This week’s release of the Rocky spin-off Creed makes it easy to go back and reassess the other movies in the now four-decade-long series. Creed updates the underdog story that typified the original movie into a modern context, telling an intensely personal narrative about identity, perseverance, and hardship via the tried-and-true sports movie method that the original perfected. It makes perfect sense even as a spin-off, and it looks right at home next to the earlier installments. But any reassessment of the series also makes it easy to recognize the series’ one big, obvious outlier. 1985’s Rocky IV is barely a Rocky movie, but it’s still the best Rocky movie.
Sylvester Stallone was at the height of his Hollywood power in the early ‘80s. He’d ridden the critical and commercial success of Rocky and finished out the trilogy by writing and directing both Rocky II and Rocky III. Like all good trilogies, the three movies told a perfect three-act story that fit within the underdog arc he had set up by writing the screenplay for the original. Rocky proved to himself that he could stand with the best, then he beat the best, then he had to learn that being the best requires a level of personal acceptance in becoming a symbol.
He finished as the heavyweight champion and it seemed like the character had nowhere else to go in the context of that individual narrative. So when Rocky IV came around, Stallone had other plans.
By 1985, the United States and the Soviet Union were in the throes of the Cold War. It was a geopolitical pissing contest that tested the resolve of each nation without resorting to total worldwide destruction. For whatever reason, Stallone thought he’d join that contest. That year he decided to completely re-tool the two roles that made him a star into essentially the same Stallone proxy. Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV each made purely political statements under the guise of Hollywood entertainment.
Where John Rambo was a tragic Vietnam vet who just wanted America to accept him in the surprisingly understated First Blood, the character was changed into a one-man army hell bent on confronting Soviet-backed Vietnamese soldiers still holding American P.O.W.s in the sequel. In the first three movies, Rocky was a Philadelphia loner who got a shot at proving his self worth. Suddenly in Rocky IV, the mumbling former champ is now embroiled in a geopolitical boxing match against a Soviet super athlete named Ivan Drago (played by Dolph Lundgren).
This fourth installment is incredible because it refracts the broad tension of the Cold War through the lens of a sporting event. It has all of the faces we remember from the other Rocky movies, but they’re grafted on to this bigger story that basically has nothing to do with what made Rocky Rocky. It’s a statement by Stallone himself using the characters that gave him that voice in the first place.
It’s the furthest away from who Rocky Balboa is and the themes set up in the first three movies, but it’s still an awesome sort of so-bad-it’s-incredible movie. It’s easy to mock Stallone’s seemingly simple take on complex politics. Rocky IV, after all, begins with a shot of two boxing gloves adorned with the American stars and stripes and Soviet hammer and sickle flying towards each other and exploding. Its purely political what-the-fuck-ness makes it stand out from the rest. But it’s idiosyncratic because Stallone’s screenplay and direction plays both sides of the Cold War to show how absurd it is.
Before taking on Drago himself, Rocky’s best friend and former opponent Apollo Creed justifies his own bout against the Soviet with language that could just as easily have be used by an American politician. “We have to be right in the middle of the action because we’re the warriors,” Creed says. “And without some challenge, without some damn war to fight then the warrior might as well be dead.” Later, Creed boasts at a pre-fight press conference, saying, “I’m gonna teach this young fella to box, American style.”
And yet Creed’s participation in the fight does bring about his demise. The spectacle of the Las Vegas-set match begin with a bevy of ridiculous dancers, a performance by James Brown — singing “Living in America” no less — and Creed emerging from the rafters dressed as Uncle Sam. Drago, his robotic opponent, emerges from under the ring surrounded by the ridiculousness of American excess before swiftly killing Creed with a barrage of punches to the face.
When Rocky then agrees to take on Drago in the U.S.S.R. he’s asked at his own pre-fight how much he stands to make. “No money,” Rocky he says, “This is not about money.” Well, then what is it about? It can’t really be for revenge. We wouldn’t root for this former underdog to suddenly turn into a vindictive bloodthirsty maniac. It’s bigger than that, it’s for America.
At the same press conference, Drago’s wife Ludmilla — played by Stallone’s then real-life wife Brigitte Nielsen — complicates the movie’s politics even further telling the American press, “We are not involved in politics. All I want is for my husband to be safe, and to be treated fairly…You have this belief that you are better than us. You have this belief that this country is so very good and we are so very bad. You have this belief that you are so fair and we are so very cruel.”
Responding to anti-Soviet sentiment, Drago’s Soviet handler later exclaims “It’s all lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government!” Paulie, Rocky’s brother-in-law and friend, then yells, “We don’t keep our people behind a wall with machine guns,” which the Soviet handler then retorts, “Perhaps this simple defeat of this little so-called champion will be a perfect example of how pathetically weak your society has become!”
It all culminates in a climactic 30-minute end fight between Drago and Rocky, with the American pulling out the victory. Drago turns his back on his Communist overlords when they question his resolve, saying, “I win for me! For me!” But the piece de resistance is Rocky’s post-bout speech contextualizing the threat of the Cold War from a worldwide beef into a more individual misunderstanding. It’s a sentiment that strangely connects Rocky IV with something with more prestige like this year’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies.
Here’s the speech in full:
It’s all great poli-sci fodder made better by the fact that you’re watching what is supposed to be a Rocky movie. If you look past the political posturing, the fact that the movie is composed of basically montage after montage could dampen your opinion on it. But the uniqueness of Rocky IV and its historical context is what makes the movie stand out. That’s what makes it a movie to root for.