Rocky IV (1985)

80’s: The Movie

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky IV is one of the most entertaining movies ever made. If there was ever a movie I can turn to for just 90 minutes of pure, immense, adrenaline filled, inspirational entertainment, it’s Rocky IV. The runtime is the shortest of the series, but those 90 minutes are perfect. The poster for Rocky IV is displayed proudly in my bedroom, and every now and then I look at it in all its majesty with Rocky sticking his glove up in the air while draped in the stars and stripes. I feel the Rocky movies had the ideal lifespan for a movie franchise; start off serious, goof out for some fun, but then end again on a serious note.

There’s no question about it, Rocky IV is the most 80’s movie ever. Case in point:

– Synthesized rock soundtrack.

-Cold war propaganda.

-Conservative, Reagan era values.

-MTV music video style montages.

-Larger than life villain.

-It’s a sequel of a long-running franchise.

-There’s a robot.

-Rocky drives a sports car.

-Display of decadence.

-Brigitte Nielsen, star of other very 80’s movies Red Sonja and Cobra.

-Action movie revenge plot.

-Full of cheesy/corny quotable lines (“If he dies, he dies”, “Whatever he hits, he destroys”).

Stallone’s inspiration for Rocky IV came from the two fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 respectively; two fights which embodied the political and social conflict of the time – an African American taking on a supposed representation of Aryan superiority. Thus in Rocky IV we get Ivan Drago, the terrifying Aryan superman Rocky must challenge to avenge the death of his friend (could that sound more 80’s?).  Ivan Drago is a terminator; the strongest opponent humanly possible; however is Drago an interesting villain? I say yes; one of my favourite screen villains of all time as a matter of fact. In a memorable Siskel & Ebert moment, Roger Ebert described Drago as a “moderately interesting villain” but complained “how come he never has a single scene alone with his wife” and “why does she have nine times more dialogue than he has?”. Drago doesn’t speak for himself as there is no individualism in communism. I feel Dolph Lundgren gives a great physical performance, playing a character who is the opposite of Clubber Lang in that he speaks few words; succeeding in being an intimidating monster with his physical presence alone. I also love Drago’s reaction to Apollo’s entrance at the exhibition fight; that of a Soviet being welcomed to America.

Ivan Drago is a product of a state that sponsors his training as exemplified in the movie’s two training montages. Drago’s music theme is cold, intimidating and mechanical, just like his training. He is given steroids by his trainers and at a press conference an American reporter says “There have been rumors of blood doping and widespread distribution of anabolic steroids in the Soviet Union”; feels like an eerie foreshadowing to the state-operated Russian doping scandal of 2016. Following the boycotts at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, Rocky IV couldn’t have come at a better time when sports and politics were going hand in hand. Drago’s fit of rage near the end of the fight in which he proclaims “I fight to win. For me! For me!”, is clearly a jab at communism as he wants to work for himself and not for the glory of the country. Likewise, when he lifts up and throws the Russian official who criticises him, it’s a classic Frankenstein moment; the monster turning on its creator.

Apollo Creed’s entrance, on the other hand, is one of the most capitalistic things ever put on film, with James Brown singing Living In America among Belly Dancers and Apollo Creed dressed in stars and stripes; and to top it all off, it’s in Las Vegas. A stark contrast to the Russians who open the Rocky-Drago fight later in the movie to their national anthem (yet another awe-inspiring musical highlight in the film). Did Apollo’s ego untimely kill him? Apollo’s patriotic egotism clouded his better judgment and no idea just how strong Drago would be. The sheer power of Drago’s punches during the fight with Creed (if you could even call it that) is exemplified by the sound effects. Also, why does Drago receives no punishment for throwing the referee aside, but if I was going to point out every little thing in this movie which makes no sense I’d be here all day. There’s such brutality to Creed’s death; such slow motion brutality. I’ll never forget my mum’s reaction the first time I watched Rocky IV, a gasping “oh my God!”.

When I was studying for my GCSE examinations, the Rocky IV soundtrack was one of my primary sources of music listening. Whenever I have a stressful day of work I listen to the Rocky IV soundtrack when I need that extra bit of adrenaline to make me go on. Feeling down? Rocky IV soundtrack! Need inspiration?  Rocky IV soundtrack! Having a workout? Rocky IV soundtrack! 20% of the Rocky IV or 23 minutes is comprised montages with songs which can make anything look epic in one of the epitomes of the 1980’s soundtrack; everything you would expect from a score which won the Razzi for worst music score. The score by Vince diCola has been officially released but copies are not easy to come by. The actual Rocky IV soundtrack features different versions of War and Training Montage than those which appear in the film, although these variants are good in their own right.

If there is one word associated with Rocky IV, its montage. I can watch these montages over and over again and still be enthralled by them. The first training montage is heavy on its symbolism of nature vs. machine and showcases the beauty of the Russian wilderness. Ok, it’s actually Wyoming but I can buy into it being a vast frozen expanse of the Soviet Union. But it’s training montage number 2 which has to be my favourite training montage in film history. This is partly due to John Cafferty’s Hearts on Fire – a motivating, pumping song if there ever was one. That synth, god I love it! In the spirit of everything in Rocky IV being larger than life, instead of running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the montage ends with Rocky climbing a mountain.

The editing of Rocky IV also contributes to the film’s bombastic nature. The transitional shots of magazine covers and newspaper articles make the film play out like more of a comic book than it already is. Likewise, shots such as that of Rocky’s Russian chaperone looking into binoculars gets repeated three times within a few seconds but zoomed in further each time and edited to the rhythm of the score; it’s just so cool. On the other hand, I even recall a review I heard for Star Wars: The Forces Awakens refer the final shot of that movie as a Rocky IV shot, in reference to the aerial shot of Rocky on top of the mountain. Is Rocky IV a more influential than the history books say?

Rocky IV is incredibly distant from the first movie but this is appropriate as Rocky is out of his element and in a foreign land. This is the only film in the series not to take place in Philadelphia unless you include the scene in the Balboa mansion although it’s never made clear where the mansion is located. The No Easy Way Out montage provides you with clips from the first movie, so it the film itself allows you to bask in the stark contrast between the movies; a man who used to be a not very intelligent nobody and made money from prizefighting and working for a loan shark is now at the center of international politics.

Even the sheer predictably of Rocky IV is wonderful, such as when Adrian shows up in Russia to support Rocky; it’s all cliché but in the best sense of the word. The build-up to the final fight and the atmosphere is so immense; there could never be a Rocky film more epic than this. By this point, I’m actually scared for Rocky and fearful for his life, and Paulie’s emotional outpour before the fight, it gets me every time. I don’t care what anyone says, this is the greatest fight in film history. Rules don’t apply and Rocky somehow lasts the 15 rounds and even wins over the crowd (“Suddenly Moscow is pro-Rocky!”). This isn’t just Rocky against another opponent, this is Rocky against a superhuman, a hostile crowd, a Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike and an entire world superpower. Keep your superhero movies with their city-destroying battles; this is what I call a duel! Rocky’s final speech is naive in the most wonderful way. The words of the speech are so juvenile, yet when I hear Stallone utter them in the movie; it brings a tear to my eye. Did Rocky IV really help end the cold war? Who knows? Oh, and the end credits provide us with yet another awesome montage!

Rocky IV embodies the essence of capitalism the American Dream; if you work hard, success is attainable. I know many would just look at the movie and scoff at it as a simplified look at the Cold War with an “us and them” mentality. But as a piece of propaganda does it work? Oh, you bet it does. Rocky IV, I salute you to your over the top, cheesy 80’s perfection.

Rocky IV > Citizen Kane

Rocky III (1982)

Rocky III: An American Tradition

After the recap of the fight from the previous movie, Rocky III opens with a montage which begins with fireworks and giant light up sign of Rocky as if to say “Welcome to the 80’s!”; a decade when everything was larger than life. The song of choice is Eye of Tiger, the montage is edited like an MTV music video and Rocky even appears on The Muppet Show; and all that merchandise, me want!

Rocky III is ridiculously entertaining while still managing to have thematic substance. Rocky is no longer struggling with fame. A man who couldn’t film a simple commercial in Rocky II is now making all sorts of endorsements. He could barely drive a car in Rocky II, now he can now drive with ease. Rocky has also become a more intelligent man instead of the dum dum he was in first two movies. Not to mention does he looks different, very handsome I might add and in such physical shape. I think Stallone looks like Al Pacino here, especially when wearing a suit.

Rocky III brought the series in a different direction, distant from the first two movies. But despite Rocky’s wealth and fame, Rocky III is not a movie which cheapens out. The primary theme of the movie is about Rocky’s fame making him soft or as Mickey puts it, “You got civilised”. Once Rocky discovers Mickey has been hand picking fighters his seemingly perfect bubble of a life is burst; “You wake up after a few years, thinking you’re a winner, but you’re not, you’re really a loser”. This continues the series theme of being semi-autobiographical of Stallone’s own life as the movie examines what fame and fortune can do to a person. Adrian’s role is smaller is time round although her character still sees an evolution as the famous lifestyle has taken away her shyness and made her more outspoken and pretty hot too I might add. Just listen to the words of motivation she gives Rocky on the beach; a far cry from the Adrian in the first movie.

Even when Rocky discovers Mickey has been hand picking fighters prior to his first fight with Clubber Lang, Rocky is training in the most superficial gym. It’s full of photographers and visitors, musicians are playing and merchandise is being sold.  Unsurprisingly he gets the worst beating of his life at the hands of Clubber Lang. The solution to Rocky getting his so-called “eye of the tiger” back; get away from the superficiality of his wealthy lifestyle and back to the nitty-gritty. As Apollo Creed puts it, “Man, when we fought, you had that eye of the tiger man, the edge! And the only way to get it back is to go back to the beginning; you know what I’m saying?”. I stick by these words as some of the wisest words I’ve heard uttered in a motion picture. Whenever you lose your mindset of determination whether physically or mentality, go back to where you first started in order to reclaim it. Rocky III humanises Apollo Creed with Rocky and Apollo becoming friends being a great spin on the story. I always think of his intense shouting of “There is no tomorrow!” whenever I need some motivation.

The hypnotic, uneasy music which plays when Rocky is training poorly under Apollo and stuck with the threat of living with failure reminds me of Bernard Herman’s score to Vertigo in possibly the most uneasy scenes in the series. Likewise, the scene of Paulie in the arcade has to be the most surreal scene in the entire series in which he throws a bottle pinball machine in slow motion complete with odd sound effects; it’s an image which doesn’t leave your head.

Mr. T as Clubber Lang, oh man! What a beast! A true larger than life villain with outbursts of immensely entertaining lightning fast dialogue; he sure has a way with words with such a violent temper and high levels of anger. You do not want to be stuck in an elevator with this guy. Which raises the question; is Clubber responsible for the death of Mickey by pushing him to the side? Yet even close to death Mickey can still inspire with scenery-chewing words of motivation; his death being one of the series most emotional moments. The boxer vs. wrestler charity fight on the other hand between Rocky and Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan) has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but dam is it entertaining. It’s so over the top with such intense pain on display. The referee and police officers are thrown to the side, the audience is assaulted and even Paulie gets in on the action (I do love those bits of humour Paulie provides).

The final fight in Rocky III is the only in ring fight in the series which takes place in real time until Creed.  Meanwhile, the final scene of the movie is such fun, with Rocky and Apollo playing off each other which along with the training montage gives off some homoerotic vibes along the way with sweaty, shirtless, muscular men in tank tops as well as men hugging and jumping in the sea.

Also, the film’s trailer refers to Rocky III as an “American tradition”. What’s the tradition? Hollywood sequels?

Rocky II (1979)

Rocky II: Electric Boogaloo

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky II picks right off where the first movie ended and with the characters are already established, we can get right into the story. Stallone writes and directs this time, and who knows his own creation better than him?

Rocky II has a much higher budget than the first film and thus doesn’t have the guerrilla filmmaking tactics of the first so while it loses something in that regard it’s still no less a beauty of a film. They can even afford to have a huge crowd of kids following him during the training montage and possibly the cheesiest moment in any Rocky movie. We now get two montages instead of one and the series obsession with them would grow from here. The final fight benefits the most from the higher budget. We actually get to see a large crowd of spectators instead of relying on stock footage and camera angels disguising the lack of extras; while the use of slow-motion captures the pain and barbaric nature of fighting in glorious detail. When Rocky and Apollo both fall to the ground at the end of the fight, the suspense is crazy! The final shot of Rocky’s beat up face as he slurs in classic Stallone fashion is so barbaric; a perfect shot to end the movie on.

In Rocky II we get to see what Rocky does now that he has lots of money for the first time in his life and you really get a sense of the character’s new found happiness. However, he becomes blinded by this happiness and it goes to his head such as when he buys a house without even checking the upstairs. Rocky struggles with his new found fame and can’t even film a simple commercial. Just like how the public turn their back on Rocky, the public turned their back on Stallone after his two follow up films to Rocky bombed; Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T. Like how Stallone had to do a sequel to Rocky in order to get by, Rocky has to fight Apollo again to get by and prove that he is not a fluke or a one hit wonder. Apollo’s trainer Duke also has a bigger role here and would continue to be more prevalent in Rocky III and IV; I love this guy and his intense words of inspiration.

Rocky II is easily the funniest movie in the series, from his poor driving skills to his mispronunciation of words when trying to film a commercial (“Smeel mainly”) but my favourite moment is when he tries to a catch a chicken as part of his training (“I feel like a Kentucky Fired Idiot”). I also find it funny the scene in which Apollo is being consumed by hate mail telling him to kill himself; it’s a good thing for him the web doesn’t yet exist. In terms of more twisted humour, Rocky takes Adrian to the zoo and even proposes to her there, because you know, retards like the zoo.

Rocky II was the first film in the series to use synthesizers in its score and the music feels very late 70’s and at times disco inspired (listen to the vocal version of All of My Life, it’s beautiful). Bill Conti’s ‘Redemption’ is by far the best piece of original music in the movie; it makes me want to climb a mountain.
Just a side note: In regards to the Rocky DVDs, only the first movie gets the special edition treatment and the rest are just bare bones releases. I know the first is considered the best but that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to the sequels that they’re just tossed aside on the home video releases.

Rocky II offers everything I could ask for in a sequel, a movie which stays true to the original but offers new elements along the way. It advances the story and adds an extra layer of depth to already complex characters. In 1979 the New Hollywood movement was coming to an end and the age of the blockbuster had begun. In 1976 Rocky lost the final fight but keeping with the newfound optimism in Hollywood movies, in 1979 Rocky wins the fight (although timeline wise its late 1976).

Rocky (1976)

The Philadelphia Story

I may sound like a bit of a fanboy when I talk about the Rocky franchise but I just legitimately love all these movies so much. This is a series which always inspires me and has aided me during my darkest days. Rocky was one of the first movies to have such a profound impact on me, making me appreciate cinema on a deeper level. I first saw Rocky on TV and week after week came back to watch the sequels; such joy I had and memories I never forget.

I don’t think there is a fictional character whom I’ve been more emotionally invested in than Rocky Balboa. Could there be a character who is more honest or down to Earth? A man who has next to nothing yet has such a positive outlook on life (“Naw I ain’t got no phone, I had to pull it you know because people calling me all the time, and who needs the aggravation, right?” – such profound wisdom). The character is also a mystery and an enigma; who are his parents and what about his early years? Apart from a few brief snippets of information, it’s up to the viewer’s imagination instead of giving us a pointless origin story which Hollywood is so keen on nowadays. The character is biographical of his creator Sylvester Stallone throughout the whole series; his fictional alter ego. Just like Rocky, Stallone had next to nothing before making it as a star. Just like how the character rises to the challenge against impossible odds, the movie also beat impossible odds by becoming one of the biggest sleeper hits of all time. Likewise what movie or character is more identified with a city or has such reverence for the location it was filmed.

All the films in the series reflect the periods in which they were made. It’s 1976, America’s Bicentennial year. Perhaps the country didn’t know it needed an injection of optimism after years of cynical and pessimistic film as well as political upheaval. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for cynicism in movies but with such movies dominating the mainstream at the time it was clear that enough was enough. It seems like happy endings where against the law in the first half of the 70’s, but Rocky brought them back for better or worse, and film snobs will look down on it for that. But yes, I do blubber away at this ending and Adrian’s uttering of “I love you!” is the greatest “I love you!” in cinema history. The ending has that same feeling of joy and happiness as seen in the ending of many Frank Capra movies. Speaking of Capra, Rocky’s response to being asked if he wants to fight Apollo Creed for the world heavyweight championship is like Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town when he is told of the vast sum of money he has inherited.

As the filmmakers didn’t get permission to shot for many of the on locations, guerilla filmmaking techniques where employed in the making of Rocky; capturing the streets of Philadelphia in all their glory with that distinctive that gritty look of 70’s films while aided with the use of the then-new technology in the form of the steady cam. You’d be hard pressed to find a movie which is more naturalistic and unmanufactured as Rocky.

It’s astounding that such a low budget film could have had such a great soundtrack and score. Bill Conti’s score to Rocky always makes me feel melancholic; the Rocky soundtracks have given me hours upon hours of listening pleasure. I even watch the end credits of all the films for the music (well except the first one as the end credit music here is quite dreary). The Rocky movies are also responsible for my love of montages. I’ll never forget the feeling of exuberance I felt watching the film’s training montage for the first time and hearing Gonna Fly Now; we’re talking the goosiest of goosebumps.

Roger Ebert compared Stallone to Marlon Brando in his original review, and in 1976 no one could have seen this man being a future action movie star, but I maintain the man is more intelligent than people make him out to be. He’s made a respectable career out of what he is capable of doing. How many people can claim to have been able to write installments in a film series which has lasted four decades and still manage to keep the long-running story interesting? During the filming of Rocky, he had to do script rewrites on the spot such as upon discovering the ice rink for Rocky and Adrian’s was completely empty or the shorts on the giant poster of Rocky in the stadium where the wrong colour.

When I watched this film at a younger age, I never fully appreciated the romantic angle, yet watching it from a more mature perspective. Rocky and Adrian are like two misfits who don’t fully fit in with the rest of society. There is a goddess with Adrian, and only Rocky can see it. The scene in which Rocky invites Adrian to his apartment after their first date took my breath away like few other love scenes have ever done. The sexuality on display is immense with Stallone in a vest and the gradual build-up to their first kiss, and I’m sure they did it.

The world of Rocky is populated with such unforgettable characters. Rocky’s trainer Mickey Goldmill is one of the greatest mentors in film history (either him or Obi-Wan Kenobi in my book) with his grouchy and curmudgeon manner. I feel Burgess Meredith is an actor who got better with age, so no surprise his most famous role came to him at the age of 68. Paulie (Burt Young) is one pathetic hateful loser, abuses his sister, is violent and yet you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on the other hand, dam! What a showman with his charisma, confidence, cockiness, and ego; the archetype of a leading man from a blacksploitation film. Yet despite being a black man, he is surely one of the most patriotic characters ever put on screen who shuns any left wing mentality of victimhood; sounds like a dam monster movie!

One more recent viewings of Rocky I’ve also come to appreciate Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell) more as a character. A charismatic loan shark who employs Rocky and has a real liking for him, giving him money for his date, attends his fight with Apollo and doesn’t try to take over his boxing career whereas many other mobsters would. Yet Rocky’s lenient collecting style by refusing to break the thumbs of clients who don’t pay up causes problems for Gazzo yet he treats Rocky almost like a brother. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that in the original script for the film, Rocky and Gazzo where brothers.

When Rocky visits the empty arena before the fight you can feel the pressure and weight that bestows him. By the time the final fight comes around I’m so emotionally invested in this character that I’m rooting for him like it’s a real fight. During the fight itself, the punches look real and there’s no sped up footage like boxing films of the past; while Bill Conti’s score ups the intensity and suspense for some serious emotional impact.