Patriotic Movie Month: "Rocky IV"

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Sylvester Stallone returns in “Rocky IV”, the fourth installment in the Rocky Balboa saga. This time Rocky faces his greatest threat, a chemically enhanced brute from the country of Russia. After his mentor, Apollo, is killed by the Russian, Rocky wants revenge.
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Rating: PG
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: November 27, 1985
Directed by: Sylvester Stallone
Genre: Drama / Sport

The fourth movie in the "Rocky" series, "Rocky IV" tells the story of Rocky Balboa and his fight against the Soviet Union's Ivan Drago. Drago initially wants to fight Rocky but is matched up against Rocky's friend Apollo Creed, who dies at Drago's hands and spurs Rocky into action. Although critically panned and winning no less than five Golden Raspberry Awards, "Rocky IV" has generated a cult following and is the most financially successful entry in the series.

Ivan Drago arrives in America, a testosterone-infused testament to Soviet superiority. Aflame with patriotic pride, Apollo Creed begs Rocky to train him and let him fight Drago. Rocky is hesitant but agrees. The hostility between Apollo and Drago boils over in a match where Drago beats Apollo mercilessly. However, Apollo refuses to back down and begs Rocky to allow him to continue. He then dies in the second round, and the Russian wrestler displays no remorse or compassion for Apollo's death.

Motivated out of both anger and guilt, Rocky agrees to fight Drago on Christmas Day in a 15-round bout in the USSR. Their two training styles contrast heavily, with Drago relying on technology and equipment while Rocky battles the elements of nature.

Their fight begins with the Russian audience firmly on Drago's side, swayed by his displays of Soviet patriotism. In their minds, Rocky is the villain. Drago dominates the first round but is shaken during the second when Rocky lands a blow and cuts open his eye, signaling that Rocky has come to life. Drago is impressed and unsettled by Rocky's sudden change in attitude. Again, he and Rocky contrast. Rocky's friends cheer on his heroism while Drago's manager lashes out at him for being unable to defeat Rocky easily.

Rocky's resilience in the face of Draco's attacks wins the Russian audience over, further discomfiting the Soviet wrestler. Rocky eventually defeats Drago during the final round. He addresses the crowd and points out how he and the crowd shared an initial mutual dislike and suspicion, but it vanished as the fight progressed and they came to respect and like each other instead. He finishes by hoping that Russians and Americans can come to do the same for each other as well and prevent the Cold War from killing millions of people. Moved, the Soviet General applauds his speech as the crowd joins in.

The enduring power of "Rocky IV" can be attributed to the classic formula emphasizing the individual. Drago represents the totalitarian regime, unyielding and powerful yet utterly destroyed in the face of a determined foe. His lack of sympathy for Apollo's gruesome death allows the narrative to shift the blame away from Rocky and onto him. Rocky himself is an American ideal, a hero brought into the conflict only out of a sense of guilt and duty. Even his training montage portrays him as a lone wolf archetype as he pits himself against nature rather than relying on the impersonality of technology and science as Drago does. The man versus nature showdown is a classic way of demonstrating manliness and integrity.

Even Drago comes to appreciate the American perspective by the end of the fight. Irritated by his manager's constant harping, Drago attacks the man and bellows that he wins boxing matches for himself, not on the behalf of his handlers and a faceless regime. It is unclear whether this is a change in attitude or the truth coming to light. Despite this, Drago has gone down in movie history as a villain and a pure representation of Communism when he is clearly meant to symbolize the strength of American individualism and by extension capitalism.

With the benefit of the distance of several years, "Rocky IV" is clearly a propaganda film, the Soviet Union cast as the unfeeling victims in contrast with the emotional, grieving and always heroic Rocky. During the 1980s, Cold War tensions often manifested in sports movies that needed an easy villain, and "Rocky IV" is no different in that respect. Apollo Creed, beloved by Rocky as he was, couldn't withstand Drago and died while dressed in an Uncle Sam costume, leaving Rocky no choice but to march onto Russian soil and defeat their own symbol of masculine strength for the sake of America. The movie's premise hinges on a kind of blind patriotism that has fallen out of fashion these days, but watching "Rocky IV" brings back more than just a tinge of nostalgia and fondness for the vision that director Sylvester Stallone presents: a time when America really was the hero.