The Only ‘Rocky’ Movie That Prevented Nuclear War

Nostalgia is a hollow emotion. Being more an echo of the past than a genuine feeling, it is one of the barriers to our society maturing into adulthood. In this column, the author revisits movies of his and the world’s childhood, seeking to peel back the veneer of nostalgia and answer just one question: Is this movie still watchable with the Nostalgia Goggles taken off?

I never watched any of the Rocky films when they were in theaters because I wasn’t born until the year before V released. The first five movies were released in a fourteen-year span from 1976 through 1990 (the sixth film, Rocky Balboa, was released after a sixteen-year franchise hiatus). I never got in on the anticipation of waiting for a new Rocky film as a kid, however, the franchise is still one of the most important to my growth as a fan of the movies, ranking right up there with Star Wars. I remember watching them all the time on cable, finally realizing I should just record them to VHS tapes to build my own collection. So, I did, with my own scribbled handwriting used to label each tape. My sense of nostalgia for Rocky may have happened mostly after the fact, but it is no less strong.

Back then I gravitated toward parts III and IV in the franchise. Those two films are the most comic book-y of the lot, so it’s no surprise that my kid mind found those the most entertaining. Rocky was a little slow for me as a child and V was a little dark, but III and IV were just right. They both feature larger than life villains, absurd training montages, and of course, Rocky eventually triumphing over his advisory—after training with a new method; a classic comic book/cartoon plot device – reclaiming or maintaining the his superhero status.

In my adult years, I have come around to Rocky. It’s a masterpiece, and it ranks among my all-time favorite films. It’s just perfect, down to the closing minutes when Apollo whispers to Rocky that there would never be a rematch between the two fighters and Rocky responds, “Don’t want one.” Rocky III is still my favorite because it’s a perfect mirror of Rocky; positioning Balboa as Apollo Creed, the overly-confident world champion, while the film’s villain, Clubber Lang, takes Rocky’s place as the underdog. It’s an interesting role reversal and a big part of the reason I love that one so much. As a weakness, III has its foot firmly in the 80s decade, but not quite to the level that IV takes it – a major problem I have with the film, as you will see.

Image: MGM

Image: MGM

More than almost any of the other franchise entries, Rocky IV is a film greatly influenced by its time period (V, being the exception, is a transparent retelling of Mike Tyson’s career up to that point in 1990). It was released in 1985 and is dripping with 80s cliché. It’s not so much a movie made in the 80s, as it is a movie desperately trying to cram in as many awful 80s movies clichés as possible. It features a heavily synthesized soundtrack composed by Vince DiCola, a notable departure from the Oscar-worthy, classical scores of Bill Conti; a ridiculous robot sidekick that eventually becomes a character’s girlfriend, and of course, montage after montage after montage. No joke, the movie has 30 MINUTES OF MONTAGE, that’s nearly 1/3 of the film’s entire runtime. (Don’t believe me. This guy did the math.)

Most importantly to the film’s nostalgic appeal, though, is that Rocky IV centers around the greatest threat facing Americans throughout the 1980s: The Red Scare. The film’s villain, the formidable if exploited by his Soviet caretakers, Ivan Drago (played by the physically and mentally formidable Doplh Lundgren) is a cardboard cutout of what Americans feared in Soviet Communism. Drago is a steely, emotionless vessel, built by Soviet scientists purely to strike a blow to the pride of the American people. Moreover, Drago is a threat to the purity of boxing as a sport. He doesn’t train in a traditional gym, rather a state-of-the-art U.S.S.R. super-laboratory filled with more control panels and beep-beep-booping computer monitors than it does free weights and punching bags. It’s a perversion of the workmanship style that made Rocky Balboa successful in the previous three films (in fact, it’s that training style that redeems him in both Rocky III and IV), and that’s part of what makes Drago such a great villain.

It’s no surprise, then, that Rocky IV draws the most nostalgic reaction from fans: It is steeped deeply in the calling cards of that decade. Glitzy, over-the-top and somewhat hollow as result. Some fans, however, really seem to love dipping into that nostalgia-anesthetic, taking DiCola’s score and all thirty of those montage minutes in like a shot of warm-fuzzy feeling. That’s fine, but judging a movie based on how it reminds us of the past is not really judging the movie at all, it’s just recalling an experience. That’s not the way I approach watching movies, so I was expecting to come down really hard on Rocky IV as a trite piece of 80s trash cinema.

But I don’t know, I still kind of liked it — much to my surprise.  The film certainly has its excess (again, 30 MINUTES OF MONTAGE) and it is by no means my favorite Rocky sequel, but the formula that made the franchise successful is still there and working effectively. The film’s great story failure, however, is that Rocky and Apollo’s just-blossoming homoerotic relationship is cut short in the film’s first act (the status of their relationship is cemented with the post-Apollo death scene montage that sees Rocky driving around in his Lamborghini flashing back longingly to the pair’s beach training in III, while the second most 80s song of the film, “No Easy Way Out” plays in the background. A reference, I take it, to how Rocky felt trapped in his hollow marriage to Adrian once his feelings for Apollo emerged.)

Despite the film’s annoying reliance on montage (some of which, I must admit, are actually very cool, like the Drago/Rocky training montage that parallels Drago’s high-tech workouts with Rocky’s low-tech workouts in the Russian wilderness), the introduction of a robot sidekick that serves no other to purpose than to turn Paulie, once a fleshed out, meaningful character, into a shameful piece of comic relief, and a terrible synth driven score (there’s a reason DiCola was replaced with the franchise’s true musical voice, Bill Conti, after IV) I was still able to get behind the film. Rocky’s struggle to avenge his pal Apollo and, as it turns out, defend America from a Communist invasion, feels earned. By the time he finally faces off against Drago in their historic bout, we really want Rocky to stand strong against the “I will break you” Soviet soldier.

Image: MGM

Image: MGM

Maybe Rocky IV is evidence that it’s impossible to ever truly remove the nostalgia-goggles, or maybe IV is actually not that bad of a movie. It’s probably a little bit of both. Either way, I walked away from my most recent viewing of the film feeling more optimistic about it than I had in years. It surely does not retain its status as one of my favorite movies as it did when I watched it repeatedly as a child, but I’m somewhat surprised to say that it doesn’t rank as one of my least-favorite-films-as-an-adult, either.

Despite their best efforts, Stallone and DiCola could not ruin the Rocky franchise with 80s overkill, so I’m here to tell you: even with the goggles off, Rocky IV is still a pretty good movie.