salt.
Okay, so there is a lot to deride here, but in spite of everything, Rocky IV is actually a fairly 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 learnt a few things during his time in the industry, and as a slice of mindless entertainment it is as slick as they come. There is also some great acting talent on display, with Talia Shire effortlessly lighting up every frame as the ever-dependable and effortlessly earnest Adrian, while Burt Young’s Paulie offers the movie a much needed shot of authenticity in a world of cardboard caricatures and contrived morality plays.
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, but 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 Mikhail Gorbachev 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.