Rocky IV would be a first-ballot inductee into the cheesy Cold War action movie hall of fame, if not the ultimate example of the entire phenomenon. Released in 1985, the year after the red-baiting Ronald Reagan was reelected in a historic landslide, Rocky IV introduced us to Ivan Drago, a massive, cold-eyed Soviet (played by a Swede) who uttered the immortal words “I must break you.”
“Must” was an important word. It wasn’t I “will” break you, or “I can’t wait to break you,” Drago’s personal desire in this matter was irrelevant. He was the product, we were told, of a totalitarian system, virtually grown in a lab for the sole purpose of breaking people. He must break or be replaced, by a different cog in the Soviet machine. After Drago killed Apollo Creed in the ring, Rocky trained to avenge his friend, but he did it old school. While Drago was being injected and prodded, monitored round the clock by the USSR’s best scientists like a smooth, blond lab rat, Rocky was out in the woods, shadow boxing tree stumps and slugging out deer. Rocky trained with friends and family, out of a desire to avenge a friend. When Rocky ultimately won, it represented the triumph of the individual over the system. Rocky IV told us heart and people who cared about you counted more than cold, centralized planning. It lionized the unconquerable human spirit and all of that.
In victory, Rocky didn’t gloat. Instead, he delivered a paean to reconciliation, uttering the film’s other immortal lines: “If I can change… and you can change… we all can change!”
The speech was so damn good even Gorbachev stood up and cheered. The crowd went wild. Soviet fans even waved the Stars and Stripes in appreciation (where did they get that??). It was all the optimism of Perestroika distilled into 30 seconds of brilliantly absurd film. The “change” in question presumably meant the change from enemies to friends. (“Better us killin’ each other in the ring than 20 million of us killing each other out there” as Rocky put it).
Yet when Drago returns in Creed II, it’s as Rocky’s enemy. Ostensibly in town so that his son Viktor (played by Florian Munteanu) can challenge Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) to a fight, Drago shows up unannounced to Rocky’s Philadelphia red sauce joint. He sits scowling in the darkness until Rocky comes over, and when he does, they don’t shake hands. The now wizened Drago explains how he lost everything after their fight — his status, his home, even his wife. Damn, and here I thought these two might happily reminisce, seeing as how they stopped the Cold War together.
It was sad to be deprived of that conciliatory chapter in the Rocky universe, the part where Rocky and Drago are friends. But in 2018 Drago’s anger did make a kind of sense. If properly set up, his bitterness could’ve been poignant. Creed II opens in Kyiv, Ukraine, where the Dragos now live. We see them putting in road work on grey, snow-covered streets, or throwing around pallets at the cement factory. It’s a bleak place, the film seems to say, and not much else. The drabness of their existence could’ve been part of their drive for revenge. 30-some years later Drago might’ve rightly wondered, Where are all the great things individualism was supposed to get me? And yet as the movie tells it, Drago’s disappointment is, like the rest of Creed II, almost meticulously apolitical.