The Pitch: In 1985, Rocky IV was released to box office success (netting $300 million, the most the series has ever earned), but critical derision. It’s no surprise, either; the film, which tracks Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as he seeks revenge against Russian superman Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) for the death of his friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), was the ultimate jump-the-shark moment for a series that had heretofore mixed taut boxing action with comparatively tamped-down character drama.
It’s a thorn that’s clearly been stuck in Stallone’s paw for 35 years, and with the creative idleness that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 seemed as good a time as any to pick it back up and revisit it. And so, we have Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago – The Director’s Cut, a drastically revamped and polished take that seeks to bring the over-the-top Cold War cartoon down to the leaner levels of the first three pictures.
In doing so, Stallone certainly crafts a slightly more cohesive motion picture than its original cut, one that takes its characters (even Lundgren’s nearly-wordless villain) more seriously. But at the same time, he smooths out all of the film’s jagged edges, leaving something that feels both out of time and insufficient to cover up its structural deficiencies.
Directorial Eye of the Tiger: Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago amounts to a substantial re-edit of the nuts and bolts of the picture; it’s not an extended cut, considering it’s only two minutes longer than the film’s original runtime. But within those confines, a lot’s changed — some 40 minutes of footage from the 1985 cut are removed, with 42 minutes of material distributed throughout the movie.
The sound mix is given a robust Dolby ATMOS remaster, and the restored footage looks as crisp and sharp as ever. Even the score has undergone some radical changes, Stallone inserting various cues from the other Rocky films as replacement for the original score. (Don’t worry, John Cafferty & The Beaver Brown Band’s “Heart’s on Fire” is still here to get your blood pumping during the iconic joint training montage in the Russian tundra).
But more than that, Rocky vs. Drago feels slightly more grounded than its corny 1985 equivalent, more directly tied to the masculine melodrama of the first three Rockys. Sly places greater emphasis in the first half on Rocky and Apollo’s close friendship, seeming less like a blustering superman than a vulnerable man who’s concerned about his friend and mentor’s hubris. Even Drago, for his part, gets little glimmers of character in the new edit that he didn’t otherwise; there are a host of little glances and gestures that cement him as an unknowing tool for the Soviet propaganda machine.
Stallone even recuts the entrance to the Apollo fight to view it from his perspective, placing the garish James Brown “Living in America” number (and Apollo’s star-spangled getup) in its proper, alienating context. With every choice, great or small, Stallone seems determined to look back on this moment as an older, more trusting filmmaker and cut the movie he would cut now — without all the youthful impatience and brick-thick ’80s cheese.
Is It Worth It? That said, all of these changes amount to little more than a slight reorganizing and polishing of the same old story. Granted, the fights are more elegantly constructed (the original cut suffered from cluttered geography and random ADR moments that felt hammered in by studio execs after its initial edit), and dialogue scenes are given a bit more room to breathe.
At the end of the day, it’s still a movie where Rocky Balboa punches a 6’5″ Russian robot in the face, with little of the underlying interpersonal drama that a film like that needs. The original film gave Paulie a robot, for God’s sakes, a baffling move that nonetheless feels conspicuously absent in this version.
By recutting it to be less Cannon Films and more Merchant-Ivory, Rocky vs. Drago comes across like it’s trying to be something it’s not: A Serious Film. Points for effort, but there’s only so much you can do with this particular block of marble.
Watch This Instead: While the final film is more than a bit disposable, it did lead to a side product that’s infinitely more interesting than the movie that surrounds it: A couple of weeks leading up to the film’s release, Sly’s Youtube channel dropped the feature-length documentary “The Making of ROCKY VS. DRAGO,” in which filmmaker and longtime friend John Herzfeld filmed Stallone with an iPhone at his Sunset Boulevard editing studio while he pored over footage and re-edited the film.
It’s absolutely terrific, a fly-on-the-wall conversation with the man about the ways he’s reflected on his life as an actor, the creative pressures that came with being a young director around the time of filming Rocky IV, and so much more. It’s practically a masterclass in the editing process, and the ways age and years can refine your artistic sensibilities. You get to know so much more about Sly as a person and a filmmaker, and it should be required viewing for anyone who has any interest in Stallone as a person, or in the art of filmmaking altogether.
The Verdict: Rocky vs. Drago is a valiant effort at rescuing a notoriously bad picture, but the mere fact of its existence is more a testament to Stallone’s desire to revisit the past and try to repair it. To be fair, on a structural and editorial level, this director’s cut is certainly the wiser, more assured version of the material. But then you lose the animated gloves striking and exploding in the opening credits, or Paulie’s stupid robot, or Stallone’s grunted shout of “EVERYONE CAN CHANGE!” during his end speech (here, it’s a muted whimper).
It’s certainly the most committed case study of cinematic turd-polishing I’ve ever seen, and I’m genuinely thrilled that Stallone got this chance to ruminate on the ways time and age have refined his artistic sensibilities. But a polished turd is still a turd, which makes Rocky vs. Drago little more than an exercise in novelty, and a cinematic exorcism for its writer/director/star.
Where’s It Playing? Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago – The Director’s Cut will break you on VOD November 12th, after a one-night theatrical engagement on November 11th.