Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Rocky IV
It’s time to talk about the moment Rocky Balboa ended the Cold War.
As a film series, Rocky is an interesting progression from realism to fantasy and back to realism which sort of charts the course of its star and chief creative force: Sylvester Stallone. The first film is a bona fide great movie which is as much about two people finding each other as it is about going the distance against the heavyweight champion. The second is a continuation of those themes; with the title character finding the strength to actually win the championship belt. The third sees writer/director Stallone comes face-to-face with his own stardom and swelling ego. And then, with the fourth entry, Rocky emulates Rambo by bringing American values to the U.S.S.R.
Which, when put in those terms, underscores the ridiculous place from which Rocky IV begins. Stallone, in many ways, is a poster boy for American exceptionalism. Born in a lower class family, his speech impediment limited his opportunities and he scraped his way to becoming one of the 1980s most important film stars. He dined with President Reagan and, like Rocky, proved there is opportunity out there if you just go for it. Well, at least that’s the myth of Stallone built as fastidiously as he built the myth of Rocky. And as the self-anointed saint of America he took up the mission to defeat Russia forever.
The real plot of Rocky IV concerns the last days of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Still smarting from his defeat in Rocky II and amped from his private rematch with Rocky at the end of the previous film, Apollo is itching for a fight. And because the Rocky films operate with help from cartoon logic, one appears in the form of Captain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a Soviet trained super-boxer who can generate the force of over 1000 pounds per square inch in every one of this punches. With the aid of his wife and trainer, Drago comes to the US with hopes of fighting the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world — even if he has to take the long way to get that fight. Apollo takes Drago’s initiative as his own chance to get back in the ring by offering him an exhibition match in Las Vegas.
Apollo, ever the showman, delivers one hell of a pre-fight show. It has showgirls, Rockette-style dancers, a live band and the godfather of soul James Brown performing the apt “Living in America” as Apollo rides into the arena on the head of a golden calf. The symbolism is thick enough to puncture armor and suggests Stallone is somewhat aware of just how silly the “USA! USA!” bombast can be. Drago even seems to be the sympathetic star of the sequence as it begins. But just as Stallone’s understanding of his own vanity and the flimsiness of stardom in Rocky III abandons him for Staying Alive — a film I promise I will talk about soon — so does this awareness of the jingoism on display in Rocky IV once Drago kills Apollo.
Before we talk about Stallone’s sincere jingoism, I want to mention an interesting aspect of Apollo as a character: he’s afraid of aging. It is a theme in Rocky III, but as the characters smooth out to simple ideas in the fourth film, it becomes the defining aspect of the character and part of the reason he ends up on a slab. Because Stallone is an imprecise storyteller even when the message is clear, it is difficult to parse Apollo’s obsession with competing in light of Rocky’s choice to subsequently fight Drago: a decision taken with the seemingly simple desire to beat Mr. Russia at his own game while defending the honor of the US. And considering how much Apollo’s choices informed Creed many years later, it is interesting to see how easily Stallone tossed the motivation aside so Apollo’s death could simply inspire Rocky to accept a fight against Drago in Mother Russia.
But like so many of the films Stallone directed, that attempt to find a find a deeper meaning in the simple premise only to discard it when it’s time to fight is part of the charm. The second half of Rocky IV is a comparatively simple narrative: Rocky trains in Soviet Russia, wins the people’s acclaim by beating Drago, and gives an impassioned speech about the ability of both countries to change. There’s also some business about Adrian (Talia Shire) losing faith in Rocky, but it’s quickly tossed aside in the middle of Rocky’s training montages.
Oh, the montages!
If it isn’t clear yet, I am a genuine student of Stallone as a filmmaker. His choices are a source of endless fascination and none moreso than his love of the montage. In Rocky IV, there are four montages — counting a quick one revealing that the Boxing Commission striped Rocky of his title for agreeing to fight Drago — one of which sits at the very middle of the entire Rocky series runtime. And though Stallone did not know he would make two additional films (or play Rocky as a supporting character in a spin-off series), the “story-thus-far” nature of the montage is surprisingly prescient. While driving in his Ferrari and listening to Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out,” Rocky relives the most important moments of the previous films (and the previous 35 minutes of Rocky IV) to reaffirm his choice to go to the Soviet Union. It’s kind of breathtaking in its sort-of-accurate depiction of the thought process even as it approaches peak cheese for the Rocky saga. The rest of the film is very much a slalom down that peak as Rocky and Apollo’s trainer Duke (Tony Burton) train with lumber, sleds, and the Siberian cold in the subsequent training montages. Yes, plural.
Those montages act as the active enzyme in a wonderfully cheesy second act. Both Rocky and Drago train as Survivor’s “Burning Hearts” and John Cafferty’s “Hearts on Fire” play on the soundtrack. And as shots of each man working out counterpoints the other, we see Rocky’s more rugged training methods appear as “truer” than the cold scientific efficiency of the Soviet methods. Y’know, nevermind that stuff about Drago punching with 1000 psi-worth of force.
Then there’s the big fight, which features yet another montage and the typical flow of a Rocky fight scene. Rocky goes into the first round losing handily, but overtakes his opponent and/or wins the crowd over during the fight montage and winning the bout in the closing moments. Is a whole stadium follow of Soviet soldiers and peasants shouting “Rocky!” cheesy? You bet!
To our modern ears, Rocky’s speech at the end suggesting he can change (which he really doesn’t) and that because he can, the Soviets can as well, has to be the single most laughable thing ever in a Rocky film — and that’s considering this is the same film in which Rocky buys Paulie (Burt Young) a robot wife!
Yet that strangely cheesy and jingoistic moment occurred at the single best time and place in world history. Just as the film was about to open in November of 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the Soviet leader and would soon begin amiable relations with the United States and sweeping changes to the Soviet system. Behind the scenes, it was because the long stagnant Soviet economy, but it isn’t hard to think that Stallone might see the timing there and believe he played some role in global politics. Of course, I could be mythologizing him as much as he does himself. Nonetheless, the naivete that would allow such thinking to occur is part of the magic of Rocky IV. It’s oddly innocent for a film in which a Soviet agent kills a beloved American sports celebrity on live pay-per-view television. And that innocence continues to make the film endearing even as world politics shifts once more and makes Rocky’s belief that people can change all the more naive. Which gives Rocky IV a surprising complexity as its cheese continues to mature.
Rocky IV is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms and on Blu-Ray. It’s also on Hulu with a Showtime add-on subscription.