Picture Sylvester Stallone in the winter of his life – still handsome, still barrel-shaped, but now with a gray, Hemingway-like beard framing his perfectly square, granite jaws. He watches a video screen while impulsively pressing an exercise grip. But he is not the jovially cold-blooded sly of the cinematic legend. This sly is in a philosophical mood. Where he was once tortured by redneck cops First Blood, he is now concerned with profound existential questions of life.
“It’s like lying on your deathbed, ‘Why did I not just say I love everyone?'” He says. “‘Why did I not just come together? Why did I not change?'”
The punchline of this scenario is that Stallone’s soul searching happens when one looks at one of the most enjoyable stupid blockbusters of the 1980s, Rocky IV. Written and ruled by Sly at the height of his fame in 1985, Rocky IV has $ 300 million and lasts as a Cold War memento and cheesy pop culture quote machine. While hardly a paragon of High Art cinema, High Art Cinema is rarely as fun as to say (extreme Ivan Drago voice) “I need you to sleep.”
The incongruity between Sly’s intense introspection and the film he is thinking about could not be louder. But for Stallone, Rocky IV apparently means some unfinished business. Prevented from working on his next film by the pandemic, the troubled 75-year-old 2020 made his fifth directing effort with the Transform intention the Rocky Franchise’s smoothest and most excessive installation as the work of an older, smarter and more patient filmmaker. He started modifying the movie again, subbing 38 minutes of previously unreleased movies. Released on streaming platforms last week as well Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago, Stallone’s professional goal was to inject his comic book box office film with a bit more real-life, flesh-and-blood humanity.
Fortunately for us, this re-editing process was captured with an iPhone camera by Stallone’s friend and collaborator John Herzfeld, which turned the footage into a comically thrilling “Making of” documentary currently available on YouTube. I’m dubious about that Rocky vs Drago actually improved on the original Rocky IV. (More on that later.) But the documentary “Making of,” which I watched several times this week, definitely changed my perception of the film as well as of Stallone. It is ultimately more compelling than either version of Rocky IV.
Starting with the Original Rocky I 1976, Stallone wrote and / or many of his highest grossing films himself. And those who did not lead him were undoubtedly guided by him to a significant degree. But he is rarely mentioned as an author or even as a genre specialist whose colleagues in his prime in the 70s and 80s would have been far more acclaimed filmmakers than John Carpenter, James Cameron, and John McTiernan. In its own sense, however, Rocky IV is the product of a highly personal standpoint, as evidenced by Stallone’s obsession with it decades after the fact. In the documentary we see him seemingly break down small aspects of the film like Orson Welles every frame of the film. Citizen Kane.
And yet Stallone somehow never comes out pretentious, even if he happens to drop a reference to 20th-century Romanian-French absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco. (Sure, some business critics will now call the iconoclastic one-man Army Rambo with the lone protagonist of Rhinoceros.) Instead, Sly is clearly working out something in his own life – specifically his feelings about aging and mortality – by reviewing Rocky IV.
“Imagine getting a shot at changing your life,” he says. “That’s the beauty of the film.”
Back when Rocky IV was the third highest-grossing film of 1985 – it just went through Back to the future and Stallone’s own Rambo: First Blood Part II – it was savaged by critics as jingoistic hogwash, the very worst of Reagan era, anti-Russian propaganda. In the movie, Stallone once again plays Rocky Balboa, the lovely underdog from the streets of Philadelphia, who becomes the world heavyweight champion. Reconciled with one-time competitor and now BFF Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky tries to talk his friend out of a showdown against a fearsome enemy from the USSR, a walk of steroid butter named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).
Is there a spoiler at this point for revealing that Drago Creed was killed in the ring? (If it is, sorry, but you have literally decades to see it Rocky IV until now.) In any case, Rocky IV from there is a revenge image. The rest of the film is a collection of training montages on C-list arena rock songs and flashbacks on others Rocky Movies that culminate in a long, epic finale between Rocky and Drago, which takes up almost a third of the film’s nearly 91-minute run. If you can not guess who will win that fight, then you must be a Commie Bastard.
That was the logic of 1985, anyway. While Stallone proved with both Rocky IV in the First Blood Part II that the audience demanded action movies with heavy patriotic overtones completely without nuances, retreating the era of professional cinephile class. “The Rocky Series finally loses its legs, written Roger Ebert. “Rocky IV is a final gasp, a movie so predictable that it’s like watching one of those old sitcoms where the characters never change and the same situations happen over and over again.
Ebert was wrong about the “last gasp” part – Stallone won a Golden Globe for playing Rocky Creed written almost 30 years after this review – but you make sense watching the “making of” documentary that Stallone agrees with Ebert in some way. As he re-creates the film, he continually expresses frustration over his brasher, younger self about not respecting the audience enough to let simple moments land without constantly bulldozing them with flashy editing and exaggerated melodrama. Stallone is surprisingly open throughout the film about his own aggressiveness not forgiven in the mid-80s, when he was almost half as old as he is now.
“Why does wisdom come late?” he asks the camera rhetorically. This time, he lets the moment land.
Here’s the weird thing if you decide (as I did) to watch the “Making of” documentary before Rocky vs Drago: I assumed the 38 extra minutes were added to spin Rocky IV to a much longer and more reflective film, a sort of transformation from a B-movie to a raw, cathartic, muted version of John Cassavetes. But the new edition is only two minutes longer than the original! Sly basically took out half of the old movie and replaced it with a new half. The result is a movie that is still stupid, just another kind of stupid.
The most significant changes concern the US vs. For example, the scene-setting boxing gloves smeared by American and Soviet flags that open up Rocky IV with a literal bang are gone Rocky vs Drago. What we get instead are more scenes that are meant to deepen the relationship between Rocky and Apollo, and (more strikingly) humanize Drago. In the Rocky vs Drago, he is not the blue grumbling Amazon of Rocky IV, but rather a muscle-bound innocent who rebels in small ways against his exploitative, politically-minded handlers.
Honestly, I’m not sure any of this will “improve” the movie. Rocky IV is high-calorie comfort food that is not necessarily helped by replacing sugar with Sweet & Low. Stallone’s lamentable decision is to cut out every scene with Paulie’s robot, which inexplicably justifies the film’s time in a way that the author must have found embarrassing, but many fans will no doubt find charming. (Who’s holding Paulie’s beer now ?!)
Which changed as I watched Rocky IV was not Rocky vs Drago but watch Sly Stallone change Rocky vs Drago in the “Making of” doc. After hearing him talk about the movie, I tend to watch it Rocky IV not as an allegory about the rivalry between Americans and Russians, but rather a meditation on Stallone’s own celebrity. As Rocky, he plays a spoiled superstar who is in constant danger of losing what he once made vital. All of the Rocky Movies are about to recover the lost version of himself, the guy with “Tiger’s Eye”, Sly Stallone who dug deep and wrote the first (and best). Rocky film.
In the Rocky IV, he fights with a tyrannical behemoth with a witty accent that I now see as a stand-in for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian startup who just started challenging Sly as the top action star in the world in 1985. Rocky vs Drago, Stallone’s enemy now seems to be his younger self. If the subtitle of this Rocky Film is different, it is that Stallone is now trying to draw his younger self not back to his primary youth, but forward to a more enlightened gift. As he says in the documentary, “I have evolved, but the film has not evolved.”
How Rocky IV, Sly keeps a job going.