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38 Years Later, Your Favorite Rocky Movie Isn't Actually The Film You Remember At All

Why the Rocky IV’s director’s cut can’t really replace the original.

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Sylvester Stallone punches Dolph Lundgren in a scene from the film 'Rocky IV', 1985. (Photo by Unite...
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You've probably heard of The Mandela Effect, which is the phenomenon when a substantial number of people collectively remember something that never happened. You know how this goes: the comic Sinbad never appeared in a zany comedy called Shazam. Jaws’ girlfriend, Dolly, never wore braces in Moonraker. (Really!) Similarly, your memory about Rocky 4 is probably similarly faulty. But, this version of the Mandela Effect might not be entirely your fault.

You might believe Rocky 4 is the boxing movie in which Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character beats the stuffing out of the genetically superior Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and ends US-Soviet hostilities. You might mistakenly recall that President Mikail Gorbachev couldn’t resist Rocky’s charms and, in the end, gave the Italian Stallion a standing ovation. You might even think that Rocky’s sad sack brother-in-law Paulie fell in love with a robot. Sadly, none of that happened. Your memory has short-circuited. And, if you re-watch Rocky IV, you’ll find that I'm (almost) correct.

The ending of Rocky IV. Or is it?

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Okay, okay. Your memory of Rocky IV is probably somewhat correct. On November 27, 1985, the version of Rocky IV that hit theaters contained most of those events described above. What we’re experiencing now is something we should call “The Stallone Effect.” While some of us were wiping down our groceries during the 2020 lockdowns, Sylvester Stallone decided to re-edit his most successful Rocky movie. That’s right, Stallone, the actor, writer, and director, went back in 2020 and made a new version of Rocky IV, and in doing so removed some elements of many of our childhoods. But not entirely.

In the feature-length documentary The Making of Rocky vs. Drago, Stallone says that the 1985 theatrical cut of Rocky IV is “too superficial” and that the film focused on the “physical battle” between the fighters and “ignored the mental one.” The new cut of the movie — now titled Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago — also provides deeper insight into the motivations of Rocky, Drago, and Apollo Creed. As Stallone explains, “This time it’s going to be a drama, with all the superfluous goofy stuff out.” He also got rid of mistakes such as one actor noticeably missing the other when throwing a punch. When he was done, MGM released the redux under the new title and Stallone flew to Rocky’s hometown of Philadelphia to take part in the gala premiere in 2021.

In his defense, Stallone aimed to make the cheese-fest of Rocky Iv more tonally in line with the rest of the series. As such, that robot had to be tossed into the scrap heat. But, was that the right move? By now, hardcore film fans are used to special editions in which certain things are changed or “improved.” But, removing an entire plot point like this is rare.

In fact, many fans disagreed with Stallone’s decision to cut the robot, among them was its creator Robert Doornick. I interviewed Doornick for my recent book, book Movies Go Fourth: 4th Films in Fabulous Franchises. He provided Sico’s surprisingly moving backstory. You see he was created to better interact with neurodivergent children. Doornick told me that Stallone initially reached out to him concerning a family member and when the actor saw the robot in action, he fell in love with it. So, Stallone wrote the robot in the movie. Doornick and Burt Young, the beloved character actor, even developed an Odd Couple-type sitcom starring Sico and Paulie, which never materialized.

The problem with getting rid of Sico is that the way that the robot is used in the movie is to demonstrate Rocky’s excess. In part four, Rocky is out of touch. There’s nothing more for him to accomplish. He’s also so fabulously wealthy that he can afford to give Paulie a robot. Paulie is initially weary of the robot but eventually, he changes its voice box so that it sounds like a woman. Then, he falls in love with it.

With Sico gone and the other hundreds of changes, Rocky IV becomes a completely different movie. The plot remains the same but, arguably, the beating heart of the movie is gone. The movie might now be closer in tone to the other Rocky films but let’s face it, these changes make it way less fun. And here's the surprising thing; the running time is essentially the same. The theatrical cut is 90 minutes and the director’s cut is only two minutes shorter. The new version tones down the cheesy fun of the theatrical cut, but it’s also not longer.

Obviously, Stallone is not the only filmmaker to demonstrably alter his work after it’s been released. But, I’m not talking about director’s cuts which became standard fare when DVDs first hit the market or even George Lucas getting rid of Ewoks singing yub-nub. This isn’t Ridley Scott doubling down on the idea that Harrison Ford's Deckard is a replicant in various cuts of Blade Runner. Nor is it Stanely Kubrick chopping off the end of The Shining while it was still in movie theaters. Instead, Rocky vs. Drago is an attempt by its creator to turn his work into something entirely new. This is more akin to Oliver Stone’s two new versions of his epic Alexander, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, or everyone’s favorite bonkers retcon; Highlander II: The Quickening.

For those who might not remember, Highlander II is the sequel to the 1986 cult classic Highlander. In it, the filmmakers tried to explain the origins of the immortals and came up with the cockamamie notion that they were a bunch of aliens from the planet Zeist. This unnecessary explanation robbed the film of romance and mystery. So its director, Russell Mulcahy, re-edited the movie and eliminated the unsatisfying backstory. Mulcahy also gamely shot a new ending and called this new version The Renegade Cut. In the end, there are at least four recognized versions of Highlander II. You can write your own, there can be only one joke here.

Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV.

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I don’t begrudge Stallone for giving us another version of Rocky IV. If anything, Rocky vs. Drago has given me a new appreciation for the theatrical cut. Seeing the new version allowed me to embrace Stallone’s original vision which he describes as a “phantasmagoria.” Critically, the director’s cut doesn’t replace the theatrical cut in the marketplace. Rocky IV hasn’t been erased. Both versions are commercially available. And if you watch Rocky IV on Max right now, you’ll get the original version.

Still, Stallone doesn’t get enough credit for being a creative force. He’s not just an action hero, he’s a filmmaker. The new doc Sly underscores Stallone’s various talents. That said, Rocky IV without the robot is like The Wizard of Oz without the music. Like the Tin Man, it’s missing its heart. Or more precisely, it’s changing the movie into something it was never intended to be. Or put another way, if we were to remove all the jokes from Ghostbusters, you might get a serviceable horror flick but you would change its DNA. Sometimes an artist should step away from their canvas.

When Rocky IV was initially released, the robot seemed out of place. But looking back at the film now, the excess that once seemed out of place now seems to fit with the time. Call it nostalgia, but now, Sico fits into Rocky IV like a hand in a boxing glove.

Watch the original Rocky IV on Max here.

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