Rocky IV

(Sylvester Stallone, USA, 1985)


Let’s consider a popular mid 1980s film that is undoubtedly less funky than Prince’s Purple Rain (1984), but no less important or symptomatic – Rocky IV, starring, written and directed by Sylvester Stallone. This film is fascinating not because it is particularly good (although neither is it particularly bad – certainly a vast improvement on the first two Rambo films of 1982 & 1985), but for the way it contrives to make the most contradictory statements as if nothing strange was going on.


Most commentators have assumed that Rocky IV is rabidly anti-Russian. But it both is and isn’t – and between the poles of that duality hangs an incredibly skilful and complex semantic game.


Rocky IV resounds with a series of key events – a scene, a line of dialogue, an action, a look – that successively, and suddenly, keep redefining the terms of the game. Is the film critical of Russia? Not the Russian people (look at the way they, too, come to love Rocky), only the Russian State Apparatus; and even then, not the Premier (who applauds Rocky’s peacemaking speech), but only his vicious right hand man. Is Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) the evil embodiment of this state apparatus? You’d think so at first, judging by the way he kills Rocky’s best friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, the way he trains, and the unappreciative look he flashes at James Brown singing “Living in America” (!) – but no: he, too, is his own man, an individual like Rocky. (“I win this fight for me!”, he declares – echoing the words of the very person he killed.)


The central moment of Rocky IV is the quick two-step it executes that switches the positions of Rocky and Drago: “Drago is not a machine, he’s a man!”, Rocky is told in his corner of the ring; while in the other corner Drago (in Russian, with subtitles) remarks, “He’s not human, he’s like a piece of steel!” Now, that’s nifty semantic footwork on any film’s part.


In addition, this may be the first boxing movie able to simultaneously assert that this particular bloodsport is both glorious and disgusting in equal measure; it does so by triggering a sacrificial myth of monumental proportions (Rocky: “I guess us two guys killing each other in the ring is better than twenty million people killing each other in a war!” – and the crowd goes wild with applause).


But perhaps the funniest piece of schizo-logic in the film is to be found at the level of its editing. In a strong, ominous, unambiguously anti-Russian moment of the film, Stallone cuts the action of a grim man-of-the-State lifting his spy binoculars to his eyes in exactly the classically Russian fashion – in a caustic, parodic quotation of the way Sergei Eisenstein would have edited it back in the 1920s. But what is the rest of the film – all that freewheeling rock video editing, that free association of shots from four different Rocky films, that fascinated emphasis on texture and surface, that play on the purely formal aspects of image and sound – if not an inadvertent homage to the distant, Soviet originators of this current cinematic style … precisely Eisenstein, Vertov and Co.?

Rocky IV sees no contradiction here, and that is actually the key to its strength, its fascination, its true modernity – for, tinkering blindly with the tools and test tubes of weird science, like so many films today, it can in fact create hitherto unseen connections, new ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking.

© Adrian Martin January 1986

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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