“…he’s going to have to kill me. And to kill me, he’s gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me. And to do that, he’s got to be willing to die himself. I don’t know if he’s ready to do that.”
I was told prior to watching Rocky IV that the final few minutes are “way ahead of it’s time”. This is not only a sports film, but it has global issues representing the Cold War and the idea of idealism and arrogance in America. Stallone dipped his toe into controversial territory in Rocky III, whereby he hinted at themes of racism and equality. Attitudes towards poverty and fighting to get out of oppression. But nothing is explicit. Clubber Lang had no affiliations with the Black Panthers or any organisation. He had no clear political ties – for all intents and purposes, Clubber Lang was simply doing it “for himself”. I wrote about how the allegiance of Apollo Creed ensured a clear analogy, but ultimately it was not so explicit that it could become controversial. Rocky IV presents us with Drago – he is directly representing Russia and the support of the Government in the final match assures us of the poiltical message we are expected to see. Drago is brought to America to fight amongst the Heavyweight Professional Boxers – and this is important to Russia, as it shows their acceptance in world sports events. But it is clear they are trying to prove a point …
Before discussing the clear themes of the Cold War, it is also worth highlighting the use of technology in the film. The strangest moment, possibly in the entire franchise, is the introduction of Paulie’s robot. Inexplicably, Paulie is expecting a present from Rocky and Adrian – hopefully a car – but instead, it is a Robot. Reluctant at first, Paulie comes to depend on it – even changing the voice from masculine to feminine. Technology itself is a theme throughout the film as Rocky trains in a traditional manner – his jogging, push-ups, weight-lifting, etc. Drago trains using specialised equipment that specifically targets his muscles – we learn that he punches with exceptional force through a computer screen.
The idea of depending on technology to enhance performance, with regard to Drago, or to decrease performance (by completing jobs so you don’t have to), with regard to Paulie is explicitly shown. But the film ultimately highlights how these forms of technology can only assist so much. The belief-in-oneself and passion to win cannot be generated by technology – and it is this passion and belief that will secure success. When we see a montage between Rocky and Drago training for their own fights – it is Rocky who is using exceptionally dated modes of training (picking up logs, holding up carts, jogging through snow, etc) whilst Drago relies on tehcnology to support him. I guess the outcome at the end of the film explains which is the stronger traning mechanism.
While we discuss the montages, Bill Conti was not hired to create a score for this film and so we do not have a ‘Gonna Fly Now’ sequence. Instead we have four (!!!) sequences, all very eighties and all very electronic – composed this time by Vince DiCola. I would love an adapted version of this film whereby Conti’s themes were integrated, replacing “Hearts on Fire” because this one choice alone is what, for me, forces me to dislike this film. It simply doesn’t feel like Rocky without Conti’s score. Even the score when Rocky wins the fight at the end starts exactly like Conti’s finale of “Going the Distance” before going a completely different direction with the melody. I would like to confirm that Bill Conti was back on board for Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. Thank God.
USA vs Russia
There are so many ideas littered throughout this film, so I shall simply try and go through them one-by-one. An interesting line at the press-conferance is the respect Russia has for Apollo – Russia’s team explain how they are very happy to fight Apollo as he is respected so much at home. Clubber Lang mocked Apollo, noting how he was a “has-been” and the conversations between Rocky and Apollo clearly indicate how much Apollo wants to prove something. Apollo seeks respect, but he is blinded by arrogance - this small reveal that Apollo is already respected but still craves more, shows his weakness.
The fight in America between Apollo and Drago is gratutious and verges on complete mockery. James Brown singing “Living in America!”, girls in leotards, dancing, whilst Apollo comes down from above, wearing his stars and stripes. You think about Apollo pre-fight against Rocky and multiply that ten-fold. The expectation is Apollo will win, but this set-up clearly shows it won’t pan out. America’s culture is of success and excess – the show is pure excess. This is a complete contrast to Rocky fighting Drago, whereby Russia are patriotic but there is nothing in comparison to the pre-fight show in Vegas.When Apollo dies, it is very quick before the story moves on – Rocky holding Apollo, cut to Apollo’s funeral. A missed opportunity – imagine a sequence as Apollo is rushed out of the ring on a stretcher, gasping for his last breath. Maybe even some final lines. Instead, we have the excessive show and a quick-fight before we watch his funeral.
The idea that they are ‘sports stars not soldiers’ is ambiguous at this point – like soldiers, Drago has killed Apollo. The Cold War is very much about a war fought behind closed doors, the invisible enemy – the death of Apollo shows a defeat that, though clearly murder, is not counted as such as it was within the ring.
Then we have the final speech from Rocky, following his defeat of Drago in Russia:
“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!”
The very idea of breaking down a huge conflict across nations through change is a big theme to tackle – Rocky even acknowledging the countless deaths caused by war. The overt political themes and statement at the end, understandably, may be going a little too far for Rocky but it is a progression from the themes in Rocky III. If we see Rocky as an example of fighting your personal demons of success, Rocky II fighting the difficulties and conflicts in a relationship – balancing what each person wants in a relationship whilst respecting each other in equal measure. Rocky III is bigger as the film tackles conflict within American society, Rocky IV is tackling worldwide themes of war and conflict across countries - even the poster imitates the iconic image of the flags at Iwo Jima with the use of the flag, the multiple-levelling of people with a diagonal centre-point.
But Drago also serves to draw a parrallel to Rocky himself. We only saw Apollo Creed’s wife very briefly in Rocky II and Rocky III, but she was never integral to the plot. Clubber Lang had nobody unlike Drago who, like Rocky, has Ludmilla (Bridget Nielsen). This woman supports him and what he stands for. She supports him and, during the press conferance in Russia, you can see how strong her love is for him. Both Rocky and Drago have the support of their country and their spouses – and we are left to consider what Rocky has to defeat him.
The answer? Being human. Belief is what is core. Technology and Patriotism is important, of course, but it is not what makes a winner. Only through Rocky’s perseverance does Drago begin to doubt. Drago has no reason to lose – he has everything going for him. But he doesn’t have the same belief - Rocky’s self-belief ensures he fits the model of ‘Idealistic American’ and it is this that defeats Drago - Drago thinks Rocky is “iron” and Rocky personally realises that Drago is not a machine (a form of technology). He is human.
I would not neccessarily state that Rocky IV is ahead of its time – global issues and social difficulties are often presented as allegory in cinema. But, it is also not merely Good vs Bad. Rocky represents the individual man fighting against the boss. Rocky represents the human who worries about the technological age the future is presenting them. Rocky represents America and the way it could tackle conflict. Rocky could not go further – he has tackled worldwide issues and he won’t go to space. So he has to go back. To Philadelphia. To Mighty Micks. Cue Rocky V.