In theory, the original Rocky starring (and written!) by Sylvester Stallone is the purest piece of art in the long running-franchise. But, the fact is, on most days, everyone who likes these movies would rather just watch Rocky IV. It’s time for everyone to collectively admit this fact: you’re never in the mood to watch Rocky II and no one ever wants to watch Rocky V. Unless you’re dipping your toe in the more contemporary entries — Rocky Balboa and the new Creed movies — you’re only ever going to want to watch Rocky IV. And the reason why is simple: Rocky IV gives you an abridged version of all the Rocky movies. It’s not a film, it’s a string of montages. This fact, combined with the movie doing one thing none of the other films dared to do is why it’s perfect and totally brilliant.
Rocky IV telegraphs out the fact it will be a condensed“Rocky” experience in the very first minutes when the film begins with a montage reminding you everything that happened in Rocky 1-3. But, this isn’t a flashy introduction, after the flashbacks, the opening title is just casually thrown up on the bottom of the screen, sort of like you’re watching an episode of TV show, not a feature film.
But, it’s this slap-dash, rushing to the end that makes Rocky IV so watchable. At an hour and thirty minutes, Rocky IV is easily the shortest film in the series, and that’s because the plot is so straightforward. To recap: After Rocky’s best friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is killed in the ring by a Soviet boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lungren) Rocky trains to get revenge in a huge boxing match in the U.S.S.R. Most of this happens in a series of montages: Rocky remembers Apollo with a musical montage. Rocky remembers his whole life and thinks about his estranged family, via montage. And of course, there’s an epic training-montage which contrasts Rocky’s training against Drago’s in the most on-the-nose way possible.
Basically, Drago juices and Rocky doesn’t. Drago is hooked up to machines by the Russians, while Rocky is doing nature shit: lifting rocks, hanging out with horses and sawing actual lumber. Remember in school when they told you most stories were man vs. man, man vs. society, or man vs. himself? Rocky IV is all three, which is probably why the song “Man Against the World” by Survivor is unsubtly a big deal on the soundtrack. In Drago, Rocky gets to fight against a murderer, an unsympathetic communist, and someone who is guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct simultaneously. It’s tough to say this is Dolph Lundgren’s best movie, mostly because most eighties kids still love him as He-Man, and yet, he’s pretty great here. And that’s because, unlike previous Rocky movies, he’s the first full-on evil bad guy in the series. For James Bond fans, the blonde-haired Russian killing machine recalls the assassin “Red Grant” in From Russia With Love. And like Bond, Rocky fights against this guy for himself, and for western, non-communist ideals. But unlike Bond, Rocky does this without killing or being an asshole. Sylvester Stallone has never been more likable in a movie before or since, and that’s because, at this point, we already like him as Rocky, and having him go up against such a clearly bloodthirsty bad guy is epically satisfying.
All previous and subsequent Rocky movies are inferior to Rocky IV because of one fatal flaw: they all attempt to reach for moral complexity. In other words, most Rocky movies (including Creed) search for some subtly in an unsubtle story format. Rocky IV doesn’t do this: it’s so confident in its very corny story and leaves no time to ruminate on who is right and who is wrong. This is why the USSR spectators turn against Drago in the final fight. The moviegoing audience has been on Rocky’s side since the beginning, meaning the only opponent left to defeat is people who don’t like Rocky, whoever they hell they are. So, when the crowd starts to “change” and root for Rocky, the final victory feels like a twist ending that should have been obvious. But it works!
Rocky movies aren’t about who wins the fight. Ever. They’re about how we’re supposed to feel about the fight before, during and afterward. In Rocky IV all of those feelings are made easy to understand, and thrilling to experience. Rocky’s final words in the film suggest everyone can change, but after this movie, the more Rocky changed, the more we wanted the movies to be exactly like this.
Creed II, which is an indirect sequel to Rocky IV, and features the return of Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, is out this week in theaters everywhere. You can watch Rocky IV for free on YouTube right now.