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World Heavyweight champion Rocky Balboa is now successful, rich and therefore enjoying the easy life which comes with being at the top. However, his former opponent and now close friend Apollo Creed feels that he’s fallen out of the public eye, so. When Ivan Drago, the undefeated heavyweight world amateur champion from the Soviet Union, arrives in the USA itching to fight Rocky and become professional, Apollo takes on the challenge, even though Rocky advises against it. Despite the fight only being an exhibition match, Drago cold-heartedly kills Apollo in the ring when Rocky is unable to throw the towel in. Rocky decides to climb back into the ring to avenge his friend’s death, even if this means going to the Soviet Union….

During the recorded Q and A session shown immediately before this new version of Rocky 4 in cinemas, Sylvester Stallone says how he doesn’t write treatments, he just goes straight into the scriptwriting with little idea of how a story is going to proceed, putting it together as he writes. Well I bet that, back when he tried to get somebody interested in his script for Rocky, when he tried to ensure that he would be the star, and even when Rocky not just triumphed at the box office but won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, he had no idea that one day, his underdog would become the symbolic defender of the Free World against the Evil Empire. It was appropriately the most dramatic shoot of the series, chiefly because of Dolph Lundgren, in his first major role after his tiny appearance in A View To A Kill, who behaved a bit too much like his character. It was decided that the first few minutes of the climactic fight would feature real punches, but Dolph went a bit over the top and punched Sly’s chest so hard that he pushed his heart against his breastbone, causing the heart to swell. Stallone, suffering from laboured breathing and a blood pressure over 200, was in intensive care for eight days. Stallone wasn’t that annoyed, but Carl Weathers was after a similar incident when Lundgren literally threw him into the corner of the boxing ring. Weathers wasn’t hurt, but he shouted profanities at Lundgren while leaving the ring, then announced that he was calling his agent and quitting the movie. Only after Stallone forced the two actors to reconcile did filming continue four days later. Was it all worth it? It certainly was in commercial terms, becoming the most popular of the entire series, though the critics really tore it apart. Were they right?

Well, for me Rocky 4 was always the guilty pleasure of the series, awful and great at the same time, and, while [true to form] some of my Rocky opinions may differ from the majority opinion [perhaps the most notable being that I really like Rocky 5 and prefer it to Rocky Balboa even though Stallone would probably get me in the ring to have it out if I said this to his face], I think that many would agree. Emphasising montages over character beats and full of anti-Soviet propaganda, it’s almost totally empty and frequently unintentionally funny – meaning of course that it’s also great fun to watch. Having taken the franchise to as over the top a point as possible, Stallone understandably didn’t seem to know what to do with the character afterwards for quite some time. He considered having Drago return in a film that would have his post-boxing story run alongside that of Rocky, but then decided to focus solely on Rocky. Rocky 5 took the series back to its down to earth routes under the direction of Rocky‘s John G. Avildsen in an attempt to show the dangers of boxing, with Rocky suffering from brain damage as well as other things in his life going wrong. Rocky was even originally going to die at the end after his big street brawl. That, of course, never came to be, but Stallone became highly dissatisfied with Rocky 5 despite having been responsible for its screenplay, and when he came to make Rocky Balboa thirteen years later, he stated that it was to make up for 5 which he ignored when writing its script, resulting in some inconsistencies. He stated that this was his farewell to the character, with Rocky even waving goodbye to the audience in that poignant scene in the graveyard, but then along came Creed and Creed 2 which I wanted to dislike but which won me over. Of course Creed 2 finally saw Drago return. And now he’s returned again in Stallone’s new cut, created partly out of boredom during lockdown, which in his eyes fixes a film he found to be very flawed when he last watched it.

Even if one doesn’t watch the afore-mentioned interview, or the ‘making of’ which is available on YouTube, it’s obvious that Stallone’s aim to was to steer Rocky 4 a bit more in the direction of the more character-based Rocky and Rocky 2 while still retaining its essence, and in the process restore some heart and soul to a film which really didn’t contain much despite featuring the shocking, brutal and terribly sad death of someone who was a major character in the series, and which seriously shortchanged other major characters. One can easily understand why he chose to do this, but has it worked? Well, Rocky Vs Drago is different enough and good enough to justify its existence as an alternate version, though it’s not as different as you may expect. 38 minutes of footage has been added, though as much of it is alternate takes as well as brand new scenes or scene extensions. Almost as much footage has been cut, and here’s where there are some problems – and I don’t mean the loss of that robot, even though I kinda liked it as a symbol of the wealth that had softened Rocky and taken him away from his roots. The cuts mostly shorten scenes, but  some are jarring and poorly timed despite the time it’s taken Stallone to put this version together. The worst one is when Apollo and Rocky are watching their fight on the TV, and the film abruptly cuts off just as Apollo is about to open his mouth. I don’t know why he decided to chop down so many scenes anyway, seeing as Rocky and Rocky 2 both ran to around two hours. It results in a choppy, unfinished quality to some moments, though we’re certainly not talking Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut here, and it’s possible that these bits won’t be as noticeable to those who aren’t now self-trained to pick up on such things. But many will notice how Bridget Nielson’s small part as Ludmilla, Drago’s wife, has been reduced to what is now almost nothing. Does Stallone still really dislike his ex-wife?

Stallone has said several times that he regretted killing off Apollo in Rocky 4. Obviously there was no way he could have him live in Rocky Vs Drago unless new footage was filmed, but he decided to do the next best thing; increase his screen time and importance. This agenda is set out right at the beginning where we have more material from Rocky 3 than before, all focusing on the friendship between Rocky and Apollo. A major dialogue scene between the two soon after and some other little tidbits make us understand Apollo’s views and why he chose to go out the way he did. As Adrian succinctly points out in another restored scene, the slightly more arrogant, even egotistical, Apollo “wants to be loved” and desires a fight with Drago to reclaim the spotlight he desperately misses after five years in retirement. Then, after his death, we have a moving funeral scene where Duke gives a stirring speech about Apollo being a warrior, before Rocky then gives his own eulogy. Why on earth this was originally cut I don’t know. Apollo now remains far more strongly in our minds for the rest of the film and is even referred to in Rocky’s victory speech. We’re still told that “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”,  but it’s now proceeded by “My best friend says people don’t change. He died”, which along with other edits to the finale makes the ending a bit more subdued. We may now get Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky 3 as the song that closes out the film instead of “Hearts on Fire”, but that’s just to make the connection to Apollo even stronger. Talking of music, some of Vince DiCola’s music score has been replaced by Bill Conti cues from the earlier films too which really helps.

Adrian gets some nice new moments to shine, showing again how Talia Shire’s performance as the character is the best judged out of all the major performers in this series. Rocky and his son Robert have a scene that neatly parallels ones in the next two films, and even Drago is given just slightly more depth. At the press conference he speaks earlier than before to the irritation of his handler, letting us know already that Drago is being used by the State, and seems more hurt by Apollo’s taunts. The first fight adds some great shots of Apollo futilely battling on even though things are now hopeless for him, plus some beats between him and Rocky, while the second has more closeups and a great new moment where one of the Russian fight officials tries to stop the fight in favor of Drago by claiming that Rocky is too “hurt” to continue. Duke then sends him away by pointing at Drago and saying, “He’s hurt too!” The montages are almost the same; that dreadful flashback one, which I’d hoped Stallone had removed as this several minutes of padding make up my least favourite scene of the entire film despite Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out’ being a darn fine song, is now in black and white, while the other two have a few extra shots added. However, this is the thing; these montages don’t fit so well with the new tone of much of the rest of the film, especially when Rocky runs up that mountain. Likewise the James Brown “Living In America” sequence. After no doubt annoying many fans with his announcement “the robot is going to the junkyard forever”, Stallone could hardly remove this wonderfully cheesy bit of patriotic kitsch which acutely symbolises the film’s intent, but it now seems a bit out of place.

In the Q and A Stallone says how this new cut is more modern in feel and style, but certain things still can’t help but scream the ’80s, resulting in a bit of a mishmash. It’s not that different from the way the original Star Wars trilogy had all those bits and pieces added, yet some of those bits and pieces stuck out and it sometimes felt as if we were watching both films of their time and contemporary films at the same time. Thankfully though I can’t see Stallone doing a George Lucas and suppressing his original cut, and that’s great. Rocky Vs Drago isn’t really the much superior version that Stallone claims; rather it’s about the same in quality. Much of its new footage is indeed great and the film is a bit deeper, though it’s still first and foremost an exercise in saber rattling, albeit one that absolutely speeds by, while some unevenness in tone and in the editing has resulted now exists. I guess that the best version would consist of keeping most of the shortened scenes intact [some of the cuts really are odd] and still adding all the extra material, though I’m not even sure that that would even be satisfactory. I expect some fan-edits are being put together as I type. There’s been a fair bit of interest in Rocky Vs Drago, and it was nice to see the auditorium in which I watched it being half-full, so I wonder if we’re now get to see alternate versions of Cobra and the hugely underrated and neglected Nighthawks, both of which had loads of footage cut from their theatrical releases including a hell of a lot of gory violence? A quick bit of net surfing reveals that a lot of people are interested in seeing the former, at the very least. There have even been petitions. Come on Sly, you still have a lot of fans, give us what we want. You know you want to.

Rating: ★★★★★★½☆☆☆

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About Dr Lenera 1980 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

1 Comment

  1. Stallone was once the colossus of self-confidence, often making him difficult to work with(or for) and very domineering behind the scenes. But after his career cooled off, he seemed to lose that. Ever since Rambo 3 failed to live up to his expectations, he has been a pathetic character, constantly seeking ways to get approval from the public and the critics. This reconfiguration of Rocky 4 may be his low point. For him to take one of the very few things he’s done that are truly beloved by large segments of the populace…and to do all this incessant tinkering, all in the name of trying to make his 80’s classic more contemporary…it’s just very, very sad. For people who are familiar with him, it is possible to go back over the past 30 years and pinpoint decision after decision that have been made because of this sad insecurity. It is amazing that a man can be so strong in some ways, and so pathetically weak in others.

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