Today, The Fighter joins the hallowed company of Oscar-baiting bruisefests like Raging Bull, Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Million Dollar Baby. Reviews are glowing — check out Owen Gleiberman’s here. But even though we’re sure The Fighter is good, we’re equally sure it won’t be able to save America from the world’s greatest villains: Russians who look like Scandinavians. No, only one movie was brave enough to single-handedly defeat the Soviet Union in the ring: Rocky IV, the craziest entry in Sylvester Stallone’s boxing franchise. How did a series about a lovable everyman boxer turn into a treatise on global politics? Read on, comrade!
Darren Franich: Before this week, I had never actually seen a Rocky movie. I know, I know. But thanks to cultural osmosis, I know a lot about the franchise. I know Rocky II is basically a happy-ending remake of Rocky I. I know Rocky III invented Mr. T, and Rocky IV ended the Cold War. But since this is the first Rocky I’ve actually seen, I have to ask a clarification question: Did the franchise always feature sentient robots?
Keith Staskiewicz: I don’t even remember it always featuring sentient humans. I like the fact that this entry, after replaying the man-love-filled sparring scene between Apollo and Rocky at the end of Rocky III, immediately lets us know that we’re a long, long way from the Philadelphia Museum of Art by introducing a robot as a major secondary character. They buy him (it?) as a birthday gift for Paulie, who is somehow disappointed that instead of a car he got the most advanced artificial intelligence yet created. And instead of using it to save people in disaster zones or handle dangerous nuclear materials, they just have it bake cakes and serve as Paulie’s pleasure-bot. Then, in a strangely un-remarked upon turn of events, both Rocky and Adrian go to Russia and leave their young son alone in its care. Again, they leave their child in the care of a robot. I don’t think there are enough question marks in the world for my “What?????”
KS: It really is amazing to chart the development of the series. Rocky is a quiet, low-budget drama. It exists in the same world as ours. Adrian is shy and nerdy. Rocky is a dumb but lovable, and, in a dose of realism, he loses in the end. In Rocky IV, we have superhuman Russians, James Brown, robot babysitters, a 2-1 montage-to-anything-else ratio, and a viable resolution to the most prominent global conflict of the latter half of the 20th century proposed by someone who has just been hit 2,000 times in the head.
DF: Like Rocky III, Rocky IV was written and directed by Stallone, which gives the movie a slightly more personal (I’m not going to say auteurist) feeling than most fourquels. Do you think that Rocky IV is literally Stallone’s guide to solving the Cold War?
KS: Sports was a pretty big deal in relation to the Cold War in the ’80s. There was the Miracle on Ice and then the twin Olympics boycotts. I think the really interesting element in the movie is how much (not literal) gymnastics it has to go through in order to keep Rocky as the plucky underdog. He’s the one that ends up training at a Soviet dacha, using oxen and carts and trees and rocks, and infusing himself with the spirit of Mother Russia, not Drago.
DF: In the first boxing match, between Apollo Creed and Drago, Stallone presents a weird circus vision of America. You have dancing girls waving American flags, you have Apollo in his Uncle Sam outfit, and you have a complete performance by James Brown of “Livin’ in America.” It’s so over-the-top that it almost seems Verhoeven-esque and satirical, but Stallone is the man who made Staying Alive, so I think it’s actually supposed to be an incredibly positive vision. Remember: at this point, Stallone was a megastar, a millionaire, really an American demi-god. So this plays sort of like a a multi-millionaire’s vision of what makes America great: Pop Stars! Dancing girls! Democracy! Let’s face it, only millionaires really enjoy Las Vegas.
KS: The only reason I think the “Livin’ in America” bit isn’t entirely positive, besides how absurdly ridiculous it is, is the fact that we see it through Drago’s eyes. Before this, Drago is this monolithic, blank-faced wall of emotionless Soviet efficiency. But we start this scene down below, with Drago all alone, and as the ring rises up into a crazy orgiastic vision of flags, screaming and James Brown grunts, the look on Drago’s face is a mix of bafflement and genuine fear.
DF: Frankly, I think Dolph Lundgren just slipped some emotional complexity in under Stallone’s nose. Lundgren, by the way, totally makes the movie. He has barely any lines, but he’s an incredible, imposing presence onscreen. And it’s strangely moving towards at the end of the big fight when he screams, “I win for me! FOR ME!” It’s as if Rocky has pummeled him into individuality. He’s not fighting for the Party anymore. He’s not a number. He’s a human being!
KS: It’s fascinating that for most of the movie, him and Brigitte Nielsen are the height of polite, gracious diplomacy. It’s Apollo Creed that just keeps needling them at the press conference. It’s the American press that scoff derisively whenever they say something. It’s the Las Vegas crowd that boos when Drago gets on stage. But as soon as they stand up for themselves, the Americans are all like, “How dare they?!” When the Russian crowd starts booing, the Americans are shocked, shocked! They’ve never heard so much booing since… well, that other match when they were booing. Is this a multi-faceted representation of brinksmanship and realpolitik? Is Rocky IV accidentally a brilliant satire of post-war American diplomacy? Is Stallone our century’s Jonathan Swift? The answer is yes, yes, and robots.
DF: I have another reading of the movie. Consider: What do we know about Ivan Drago? He’s married to Brigitte Nielsen. He’s beloved by the entire nation. He takes steroids. He’s facing off against Rocky Balboa, who is equally beloved by his nation, but has somehow remained a lovable everyman. He’s married to everywife Adrian and is father to everykid Rocky Jr. Of course, in real life, it was Stallone who was married to Brigitte Nielsen, and there’s plenty of evidence that he used steroid-like substances. (See: his run-in with the Aussie government, his interview on the Today show, his own website.) So, Rocky IV is really an interior conflict: the man Stallone wants to be, and the man he’s afraid he actually is. It’s like the scene in Empire Strikes Back where Luke fights Darth Vader on Dagobah, but he’s really fighting himself. The problem with this theory is that it implies that Stallone experienced some sort of life-changing epiphany, while in reality his next film was Cobra.
DF: I have another Rocky-newbie question: Was Rocky always as monosyllabic as he is in Rocky IV, or is Stallone playing him as especially punch-drunk? I swear, there are some scenes where other characters talk at length to Rocky, and his only responses are “Yeah,” “I guess,” and “Uh-Huh.”
KS: He always had Stallone’s trademark drunken, 33-played-at-16-rpm sound. But Rocky definitely gets weirder and more free-associative as the series goes on. By Rocky V, it’s as if, before every scene, Stallone ripped up the script, took two Valium, and then ad-libbed. But even here, what little dialogue Rocky has is amazingly in keeping with the idea that this guy has had his brain shaken more times than a martini made during an earthquake.
KS: Alright, it’s almost offensive we’ve made it this far without mentioning the centerpiece of the film. Stallone made the training montage that raised the bar for all training montages, then carried that bar up a sheer mountainside, and chopped it in two with an ax. It’s essentially two montages in one; a month of training for both Rocky and Drago condensed into five minutes or so. And it’s so full of awesome that they need to insert Adrian’s arrival to Russia in the middle so that we have a minute to breath before we drown in testosterone.
DF: “Drago does lunges on a Soviet machine! CUT TO: Rocky, pulling Uncle Paulie in a dogsled!”
KS: I love the implication that there is something about doing the same exercises outdoors that makes it more effective, like running through a river and being yoked to a sled has some measurable benefit inside the ring. One would guess that Rocky might have been better served by, I don’t know, sparring with somebody during his month or so in Russia.
DF: We’re sort of making fun, but I have to say, I was really impressed by Rocky IV. There’s a total purity of vision behind the movie, even if it’s a totally gonzo vision. The key is that Rocky doesn’t just beat Russia — he beats Russia, and then he tries to convince Russia that we can all get along. In his final speech, he preaches tolerance, but he can only preach tolerance after defeating the other country’s champion in a brutal bloody deathmatch. It’s as if the American military marched through the Siberian countryside, decimated Moscow, and then hosted a free concert in the Kremlin where Elvis Costello sang “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” And this is all represented in “boxing” scenes that bear no resemblance to actual boxing, in that both fighters get punched about one gabillion times in the face, with a sound effect that sounds a little bit like an anvil hitting concrete.
KS: But with all the noticeable effect of a sack of throw pillows hitting concrete. What is it about Rocky’s fighting that ultimately wins over the Russians? I mean, I feel like if Derek Jeter leapt into the stands and saved a child from choking to death on a cracker jack while simultaneously apprehending a disguised Osama bin Laden, he’d still be booed by Red Sox fans. The Russian-U.S. rivalry was only slightly less vicious than that in 1985, and yet somehow Rocky manages to have everyone chanting for him by the end, nationality be damned! Even fake Gorbachev.
Next Week: Disney is trying to launch a massive new multimedia franchise with Tron: Legacy. We’ll look back at the original cult classic Tron, and try to ponder whether the movie is an archaic videogame premake of Jumanji or a still-topical film about computers, cyberspace, and the Information Age. One thing’s for sure: Light Cycles are awesome.