Posts Tagged ‘Sylvester Stallone’

Rocky IV premiered in 1985, a period which was arguably peak American culture. This time capsule of 80’s bombastic-ness transports Rocky from his first film’s mean Philadelphia streets to the Soviet Union; where he fights the near superhuman Ivan Drago in what is simply the greatest fight in cinematic history. In 2020, looking for something to do during Covid lockdown, Stallone decided to retool this now classic of 80s cinema, the result is Rocky IV the Director’s Cut, A.K.A. Rocky vs Drago. In this cut, he adds some humanity to his monstrous opponent, and dials back the over-the-top nature of the original film.

Most Rocky’s open with an exciting recap of the previous film’s fight set to a rousing score, such as Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. Here we open to the much gloomier moment of Rocky getting knocked out by Clubber Lang. Cut to the beginning of Rocky’s friendship with Apollo Creed leading up to the rematch and finale of Rocky III where Rocky regains his title, ending not with Eye of the Tiger, but Sweetest Victory, from the original ending of IV. This recap of Rocky III takes up the first 6-7 minutes of the director’s cut; and establishes the friendship with Rocky and his former opponent Apollo Creed.

Just as in the original, Apollo is now swimming in his pool while seeing news of Soviet boxer Ivan Drago coming to America. This is followed by the first actual new footage of the director’s cut. Rocky and Apollo talk outside of Rocky’s mansion, where Rocky reveals that the boxing commission was approached by the Soviets about an exhibition bout with Rocky. At the time, Rocky was hesitant, telling them he’d think about it, feeling he didn’t have to do it if he didn’t need to.

While playing around with a football, possibly a nod to Carl’s real-life stint as an Oakland Raider, we get more insight into Apollo’s motivation for wanting to fight Drago first. Apollo sees this potential fight to be not only against Russian propaganda, but as a great historical moment that he wants to be a part of. This is followed by the original scene of Apollo talking with Rocky’s family inside the house, with the addition of Adrian talking about medieval armies fighting to the death, illustrating the intelligence she had in the first movie. There is also a new scene where Rocky and Adrian talk in the kitchen. Adrian can see through Apollo’s hubris, realizing not only that Apollo is afraid of being forgotten about, but that this is something her husband will face one day as well.

Stallone recently said he now regrets having killed off Creed in Rocky IV. It is interesting to think how the rest of the franchise would have carried on with a living, but wheelchair bound Apollo. Of course, Apollo still dies in the director’s cut, but he is shown as putting up more of a fight, even in the second round after he has already been badly beaten.

One of the subtle but more significant changes is that Rocky is not asked by Duke to throw in the towel. In the new cut, Rocky picks up the towel but drops it just as Apollo is dealt the fatal bow. His motivation now is not guilt, but a belief in a warrior’s code that Apollo had previously expressed (Adrian’s previous insight is apparently ignored). This is followed up on during Apollo’s funeral, where his trainer Duke gives a eulogy of how the warrior has the right to decide his way of death. Rocky follows this not with his somber speech about how Apollo always did things the way you wanted, but with a few wailing lines about how Apollo gave him a chance. What Rocky says makes sense, he owes everything he has to Apollo, who believed in him and gave him a break when no one else would. The problem is in 1985 Stallone wasn’t an actor anymore, and what should have been a very moving scene is instead cringeworthy.

Now we’re off to the Soviet Union for the two training montages, where it’s revealed that Rocky did in fact plan to spar, but the Soviet’s conveniently forgot to provide sparring partners (we do see him hitting a heavy bag in a training montage). This was a nice touch, showing his opponent’s home country purposely trying to screw Rocky over in training.   

The director’s cut of the fight itself remove the sins of the original in that we don’t see punches that obviously missed scored with a shotgun blast sound of impact. Here the sound effects are scaled back and the editing is redone as to not show missed shots having an impact. There’s also more commentary about Drago being younger than Rocky, adding to the champ’s underdog status. Before the last round the ref threatens to stop the match. Nothing comes of this of course, but the ref also almost immediately calls the match after Drago is knocked down, not even bothering with a ten count.

Drago’s wife is almost absent from this cut. Her sincere lines about the threats on her husband’s life and her wicked smile during Apollo’s death are inexplicably cut. Drago’s promoter Nicolai Koloff does have a few lines adding to his already great performance. We learn that the Balboa Drago fight will take place in Russia partly because they believe the fight would not be scored properly in America. There’s more of an emphasis on how the Russian’s really wanted Drago to face Rocky first, and we see see Koloff’s isolation and can sense the looming consequences he will face once Rocky is victorious.

There is an attempt to humanize Drago, as he is portrayed more as a tool of Soviet propaganda as opposed to a superhuman monster. His punching demonstration to the press is shown, but without the context of him being stronger than average boxers. We can see that he wants to speak for himself; and does not care for his superiors speaking for him. He has more charisma, openly mocking Apollo during their match. After killing Creed, he adds to his after-match speech that soon everyone will know the name of Drago, and we see via a reaction shot that his superiors don’t approve of Drago going into business for himself. However, there evidently wasn’t much more of anything filmed of Drago to add to his character. It would have been nice if they’d subtitled whatever was said to him right before the Apollo match. It’s also too bad they didn’t film more dialogue of Drago’s training, as this would have helped Stallone’s intent in recutting this film 35 years later.

Rocky vs Drago has about the same run time as the original. While there are a few short new scenes, most of the “new footage” is simply different takes and re-edits of the scenes we already know, such Rocky and Apollo’s conversation while watching their rematch, Adrian telling Rocky he can’t win, Rocky’s talk with his son (who we don’t see again) and Rocky’s post fight speech are abbreviated and shown with different takes. I’m unsure why Sly felt the need to shorten these scenes as it just makes them all feel rushed and less meaningful. Also, this angle of following the warriors code does not seem as interesting as the guilt Rocky felt in the theatrical cut.

Rocky IV was the first film in the series not to use Bill Conti, opting for composer Vince DiCola, whose score added to the otherworldly feel of this entry. The director’s cut insert’s traditional Conti compositions over certain dramatic scenes in an attempt to make this sequel feel more like the previous films. It also ends with Eye of the Tiger, trading places with Sweetest Victory which is now played at the end of the Rocky III recap. These changes make Rocky vs Drago feel more like the previous films, but there-in lies the problem. Rocky IV was not just another Rocky film. The complete absurdity and over the top nature of Rocky IV at the mid-point of Reagan’s America is exactly what made it work. One can’t possibly scale back all of Rocky IV’s bombastic-ness, but in making the attempt, it takes away from what made the original special in the first place.

No one knows Rocky better than Stallone, but I have to disagree with the creator on most of this cut. Artsy types romanticize the lone artist’s creative vision, but movie making, perhaps more than any other medium, is a collaborative art. Sometimes the lone creative vision isn’t the best one. See George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels or Rob Zombie’s Halloween II for examples, and I feel you can add Rocky vs Drago to that list. While Rocky IV’s Director’s Cut has some interesting additions, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone other than a diehard Rocky Fan.

For my review of the original Rocky IV, click here.

Rocky V was released in 1990, the dawn of a new decade. It opens with the usual montage showing highlights of the last film’s fight, except it’s not the usual montage. Instead of exciting the audience, it’s very foreboding, focusing on the damage Rocky is taking, with occasional freeze frames that turn black and white.

Cut to the aftermath, Rocky’s hands are trembling in the shower, and it is evident something’s not right with him. Things continue to turn worse as he returns home. Apparently his accountant has ripped him off and as a result he’s lost his fortune. Fighting turns out not to be an option to regain it, as after seeing a Dr. he apparently is in the early phases of brain damage.

This whole set up is for the purpose of getting Rocky back to his old neighborhood. Paulie has kept his old house, which they all move back into, and one of the only assets Rocky still has is Mickey’s old gym, which was willed to Rocky’s son.

So with a rap remake of “Take it Back” (originally by Stallone’s brother) we see Rocky back in the streets. One night, after drinking at the neighborhood bar from the first movie, he walks into the old abandoned gym. Here we get an apocryphal flashback scene of a young Rocky training in the gym with Mickey. Given this was supposed to be the last Rocky, I wasn’t surprised to see Burgess Meredith reprise his role as Mickey. He gives a nice little speech you can watch below.

“Get up you son of a bitch! Cause Mickey loves ya.” Vintage Mickey.

Back to the main plot. Rocky ends up re-opening Mickey’s gym, and comes across a young Tommy Gunn, played by real life boxer and relative of John Wayne, Tommy Morrison. Seeing a young and hungry boxer, Rocky personally manages him and becomes a father figure to him. This puts a strain on his relationship with is son, who is now going to an inner city school in Philly and having trouble with bullies (and has magically aged since the last movie). Adrian, who is back working at the pet store from the first movie, is not pleased with Rocky either.

Meanwhile, David Washington Duke, a crooked boxing promoter, basically Don King, had been trying to lure Rocky back into the ring for one more match. Failing that, he manages to lure Tommy away and gets him a title shot. One aspect of boxing that was absent from this franchise was the crooked/dirty side of the business. Here it is vaguely hinted that Tommy’s win against champion Union Cane was fixed. Cane, also managed by Duke, had the title awarded to him after Rocky retired. Duke’s original plan was to have Cane fight Rocky for the title in Tokyo, in a bout that was to be called “Lettin it go in Tokyo.”

While champion, Tommy Gunn is not respected by the press, who still has “Balboa on the brain.” Duke convinces him that the only thing for Tommy to do is challenge Rocky. The climax of the movie is Rocky and Tommy getting into a street fight in the back of the bar Rocky frequents. The crowd cheers on Rocky, but is getting beat down a lot. Cue to the plot point of Mickey in Rocky’s mind whispering in his ear telling him to get up. Rocky gets up and wins the brawl.

Rocky V is by no means a good movie. Stallone at this point hadn’t been an actor in almost 15 years. He cast his real life son, the late Sage Stallone, to play Rocky’s son. Sage never acted before, and no disrespect to the guy but it shows. Some of the scenes and lines delivered are genuinely cringe worthy. Rocky Jr. falling into the wrong crowd is evident by him wearing an ear ring and smoking cigarettes, as if he fell into the wrong crowd of an 1970s ABC after school special. Stallone himself admitted that he was negligent during the making of this entry, and has openly said it’s his least favorite. On the Rocky DVD commentary director John Avildsen, who directed I and V, described Stallone on the set of V as “the prince of Lichtenstein.”

In fact in the next film, Rocky Balboa, clips from all previous films except V are shown, it is explicitly left out. The only remote references are lines of dialogue where Rocky mentions “home team,” and makes a comment about being “brittle.”

Rocky’s brain damage is also not addressed in the next movie. Stallone has said in interviews that in V Rocky never went for a second opinion, and with advances in medical science, it’s possible Rocky just had a concussion. Even if you don’t buy that explanation, you can almost watch Rocky Balboa under the assumption that V never happened.

The thing is if you read the script for Rocky V I’d bet it is probably a good script to read. It arguably has the most actual plot of any in the series. There was no way they could outdo Rocky IV in terms of over the top ridiculousness, so they took a different approach. Given the conceit that this was going to be the last Rocky, it was a good idea to go back to the beginning, to go back to the old neighborhood with the familiar places from the first movie. The plot of Rocky being a teacher to the next generation fit this as well. While nodding to that past, at the same time it tried to bring Rocky into the 90s with a hip hop sound track, and attempted to make “go for it” a new catchphrase. That didn’t take.

In the long run, if Rocky V didn’t put certain things in place, both in real life and in the world of fiction, I don’t think the next movie would have worked as well. Getting him out of his mansion and back into the old neighborhood arguably helps us have more sympathy for him in the beginning of Rocky Balboa. More importantly, the overall disappointment with V was what drove Stallone to make Rocky Balboa, easily the best of all the sequels.

Interestingly enough, a director’s cut of Rocky V was at one point available on YouTube. It’s not much different, but has two things of note. First, Rocky reveals in a conversation with Paulie that he’s not taking any money managing Tommy. More importantly, there’s a scene where he runs into Little Marie, the young girl he walked home in the first movie. Marie, now and adult, is a street bum and presumably a prostitute, something Rocky had warned she might turn out to be. Just after this scene, he runs into Tommy on the street. During this part, which makes the theatrical cut, Tommy tries to convince Rocky to manage him. Tommy says he’s got nothing in his life but boxing, and if this doesn’t work out he doesn’t know what he’ll do. In the directors cut, as this conversation is happening, Rocky looks back and can still see Little Marie loitering in the street. He makes the connection that if he doesn’t help Tommy, he’ll turn out to be a bum like Little Marie. This is a very interesting scene. Little Marie was taken out because it was too dark, but you can understand Rocky’s motivation here. However, if this scene was left in, it makes Little Marie’s appearance in Rocky Balboa not work as much.

Also of note, it was revealed after Rock V’s release that the director and Stallone planned to have Rocky die at the end. That certainly would have put a damper on things. Consequently, I think we have to see Rocky die in a Creed sequel. I thought for sure he was going to die in Creed, but I’m going to guess he’ll die in Creed III, as Mickey died in Rocky III.

Again, Rocky V by no means is a good movie. However I would argue that the basic plot was fitting for the time, and that overall it is not actually the worst Rocky movie.

I will leave you with the closing credits of Rocky V, set to Elton John’s Measure of a Man set to black and white still images from all five movies. Note that in a few of the still shots of the first Rocky are backwards lol.