For those of you who haven’t yet seen Rocky IV The Director’s Cut: Rocky vs. Drago - and I’m guessing that’s a smaller number those of you who actually clicked into this article, here’s the trailer which actually does a pretty great job of teasing the much darker and deeper mood of the re-cut.
With Rocky Balboa’s character, if not spirit, bowing out of the franchise for good at the end of Creed 2, I was certain my days of seeing Rock go to the body in surround sound were in the rearview.
So imagine my surprise when I stumbled on to the news that not only was Stallone recutting Rocky IV with an additional 30-40 minutes of unused footage interchanged, but it would be on the big screen nationally for one night and performance only.
Hell yes! Who’s coming with me??
So, anyway, I bought my solo ticket and sped to Majestic Cinema in NW Omaha and settled into my recliner with a surprisingly full theater. Was I thrilled? More like sorta terrified but telling myself, hey, at worst it’s a chance to see Rocky throwing hands on the big screen again. And it happened to be the Rocky which runs just under 90 minutes as basically a combination music video and montage, so if it was terrible, at least it would be over quickly.
Huh, feels like a football Saturday, eh?
However, this time I’m happy to report Stallone came away with a big W in my eyes. It’s not perfect by any means and how could it be when there’s no way to add new scenes (except with CGI and thanks for resisting that urge), but there was enough unused old footage to create an entirely different atmosphere and the result is a much more emotional, powerful and gripping drama.
And - dare I say it - a damn good movie. The original, while goofy, rewatchable and enjoyable and adrenalin-inducing at times, was in the end a 90 minute trailer savaged by critics. Yet it ended up as the most financially successful entry in the Rocky franchise and one of the top grossing films of 1985. It was probably rewatchable for the exact reason critics hated it.
Anyway, onto the review. Apologies right out of the gate - since there was so much more than usual to chew on here, it will be a little longer. As always, I will try to edit to make your toilet-reading experience as entertaining as possible.
The evening began with a nationally livestreamed Q&A with Stallone at the screening in Philly at which he talked not just about Rocky IV but the filming of the original at length and unleashed quite a few tidbits about all the films, many which I’d heard already, many more new to me. A quickish list of the highlights:
- He was auditioning for another role for producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (which he didn’t get) but told them afterward about his script idea for Rocky. They were interested and told him to write it and send it to them.
- He was offered $360,000 for the script (circa 1974 - value today per Google: appr $1,650,000) but a big-name male star would be hired to play Rocky. He refused even though he was broke.
- Stallone turned the offer down and ended up taking much less for the script so he could star. Be glad he did - the movie does not become a 45+ year franchise with James Caan, Burt Reynolds or Ryan O’Neal.
- Talia Shire was a last-minute hire for Adrian - the 1st four? Bette Midler, Cher, Susan Sarandon (too attractive) and eventual initial hire, Carrie Snodgrass who later backed out. For those who never liked Talia Shire, do your own shuddering at the thought of Cher or Midler over-hamming it up in that role.
- Harvey Keitel was originally wanted for Paulie. Burt Young deserved this role over Harvey and no one ever said this about any other role ever.
- Stallone saw a fake talking robot in a fast food restaurant and decided he wanted to have one in Rocky 4. He later wondered what the hell he had been thinking. (Paul Rudd: “Is the answer cocaine?”)
- Butkus, the doggo in Rocky, was his actual dog. While broke and occasionally homeless, he ended up giving Butkus to a better family because he couldn’t afford to feed him anymore or as he put it - one of them was gonna end up as the other’s meal and the dog would probably win.
- Happy ending, he ended up getting Butkus back when things turned around and and he put him in the movies. (“What does he eat???” - “Small turtles.” - “YEAHHH BUTKUS!!!”) And now that I watch the clip below? Of course that’s his doggo. Butkus was the goodest boi.
- Burt Young and Carl Weathers were also late hires with Weathers hesitant to take the Creed role because he liked the role but had no idea who Stallone was.
- Stallone greatly regrets killing off Apollo because as everyone else dies off in the franchise, it left Rocky without friends or a mentor.
- Stallone said his favorite movie in the franchise is “Rocky Balboa”. He had to fight for 6 years to get it made and loved getting back to the roots of the original Rocky after the flaws of Rocky IV and the horrible Rocky V which he has regretted making for years. (Rocky Balboa was very, very good by the way)
So without taking everyone through a blow-by-blow or scene-by-scene, I’ll drop a review in two parts - 1) SPOILER ALERT - a breakdown of how the movie changed for each of the major characters and 2) Another SPOILER ALERT - an overview of some of the major changes from Rocky IV-A to ROCKY IV-B and then 3) our categories.
OUR ROCKYVERSE CHARACTERS - ARE THEY BETTER OR WORSE?
One of the major differences in the new cut is this crazy thing called character development. As Stallone put it in the interview, the original movie “was a drag race to the final fight”. Which of the characters were winners and losers in the new cut? (Yes, this is the Rocky article I’ve never done. There’s gonna be lists):
Rocky Balboa - WINNER - Obviously, the title character is getting a deeper dive. We get more lines/scenes which better explain why he didn’t “THROW IN THE DAMN TOWEL!!” His decision and struggle to fight Drago is more than 45 seconds of magazine and newspaper headlines. And his part in Apollo’s funeral scene goes from incredible unintentional comedy to heartbreaking and much more believable following up Duke’s grand slam added speech.
Adrian Balboa - HUGE HUGE WINNER - Additional scenes have turned her from the world’s worst sports movie wife to a woman who didn’t want Apollo to fight and is quite simply just terrified as hell her husband might be murdered. The “I turn my back on you & then inexplicably show up in Russia before the fight” storyline is flipped 180. Her pic is now on the mirror. Adrian in Moscow isn’t constantly weeping and hanging her head - she wants some ass kicked. (Sadly, “YOU’RE GONNA WIN!!” made the new cut. Can’t have it all.)
Ivan Drago - WINNER - Instead of a slab of meat who comes off as as lumbering, pretty close to mentally challenged or maybe deaf, there’s just enough added lines (still very few) and expressions to show this guy absolutely understands everything being said about him and is doing his best to comply with his orders to stay silent. Also, the slow, musclebound Russkie only throwing haymakers shows some footwork, speed and taunting in this version which is WAY scarier.
Paulie - LOSER - We’re going to spend a little time on Paulie. Originally Rocky 4 was this weird mix of the grief of Apollo’s death and Rocky’s thirst for revenge with scenes of giggles and inexplicable comic relief provided mostly by Paulie. Most of that is gone from this version which means Paulie takes the hit. Many of his jokes and whatever the hell he was doing with the Lost in Space robot got the axe.
(This in no way takes away from Paulie as a serious candidate for franchise MVP. Just a bad beat on the recut.)
But has there ever been a more weirdly lovable character who’s just an awful human being? Whether it’s:
- sibling domestic abuse in #1,
- enthusiastically taking Rocky’s job as a mob debt collector in #2,
- attacking Rocky at the beginning of #3 (after being bailed out of jail by him for destruction of property) and later choosing a predominately black LA gym to express his thoughts on minorities. Kudos to Apollo when he’s finally had enough and tosses his bag saying, “Is he always this cheerful?” and then fixing him with a death stare. Paulie of course doesn’t sweat him. Turns out he was about 30 years ahead of his time when he embodied a certain current demographic in this exchange with Rocky: “I don’t like these people.” “You don’t like ‘em? Well, maybe they don’t like you either.” “What’d I ever do to them?”
Paulie did everything but demand the manager of the gym.
- in his least offensive appearance, voluntarily accompanying Rock to Russia then just complaining non-stop,
- drunkenly ranting non-stop at Rocky’s neighborhood upscale Italian restaurant in Rocky Balboa
- thrilling Adonis Creed post-mortem with his hidden porn stash after Adonis moves in with Rocky in Creed One (“Yo, Pau-lie!”),
(Fear not - he is still invited to the press conferences to repeatedly hurl insults at credentialed foreign diplomats and then fall in the snow in Russia.)
Duke - BIG WINNER - Tony Burton had already been stealing scenes as Duke since the original Rocky when he first saw the Rock breaking the ribs of dead cattle on the evening news and suggested to Apollo, “Hey, you better take a look at this guy you’re fighting. Looks like he means business.” In #2, he begged of him, “The man kept comin’ at you. We don’t need a man like that in our lives. LET IT GO!”
Then came the moment of true greatness, no music needed. So good that Stallone said “Thanks, Tony” in the original. Yep, Stallone was so blown away, he called actor Tony Burton by his real name and they left it in:
“Do it. DO IT.”
Duke’s speech is re-shot a little but it’s still there in full as is his chess thrashing of one of the Russian guards. He gets a few new lines as well as his warrior speech in the much-improved funeral scene which makes you cry while pumping you up. Duke can train me anytime, anywhere.
Yeah! Let’s start building some HURTIN’ bombs! (He still had it in Rocky Balboa)
Nicoli Koloff - WINNER - The character possibly named after two “Russian” pro wrasslers (Nicoli Volkov and Ivan Koloff) was still fantastic as the mouthy asshole commie handler. In the new version, he seems a little meaner, a little more sinister and a little more aware the Russian Drago monster might not be 100% bought into the joys of promoting communist oppression. Thankfully, he still doesn’t become aware of that quickly enough to prevent being choke-dangled by a boxing glove and tossed into the Russian crowd.
Ludmilla Drago - LOSER - Bridgitte Nielsen is still unnecessary as hell and nothing short of deletion was going to save that accent for which we still owe even communist Russia an apology. However, her shitheadedness is re-affirmed and left in the cut is the shared cigarette shot in Vegas with Koloff which still suggests she was probably screwing him behind Drago’s back. That played in nicely to her cameo in Creed 2 where she had ditched him after the loss but was trying to jump back in because Drago Jr was a thing.
Both of which would have been so much better with an actual actress.
The Godfather of Soul - BIG DAMN WINNER - James Brown and Living in America get the scene extended and it was wonderfully ear-splitting in surround sound. I wanted to dance, so will you. I FEEL GOOD!
The Moscow Fight Ref - WINNER - Gone are multiple knockdowns of the Rock in which this knucklehead showed zero interest in a count as Rocky would pop right back to his feet only to be decked again.
Gorbachev and The Politburo - WINNER (in my book) - Their reaction to the Balboa upset was much more realistic here even if the Russian fight crowd still thought we could all change.
- Side Note: As awful as the Russian referee was in the original, was there really ever a worse movie fight ref than the one in Vegas? The 2nd round never should have started. There were easily three times he could’ve stopped that fight:
1) The first knockdown. Creed obviously can’t focus or stand without wobbling, but the ref just gives his gloves a tug without even glancing at his face. Ridiculous even for 1985.
2) The fight resumes. And Drago immediately has him out on his feet with a brutal combo before the bell. Mills Lane or Richard Steele would have been leaping between the two before the combo was done.
3) Drago’s shots after the bell. Ref could’ve even saved face (not to mention Apollo’s life) by DQ’ing the Russian. He gives the home crowd a W, ends the slaughter and the commies can’t cry too hard because Drago’s pro record is still untarnished - this fight’s an exo.
I’m officially rambling now - let’s move onto the changes which will be spoiler-heavy obviously. Once again, this can be rented (or purchased in my case) on Amazon if you want to be surprised.
SPOILER ALERT - BIG CHANGES - THE SCENES
I tried make these as short as I could so we can get to the rankings. I feel like you’ll be ok with this. By the way, I will fail.
New Scene 1 - Holy crap - we’re off and starting way earlier in the flashbacks with Rocky taking the Rocky III vs. Clubber Lang ass-whipping and jumping ahead to the motorcycle helmet toss off the Rocky statue and then to Creed in Mickey’s gym doing the “We can win it back together,” speech. We are also reminded Apollo was the father of “Eye of the Tiger”, so a great call out to using it as an homage in this one. (Sniff) Then on to the highlights of Balboa-Lang 2 followed by rolling out to the opening titles of the new cut while some horrifying 80’s-sounding song called “Sweetest Victory” plays. Not sung by Frank Stallone but it could’ve been.
- New or Old?: New. Adrenalin was pumping until the weird song but still a solid kickoff.
New Scene 2 - Starts still with Creed chucking tennis balls in the pool with his doggos as the Drago Monosyllabic USA Tour is announced on TV but then multiple new scenes with Adrian leading the “DONT DO THIS” charge along the with the old scenes with Apollo obviously pining for the glory days. Flash forward to the presser mostly the same with Paulie and Koloff going at it - but subtle changes.
- New or Old?: New - much deeper dive. Adrian obviously had problems with all of it from the outset long before Rocky’s fight; Drago is definitely not ok with being mocked or being a puppet.
New Scene 3 - Vegas fight. The best way to say this quickly is (deep breath) more JB Living in America, the silly Apollo hitting Drago’s gloves and they don’t move is out, Drago looks more dangerous doing Ali-type taunting at 6’5” 260, more Apollo begging Rock not to stop the fight (Rock’s in charge of that? Not Duke?? In what universe?) and Drago expanding off “if he dies, he dies” to something like “THEY WILL REMEMBER MY NAME - DRAGAH! DRAGAH!!!” - a red flag for his handlers who should a little unsure this dude is 100% committed to the cause.
- New or Old?: New. More Godfather of Soul with 2021 surround sound is an upgrade. We’re way more horrified with Apollo’s death in this version. Also, when Koloff gives Drago what he thinks is an inspiring Herb Brooks pre-game speech with a lame self fist bump, the fuck-right-off look Drago gives him is perfect.
New Scene 4 - Duke flips the funeral scene 180 degrees with the warrior eulogy and the Rocky comes in perfectly about how Apollo gave him the shot which changed his life for the better then later saved him…and then we finally get the US boxing commission scene! Yes, they do have a problem with the aging world champ having a fight in Moscow against a dude who’s literally 0-0 and might might murder the Rock -Let’s go!
- New or old?: New, hands down. The funeral scene now makes the room dusty as opposed to Rock’s original cringe and giggle inducing speech - and the boxing commission scene teased in the original trailer is finally here.
New Scene 5 - MONTAGE TIME: Rocky heads home after somehow still setting up a non-title fight in Russia on Christmas without consulting his wife. Oh-kaaay. Balcony - staircase argument still results in “YOU CAN’T WIN!”, Rocky heads out for his 68-downshift Lambo anger-drive but? Fewer downshifts and a better montage. And then two new scenes - 1) a better father-son talk and 2) this time, instead of leaving only to looking up at pissed-off Adrian in the window, there’s a goodbye scene which choked me up because Adrian is just terrified of losing him. Biiig difference. They still land in a Russian blizzard to Burning Heart and Paulie does get a couple of new, funny lines. And the no sparring partners thing? Turned out the Russians screwed us on that one. Assholes. Off to the cabin.
- New or Old?: New. Getting the point? Adrian’s redemption is complete. Rocky doesn’t blow the Lambo transmission downshifting into 2nd at 77mph over and over.
New Scene 6: The training scenes deserve their own thing. A few differences added/removed and when Adrian shows up between the Vince DiCola montage scene and Hearts on Fire, your thought now is that it’s sweet, not “WTF is she doing here?” Which was thought #1 in 1985. Still find it a little rough leaving the kid with a nanny or something, but that’s a tough call no matter what.
- New or Old?: New. Hearts on Fire with 2021 surround sound? I woulda paid a $30 ticket just for that; $60 for IMax. I am not kidding.
New Scene 7 - FIGHT NIGHT: So - (deep breath) - Paulie speech still there - Russian crowd is PISSED and 5x hostile compared to the original because of course they are (#coldwar) - Drago comes off more as a guy who wants the challenge (“He fights like a beast - how’s my eye?” after the cut) - Rocky still ends the Cold War - he walks out by Drago’s corner and gives him a solid low 5!! - the “we can change” speech gets a new wrinkle when he adds that his friend Apollo couldn’t change and is dead because of that - Gorby & the Politburo flip 180 degrees this time by storming out (sets up beautifully the Russian shunning of Drago in Creed 2) - Rocky is played out of the ring to Eye of the Tiger which is absolutely a shout-out to Apollo.
- Note: Surfing a few years ago brought me across an article in which Carl Weathers was allegedly furious Apollo got killed off. Watching this and the pre-movie interview makes it very easy to believe this is 100% true and an aging Stallone felt guilty about it. The re-cut really is the best of Carl Weathers ever in the series.
New or old?: New. And I so thought that bloated paragraph would be longer.
CREDITS - Still awesome. Eye of the Tiger ends the movie and takes you into the credits followed up by Hearts on Fire. And just like 1985, I would still kill for a photo album with the 8x10 black & whites of all of those stills flashed up as credits roll. By the way, no one left the theater, and yes, we knew there was not a Marvel credits scene coming. That is all.
(Recap - ***** stars - Osborne, **** - Devaney, *** - Pelini, ** - Solich, * - Callahan, 0 - Riley)
QUALITY OF SPORTS SCENES: Are you f*cking kidding me? Rocky movies are the gold standard in this category. Much like Tom Cruise will hang unharnessed 2000 feet off the ground, Sylvester Stallone doesn’t mind the occasional hospital stay after taking a beating from his co-stars. With some of the silliness gone, the fights are even better. Osborne - *****
MUSIC: The Vince Dicola score, John Cafferty with Hearts on Fire and the Godfather of Soul himself Living in America. That’s really all that needs be said. Ozzy again - *****
THE BAD GUY: Rocky IV introduced the world to Dolph Lundgren, a movie fan’s absolute Renaissance Man - MIT engineering scholarship winner, heavyweight kickboxing champion, B-movie action hero for years (the first Punisher!), speaker of multiple languages, host of Discovery Channel science show and, of course, Drago - the murderous face of communism and the tortured loser of this fight who later tries to find redemption through his son in Creed 2. 3-for-3 - *****-Dr Tom
LOVE INTEREST: As always, Adrian Balboa but instead of the original 0-star annoyance, she is redeemed in this cut. I mean, you’re not crossing a desert for her, but the rating bumps up - Pelini - ***
ADRENALIN/GOOSEBUMP SCENES: If you guessed we’d be going right back to the 5’s, you’d be correct. Apollo’s death in Vegas, No Easy Way Out, the first training scene, climbing a mountain to Hearts on Fire and “DRA-GOOOOOOH!!, and finally the Battle of Moscow with Rocky ending the Cold War. And credits keeps you pumped with encores of Eye of the Tiger and the Hearts On Fire. Who says we can’t play them twice?? LET’S F*CKIN’ GO!!! TO - *****
COMEDY: Definitely scaled back. Paulie still gets in a few zingers though, so…Solich - **
UNINTENTIONAL COMEDY: Much of the super-silliness is gone, but even with the more serious tone, there’s always some giggles in any Rocky besides the original. Rocky scheduling a title fight on foreign soil without Adrian knowing - the grunting monosyllabic Drago speech - gonna bring along annoying as hell Paulie to be holed up in the wilderness with? Ooooh-kay - those high-thigh shorts - both fighters eating enough haymakers for 3 lifetimes of concussions - the Russian crowd’s flip-flop. It still scores - Devaney - ****
THE TRAINING MONTAGE: Haha, any doubts? Really? Osborne - *****
REWATCHABILITY: Making it a better movie shaves a little off in this category, but I’ve still already watched it about five times - Devaney - ****1/2
OVERALL: It’s actually kind of amazing this version of the movie was tucked in among the leftover cans of film from the original. I literally wonder if they’d left a reel out by mistake the first time I saw it because it blew through everything so fast. The running time is about the same since they traded out clips and scenes for almost everything they added, but it’s just a better, richer story and gives away absolutely nothing in adrenaline. I give this one The Bobfather - ****1/2
To anyone who actually made to this point, many thanks for making it through and being as disturbed as I am. Rocky forever, my friends.