Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, left) lands a blow against Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in “Rocky IV.” | MGM
The silly robot’s gone and Creed puts up a better fight in the revised version, called ‘Rocky Vs. Drago’
By the time writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky IV” was released on Nov. 27, 1985, the franchise (and its creator) had gone from gritty, rough-hewn underdog to widely beloved, highly polished, a little too slick and squarely in the mainstream.
The edge was gone. The story had grown stale. The montages felt like parodies of montages.
Still, Rocky’s fan base continued to grow. “Rocky IV” opened to a non-summer record box office of nearly $32 million ($80 million in today’s dollars) and held the record for the most successful sports movie of all time until “The Blind Side” in 2009, and to this day remains the most successful entry in the “Rocky” franchise.
Had I reviewed “Rocky IV” upon its release, I would have given it three stars and cited highlights such as the fabulously over-the-top James Brown “Living in America” number, the genuinely shocking fate of Apollo Creed — and the addition of Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, who ranks second only to Carl Weathers’ Apollo as the most memorable of all of Rocky’s opponents through the decades.
The downside? The cringe-inducing, saccharine subplot about Burt Young’s Paulie receiving a robot named Sico as a birthday present and becoming best friends with the contraption. Ugh. That robot is to the “Rocky” franchise what Jar Jar Binks is to “Star Wars.” Dramatically more troubling was the harsh manner in which Apollo’s death was handled in the so-called exhibition bout against Drago in Vegas. From the opening bell, Drago pummels Apollo into a bloody pulp, resulting in an ignominious exit for one of the great figures in franchise history.
During the pandemic, the now 75-year-old Stallone found himself looking for a solo project, so he went back into the editing room to deliver a fresh and quite different cut, with some 40 minutes of the original film removed and 42 minutes of material added. “Rocky IV: Rocky v. Drago” has erased all traces of the robot from the story and excised some light-banter scenes while extending Apollo’s funeral scene and also fleshing out the Apollo-Drago confrontation to balance the action and show Apollo valiantly standing up to Drago, at least for a while, thus giving him a more noble demise.
“Rocky v. Drago” opens with a longer version of the recap of key events from “Rocky III,” including Apollo offering to become Rocky’s manager and get him that “Eye of the Tiger,” and Rocky’s triumphant rematch against Mr. T’s Clubber Lang. Early in “Rocky IV,” we’re introduced to the Russian amateur boxer Ivan “Siberian Express” Drago (Lundgren), who has to come to America seeking an exhibition match against Rocky Balboa. Drago’s team, including his gold medalist swimmer wife Ludmilla Vobet Drago (Brigitte Nielsen), invite the press to a training session in which dozens of white-coated lab technicians monitoring all manner of cutting-edge technology oversee Drago’s training session. Is this guy going to the moon?
After Apollo convinces a reluctant Rocky to let Apollo fight the Russian amateur boxer Ivan Drago, with Rocky in his corner — “I’m asking you, as a friend, stand in my corner, just this one last time” — we’re soon off to Vegas, with the Hardest Working Man in Show Business performing the show-stopping “Living in America” while Apollo, dressed as Uncle Sam, joins in a typically gauche, glossy, garish, American display of debauchery, all while Drago looks on with steely-eyed disdain.
Uh-oh. Looks like one of these boxers is taking this much more seriously than the other.
With the late great Stu Nahan (the real-life sports commentator who provided the ringside commentary for each of the first six “Rocky” films) guiding us through the action, the one-sided “exhibition” is handled more like a real fight in the recut, with Apollo landing some legitimate shots in the first round and looking fit and alert before Drago starts pounding Apollo with punishing body shots and direct hits to the head that send Creed sprawling to the canvas. In the second round, Drago unleashes a frenzy of fury on Apollo, knocking him unconscious while Nahan exclaims, “What started out as a joke has turned out to be a disaster!” and Drago coolly says, “If he dies, he dies.”
Ooh, that Drago is the worst!
In the subsequent funeral sequence, Stallone has added a moving speech by Tony Burton’s Tony “Duke” Evers, who was Apollo’s longtime cornerman and eventually joined Rocky’s team. (The relationship between Talia Shire’s Adrian and Rocky also seems to have more precedence in the recut; my God that woman suffered through a lot for her love of the big lug.)
A flashily attired Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) joins in as James Brown sings “Living in America.”
The second half of the film is still heavy on the training montages and the snippets of key moments from previous “Rocky” movies, as we see Drago using all the latest technology to prepare, while Rocky cuts logs, heaves rocks and pulls Paulie on a sled in the snow like a crazed Alaskan Malamute. (On the soundtrack, Survivor’s “Burning Heart,” with the lyrics: “Seems our freedom’s up, against the ropes, does the crowd understand, is it East versus West, or man against man?” Great question!)
As for the climactic showdown between Rocky and Drago in Moscow, with Rocky wearing Apollo’s famous red-white-and-blue trunks … the fight seems more dramatically impactful, more in keeping with the first Rocky-Apollo fight from the original. (At just over 14 minutes, the bout has about two minutes more screen time in this go-round.) Of course, both fighters endure more punishment than mere mortals could ever sustain in the ring, and yes, it’s insanely over the top when Rocky begins to win over the Russians as he triumphs over Drago — followed by Rocky’s speech about how two guys killing each other in the ring is better than 20 million killing each other and “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.”
We’re still working on that last bit, Rocko.