A film review by Craig J. Koban December 24, 2021

ROCKY IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO:

THE ULTIMATE DIRECTOR'S CUT jj
 

2021, PG-13, 93 mins.

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa  /  Dolph Lundgren as Drago  /  Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed  /  Talia Shire as Adrian  /  James Brown as Godfather of Soul  /  Burt Young as Paulie  /  Brigitte Nielsen as Ludmilla  /  Tony Burton as Duke

Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone

I know what you're all thinking...

Wait a tick...didn't ROCKY IV come out 36 years ago? 

The answer is yes, but you have a right to do a double take when looking at the promotional material for the somewhat unnecessarily longwinded titled ROCK IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO - THE ULTIMATE DIRECTOR'S CUT, which - based on that last part - is indeed a newly minted version of the decades old sequel that featured everyone's favorite punchy southpaw pugilist from Philadelphia square off against an impossibly steroided up and seemingly indestructible Russian brute.  Taking a page out of what Francis Ford Coppola did (and did to pretty solid success) with his re-tinkered version of THE GODFATHER: PART III last year, writer/director/and series star Sylvester Stallone has opted to re-evaluate and re-edit (sometimes radically, sometimes not so much) his highest grossing ROCKY film to craft - at least in his mind - a version of this sequel that looks, feels, and plays out differently that what's come before. 

Is this new director's cut of ROCKY IV  a vast improvement on his audience adorned, but critically panned sequel? 

Well...not completely.  

This ROCKY IV redux is decent enough and contains some revelatory new scenes and footage (with a lot from the original being slashed out, more on that in a bit ), but the many reports out there that this markedly changes and improves upon what has come before is quite hyperbolic.  So, what Stallone has done here with (takes deep breath) ROCKY IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO - THE ULTIMATE DIRECTOR'S CUT is akin adding sugar to mediocre coffee:  Yeah, it's the same bad coffee, but it's all a tad tastier now. 

I think that it's important to look back on ROCKY IV - and the series as a whole leading up to it - in a historical light.  1985 was the year of Stallone domination at the cinemas, with ROCKY IV and his other sequel in RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II emerging as ultra jingoistic (and some would aptly argue distractingly so) crowd pleasing blockbusters of the Cold War era in question.  Nine years earlier, the barely known Stallone got his foot in the door with what would become the Oscar darling in the original ROCKY (still the finest of the bunch), which begat an inevitable sequel (not as good, but still resoundingly solid) a few years later, which, in turn, begat the much more cartoonier, but still engrossingly entertaining ROCKY III.  Two years after that threequel, ROCKY IV was released, which is probably the most aggressively commercialized and MTV video-ifed sequel of the entire bunch that tapped into American/Russian tensions with a tale of the ultimate all-American fighter trying to overcome a David and Goliath test in the form of the Russian boxer Ivan Drago ("Whatever he hits...he destroys!").  ROCKY IV is as tonally removed from the streetwise franchise starter as it gets, and is perhaps the most conventionally laid out and sometimes outlandish sequel of the franchise.  This was never a good installment, per se, but it paradoxically remains re-watchable, in an addictively gaudy kind of way.   

 

 

(Deep breath again!) ROCKY IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO - THE ULTIMATE DIRECTOR'S CUT tells, for the most part, the same basic narrative of what we got back in 1985, and even though there's a bounty of new footage here (reportedly upwards of forty-plus minutes), compellingly and oddly this new cut runs nearly the same length as the original.  The basics of the plot hardly require much reiteration by me, but for the uninitiated it goes down like this: Russian heavyweight titan Drago (a pitch perfectly cast Dolph Lundgren) wishes to challenge the champion of the world to an exhibition match, but Rocky's surprise trainer from ROCKY III in the form of his old enemy in Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) wishes to step in and take on the "Siberian Bull" instead, hoping to prove to himself and the world that he's still got it.  Tragically, Drago utterly decimates Creed in the ring, pummeling him to death.  Rocky, feeling tremendous grief for not throwing in the towel to save his fallen pal, decides that he has to man up and beat this Russian giant...and on his home turf.  Rocky's long-time wife in Adrian (Talia Shire) thinks her husband is nuts and is setting himself up for a similar fate as Apollo.  Despite her hubby having the "eye of the tiger," Adrian believes that he simply "can't win."  Man, what a ball buster.   

Yet, history has not been kind to Adrian's prediction. 

For starters, there are many new additions here that, to be fair, help make ROCKY IV feel more character driven like the early series efforts.  The whole overriding arc of Apollo's foolish pride leading to his square circled death is given surprisingly new weight and nuance by Stallone in this new cut.  We get more scenes early on in the film showcasing Rocky and Apollo's budding bromance, and these new scenes help make Apollo's death ring with more unnerving weight.  In this cut, Apollo is driven more by hubris and a manly warrior code than anything else, and it appears now that Rocky was less guilty of throwing in the towel too late (in the first version it felt like he waited an eternity to toss it in).  Also, Stallone has wisely re-tooled the Apollo/Drago fight itself and has made it far less drastically one sided (at least early on).  Apollo gets more fighter respect in this edition, whereas before he was completely run through by Drago.  Stallone has also shrewdly inserted more time into Apollo's subsequent funeral, which allows for Rocky to have a moment of tender, teary eyed vulnerability in eulogizing his dead comrade. 

I also appreciated that Adrian herself is given far more screen time this go around, with new footage and scenes between her and Rocky and Apollo pre-death match (that, and Stallone finds interesting ways to re-edit the reaction shots in that tough scene when Adrian lashes out at Rocky for engaging in pure suicide to fight Drago).  And speaking of Drago himself, Lundgren is given a tad more complexity here with a few fleeting moments thrown in.  In the old ROCKY IV you gained the impression that he was an emotionless killing machine murdering his way through opponents for mother Russia, but here he's somewhat more humanized with some sly close-ups in the press conferences.  Now, more than ever before, Drago seems less like a drugged laced sociopath and instead evokes a victimized experiment in his country's desire to create super soldier boxers that further serve as propaganda machines.  Drago here is somewhat more bewildered and awkward when his handlers do all of the press talking to him.  When he reaches that pivotal and climatic moment in the final fight with Rocky when he rebels against his trainers it comes off more organically and a genuine character building moment. 

And that final big match pitting these two warriors has been given a modest editorial facelift as well, with Stallone being craftier with the choreography and (most crucially) sound design (the punches here sound less like freight trains colliding and more toned downed and grittily real).  The outcome of this match has not in any way been altered, just the whole engineering and build up to it, and it culminates in just as much testosterone laced, flag waiving patriotic joygasming from the victorious Rocky as what we had last time.  This leads me, though, to some of the nagging issues with this cut, like the fact that the final match now ends incongruently with "Eye of the Tiger" blaring on the soundtrack as opposed to "Heart's On Fire" (huh...the former one is a quintessential ROCKY III jingle!).  Rocky also provides some inner monologues to the audience while laying beaten and bloodied on the matt that feels completely out of left field; it's really inelegantly shoehorned in. 

Then there's the completely new prologue, and the ROCKY sequels always had a tradition of briefly recapping what happened in the previous sequel in terms of his final act opponent.  Stallone perplexingly edits a new and hopelessly longwinded recap (made up of ROCKY III footage) that seemingly goes on forever and eats away at the film's already sparse running time.  The film's aesthetic now has also weirdly changed, seeing as the old ROCKY IV was shot in a 1.85:1 screen ratio, but Stallone has now reformatted it to a wide 2.35:1 and with a desaturated color dynamic range to less than stellar results (the film truly soars in the ultra sharp Dolby Vision version that I streamed, but it's more disappointingly muted as far as it palette goes).  I think it's also hard to overlook that Stallone's yearning to ground this take on ROCKY IV still wages an internal war against the film's more rampant commercialization and black and white politics.  There's still ample silly stuff in this cut that never tangibly gets altered, like that mid-movie "No Easy Way Out" montage that's been lampooned and spoofed for years afterwards and shows just how much this series derailed itself to appease the attention spans of music video lovers of the time.   And, poor Paulie!  He's afforded even less screen time now, mostly because a subplot involving his relationship with his gifted sentient robot butler has been completely excised (actually, that's not really a bad thing).  Who among us ever thought this was the finest creative choice of this sequel...or series as a whole?  

When it boils right down to it, ROCKY IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO - THE ULTIMATE DIRECTOR'S CUT is a bit falsely advertised.   It's not a longer and more fleshed out edition, but rather just as short of a cut, but with roughly half of the old footage gone and with new scenes thrown in.  I can understand how this could alienate some ROCKY fans, especially those that hero worship the '85 original.  Also, I would concede that the making of this edition (explored in a wonderful YouTube doc that runs as long as this movie) is easily more fascinating and illuminating than the final end product here.  It's a thrill to see a passionate 75-year-old Stallone obsess over his most cherished movie creation once again, not to mention that he's surprisingly candid about the many mistakes that he made three decades ago (he acknowledges that his younger filmmaker self lacked patience and discipline and tried to rush this film down to the finish line).  Maybe that's the ultimate problem with ROCKY IV: ROCKY VS. DRAGO - THE ULTIMATE DIRECTOR'S CUT: Unlike last year's fantastic THE GODFATHER CODA: THE DEATH OF MICHAEL CORLEONE (which I thought legitimately gave a fresh new lease on an already underrated sequel), Stallone's work here doesn't intrinsically elevate his magnum box office opus from the mid 80s.  It's more of an interesting editorial experiment than a thoroughly engaging new movie experience.  

All in all, ROCKY IV - whether it be this incarnation or its Regan-era counterpart - remains a lesser tiered Italian Stallion sequel that misses more haymakers than landing quality knockout hits. 

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