If Rocky III (1982) lacks a heart, Rocky IV is missing a brain. This movie is so stupid it’s got a robot in it, and I’m not referring to Dolph Lundgren’s acting. I mean an actual robot with metallic claws and a dome for a head. The story: when Apollo (Carl Weathers) is killed in an exhibition match against the Soviet Union’s heavyweight champion (Dolph Lundgren), Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) heads to the U.S.S.R. to avenge his friend and demonstrate what true sportsmanship is about. Meanwhile, his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) gets a robot maid for his birthday.
Sole credit for the screenplay is given to Sylvester Stallone, but I don’t believe it for a second. This film was written by a committee of producers, the richest of which was also the dumbest, occasionally exclaiming things like, “What this movie needs is Rosey from The Jetsons!” To be sure, Stallone was present at the meeting, but he was mostly taking minutes. The few instances his influence is felt have less to do with the man who wrote the original Rocky (1976) than the one who wrote Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985): “We have to be in the middle of the action because we’re warriors!”
That Rocky IV rigidly follows its predecessors’ formula comes as little surprise, but the film adds nothing sensible to the mix. Rocky sequels traditionally begin with the previous instalment’s final bout. This one starts with two boxing gloves, one with the American stars and stripes, the other with the Soviet hammer and sickle, hurtling toward each other and detonating on impact. Only then are we treated to not one but two interminable scenes from Rocky III, neither of which relates to this new chapter. Considering its total runtime of an hour and a half (including four musical montages), is it any wonder the movie never gets around to developing a proper story? But, hey, exploding sports paraphernalia: awesome.
The extended recap out of the way, the film is free to introduce its villain, Captain Ivan Drago, whose defining characteristics consists of being tall, Russian, and so stoic his wife (Brigitte Nielsen) and his agent (Michael Pataki) do all the talking for him. For a movie with so little plot and virtually no subtlety, Rocky IV is strangely ambivalent about its antagonist. On the one hand, Drago kills Apollo Creed in the ring. On the other, the death is accidental, and Apollo frankly spends most of the first act desperately asking for it. Later, the Russian fighter is revealed to be an honest sportsman who, like Rocky, competes for his own sense of accomplishment, yet he’s briefly seen taking steroids in one of the training montages.
On the subject of character inconsistency, what happened to Paulie? He started out as one of the franchise’s most complex characters: an edgy, abusive lummox whom Rocky, in his understated wisdom, handles with both firmness and compassion. Paulie was deeply flawed but also deeply human. In this movie, he’s portrayed as a loveable clown whom Rocky mostly keeps as a pet. He tags along to the Soviet Union for no discernible reason, spouting off racist remarks I assume are meant as comic relief, though they were probably the only times I wasn’t laughing hysterically.
The dramatic scenes are especially amusing, sometimes in unexpected ways. Every film in the series has a love scene with Adrian (Talia Shire) in which she either inspires Rocky or learns to understand his passion. In Rocky IV, she flies to the U.S.S.R. to tell her husband she’s come to terms (for the fourth time) with his warrior spirit. Here I thought he was an athlete, but never mind. At first, the scene seems uninspired but generally inoffensive. That is, until you realise Adrian, as revealed in a cutaway scene during the final match, left their child in the care of the big robot.
Another staple of the franchise is Rocky acquiring a new skill to defeat his opponent: in the first movie, he capitalizes on the fact that he’s a southpaw; in the second one, he becomes ambidextrous; in the third, he learns dodging techniques to tire out Mr T. In this instalment, Rocky is told by his new trainer (Tony Burton) to feel no pain. “No pain!” the latter says enthusiastically. “No pain!” answers Rocky. This inspiring dialogue is then echoed every five minutes for the remainder of the film. I’ve got to hand it to Rocky and his trainer. They may have found the ultimate recipe for boxing success. Thorough research has shown that intense pain is often a hindrance to boxers, and I agree that getting rid of it is the smart thing to do.
If it seems like I’m getting hung up on trivial aspects of the Rocky formula, it’s because the movie has little else to offer. It essentially consists of a string of expensive music videos interspersed with short bursts of awkward dialogue: “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” It should be noted that the tunes are rather catchy as far as eighties’ power ballads go, but you know a film is devoid of new ideas when even its soundtrack is redundant, including songs such as “Burning Heart” and then “Hearts on Fire”.
The thing of it, though, is that Rocky IV almost won me over with its slick look and goofy excesses. The training montages are a hoot, contrasting Drago’s high-rent, regimented routine with scenes of Rocky training in inexplicably miserable conditions, and the story zips from beat to beat at breakneck speed, leaving viewers little time to ponder its implausibility. It’s as if the movie were trying to outrun its own stupidity. Unfortunately, the robot has wheels.