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

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JFK (1991)

No Stone Unturned

I’m aware in modern times conspiracy theories have become detrimental in discovering the actual truth (largely thanks to the internet) but I can’t deny that I just love this sort of stuff. JFK requires your utmost attention and at a runtime of three hours, it feels like the movie leaves no stone upturned (pardon the pun) in its examination and deconstruction of the Kennedy assassination. Admittedly the first time I watched JFK I didn’t understand much of what is discussed in the film. It’s a lot to digest in a single viewing but there are more intriguing theories here than an entire season of Ancient Aliens (minus the bad haircuts and awkward line delivery); but I can happily watch JFK multiple times to further understand it and eat up every single word of dialogue. I doubt we will ever need another film made about the Kennedy assassination; what highly talented filmmaker could be more passionate about the subject matter? I also highly recommend watching the director’s cut for even more conspiracy goodness to evoke the paranoia in you.

JFK is one of those movies which makes you most appreciate the art of editing, incorporating many layers of time and reels of stock footage; no scene during the movie’s three hours is edited in a standard fashion. The editing help make the film’s exposition exciting; a character may be describing an event as the scene cuts to just that in an obscured or dreamlike manner. The Mr. X sequence with Donald Sutherland is a perfect example of how to pull of engrossing exposition; plus is there a more classic cold war, spy movie type scene than meeting a suited man in the park to receive classified information. Likewise, John Williams’ theme for JFK evokes my inner patriotic American, even if I’m not American. The militaristic and at other times conspiratorial nature of the score helps make the movie as compelling as it is. The black & white scenes such as those featuring the military feel reminiscent of Seven Days In May with shades throughout of the John Frankenheimer style. I’m sure Stone must have also taken some pointers from the first movie about the Kennedy assassination, 1973’s Executive Action.

JFK continues the tradition of films such as The Longest Day in which a large ensemble cast of familiar faces and great screen presences to help guide us through the story. It’s amazing seeing different generations of actors doing some of the best work their careers and utilizing their screen personas to full effect even if many of them are only on screen for short spaces of time. Some of the figures in the story strike me as too bizarre to have been real-life people, especially David Ferrie and Claw Shaw.

I’ve always been in defense of Kevin Costner against criticisms of being a dull actor. Granted his career did go downhill in mid 90’s and has never fully recovered but in his heyday of the late 1980’s/early 90’s he was such a hot streak of films. Casting him in the role of Jim Garrison couldn’t be more perfect as Costner is much like a modern-day classic movie actor in the vein of everymen like James Stewart, Henry Fonda or Gary Cooper. He’s been most commonly compared to Cooper (the courtroom section of the film is reminiscent of Cooper’s role in The Fountainhead) although with his southern demeanor I would compare him to being a modern-day Henry Fonda. I would defy anyone to call Costner a bad actor after watching the film’s courtroom scene. Talking almost non-stop for 40 minutes and never losing my attention while exuding a stern, emotional and towards the end of the speech, a fragile voice; with his final conclusion bringing a tear to my eye.

I find Jim Garrison’s family life interesting itself, mostly from the relationship with his wife. What does he see in her? She does not support his endeavors, despite his noble cause and unlike her husband, she is susceptible to believing what the media tells her. Here is a man who spends the movie questioning and fighting the system yet has a wife with a conformist personality. I can’t say for certain what they were like in real life but the in film I grew to dislike her character.

JFK  draws no conclusions, it doesn’t prove who assassinated Kennedy and allows the viewer to make up their own mind. Stone may be often criticized for his use of a dramatist’s license but as I say with many films based on historical events; this can make for a more compelling story. Even if there are untruths present, the film can act as a gateway to wanting to discover the real story. The movie did leave me a feeling of (good) anger and is one of the films I can credit with helping to influence the way I think.

“Dedicated to the young in whose the spirit the search for truth marches on.”