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REVIEW: As is the tradition for this series, we begin in the past recapping the last fight from the previous entry, though there’s a slight twist. While Rocky (Stallone) is in the ring with Clubber Lang (Mr. T), there is a momentary image of two separate boxing gloves, one with the stars and strips of the United States flag and the other with the sickle and hammer of the Soviet flag. They draw back and then slam together in an explosion as we cut back to the fight. While the fight on screen has nothing to do with the gloves, it is a visual cue as to where the film is headed.
And it is headed nowhere we haven’t seen before. Clearly all involved have had their fill of the series and are going through the motions as there is little to enjoy about this clumsily made, repetitive spectacle that once again features a terrible loss that inspires a glorious victory. Writer director Stallone is convinced that he must go bigger with each progressive entry in this franchise and populates his now formulaic enterprise with stock characters that only grow in size not depth. From the already imposing Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the first two to the bulbous Clubber Lang in the third, to our new featured fighting enemy, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a mountain of a man with no personality, which was, at least, the defining characteristic of previous foes. Drago is a machine for all intents and purposes, a highly-trained scientifically developed boxer with superior strength and power. For that, he is devoid of any expression other that stoicism. He understands the mechanics perfectly but has no heart.
The same can be said about the film he is in. Stallone knows the mechanics. He has done this four times now and while each degraded slightly in quality, the heart has all but vanished. Stallone takes no chances, instead refitting his once gritty come-from-behind underdog story into a spotless, shallow music video for the new MTV generation. Poorly acted and just plain dull, Rocky IV can’t go the distance.
Scene Set-Up: *Spoilers* Drago comes to the United States with a entourage of trainers and doctors, announcing he is the first Soviet fighter to enter professional boxing. His manager wants his fighter to challenge Rocky, but Creed wants back in the ring and so he arranges an exhibition match between himself and the towering Drago before Rocky gets his fight. It doesn’t go well. Creed is out matched from the start but is consumed with regaining former glory and begs Rocky, who is in his corner, not to throw in the towel, no matter what. But it’s too late. Creed is killed. Now Rocky’s fight is about revenge. Rocky travels to the Soviet Union to take on Drago in his home country, and to fight the big Soviet, Rocky and his trainers decide they need to be far from the limelight so he heads to the desolate snow covered plains of Krasnogourbinsk with only Paulie (Burt Young) and Duke (Tony Burton) joining him. We all know Paulie. He’s Rocky’s brother-in-law and has been a crucial part of the series. He’s now living with Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire) in their massive mansion. So who’s Duke? He’s Creed’s trainer and has been with the franchise since the original. His long-time friend dead, he’s putting his skills and experience in Rocky’s corner.
The Scene (TImestamp 00:53:20): Rocky, Duke and Paulie are staying in a rustic lodge in a windswept farming community where a few Soviet agents are assigned as guard detail. Duke, after beating one of the Soviets in a game of chess, heads upstairs to check on his fighter and discovers Rocky tacking some photographs on the wood framed mirror on the dresser in his room. Training starts in the morning but Rocky seems sullen. Duke lays it out, that Apollo was like his son, and now Rocky is the one. He’s got to make sure Apollo didn’t die for nothing. Rocky’s going to have to go through hell, worse than any nightmare he’s dreamed, but when he gets through it, he’s going to be the one standing. He tells him that Rocky knows what he’s got to do. Now do it.
Duke has always been a likable character. He’s been in the corner from the start, even though he wasn’t given a name until Rocky III, yet Creed called him Tony (the actor’s real name) at one point in Rocky II. And it was in Rocky II where he had his most memorable moment, trying to convince Apollo not to get back in the ring with Rocky after the narrow win in their first fight. “He’s all wrong for us, baby,” he pleads. “I saw you beat that man like I never saw no man get beat before and the man kept coming after you.”
Right there, we learned that Duke had great respect for Rocky, especially as a fighter. He didn’t want his own champion to face him again. That says a lot. Then, after Creed and Rocky became friends, Duke had both fighters to train and brought them under his wing. While this was never really addressed in Rocky II or III, as it was implied that Creed trained Rocky for his bout against Lang, Duke was there at ringside. Now he steps up. He alone will get Balboa ready for what is surely the biggest fight of his life.
In this simple, quiet moment, he begins the right way. They are in unfamiliar lands about to try unorthodox methods and Duke sets him straight that this is going to be hardest thing he’s ever going to do. The actor, Burton, has a strong presence about him, a mentor quality that resonates. His speaking style naturally raises interest and he has a magnetic stare, which is used to great effect here as Stallone frames him tight in dark lighting. His gaze is piercing and intense. We believe what he says. We want to follow him.
Of course, this being a Rocky film, the last bit of motivation comes from Adrian. She has been the spark for them all but here it finally feels forced and falls painfully flat as she suddenly shows up in Krasnogourbinsk without him knowing she’s coming. How she was able to do that is unclear. But we get a sad sack moment from Rocky as he meanders home for his work out and finds her on the doorstep where she comes forward and tells him she will always be with him no matter what. The problem with this is that he is already motivated. They literally, in the previous scene, showed a three minute montage of him training with fierce determination. Yes, back home she told had him that he can’t win in a scene that feels obligatory (and ends with another pop song montage), because we know that he will, since he’s Rocky, and that she will change her mind. That’s the Coca-Cola formula mentality behind Rocky. It never will, nor can it, change.
Part of the failure of Rocky III is our own fault. What do we expect? There’s little else to do with a boxing film if you’re going to make the fight itself be the plot. Raging Bull, The Fighter, even the original Rocky were not about the bouts but the stories behind them. We grow invested in the characters because they have depth and motivation from within. With Rocky IV, we are stripped of that as we already know Rocky and Drago is just a block of marble, abandoned by the sculptor. An uninteresting monster is not fun to fight.