Picture Sylvester Stallone in the winter of his life — still handsome, still barrel-chested, but now with a gray, Hemingway-esque beard framing his perfectly square, granite jaw. He is staring at a video screen while impulsively squeezing an exercise hand grip. But he is not the jovially cold-blooded Sly of cinematic legend. This Sly is in a philosophical mood. Whereas he was once tormented by redneck cops in First Blood, he is now troubled by life’s most profound existential questions.
“It’s like laying on your deathbed going, ‘Why I didn’t I just say I love everyone?'” he says. “‘Why didn’t I just get along? Why didn’t I make amends?'”
The punchline of this scenario is that Stallone’s soul searching occurs while watching one of the most enjoyably dumb blockbusters of the 1980s, Rocky IV. Written and directed by Sly at the height of his fame in 1985, Rocky IV grossed $300 million and endures as a Cold War memento and cheesy pop-culture quote machine. While it’s hardly a paragon of high art cinema, high art cinema is rarely as fun as saying (extremely Ivan Drago voice) “I muhst braaak you.”
The incongruity between Sly’s intense introspection and the movie he’s contemplating couldn’t be starker. But for Stallone, Rocky IV apparently signifies some unfinished business. Prevented from working on his next film by the pandemic, the restless 75-year-old turned in 2020 to his fifth directorial effort with the intention of reshaping the Rocky franchise’s slickest and most excessive installment as the work of an older, wiser and more patient filmmaker. He set about re-editing the film, subbing in 38 minutes of previously unreleased footage. Released on streaming platforms last week as Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago, Stallone’s professed goal was to inject his comic-book boxing movie with a little more real-life, flesh-and-blood humanity.
Fortunately for us, this re-editing process was captured with an iPhone camera held by Stallone’s friend and collaborator John Herzfeld, who turned the footage into a weirdly engrossing “making of” documentary currently available on YouTube. I’m dubious on whether Rocky vs. Drago actually improves on the original Rocky IV. (More on that later.) But the “making of” documentary, which I’ve watched several times this week, has definitely changed my perception of the movie as well as Stallone. It’s ultimately more compelling than either version of Rocky IV.
Starting with the original Rocky in 1976, Stallone wrote and/or directed many of his highest-grossing films himself. And the ones he didn’t direct were no doubt guided by him to a significant degree. But he’s rarely talked about as an auteur or even as a genre specialist whose peers in his prime in the ’70s and ’80s would have been far more lauded filmmakers like John Carpenter, James Cameron, and John McTiernan. In his own mind, however, Rocky IV is the product of a highly personal point of view, as evidenced by Stallone obsessing over it decades after the fact. In the documentary, we see him break down seemingly minor aspects of the movie like Orson Welles describing each frame of Citizen Kane.
And yet Stallone somehow never comes off as pretentious, even when he casually drops a reference to the 20th century Romanian-French absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco. (Surely, some enterprising critic will now liken the iconoclastic one-man army Rambo to the loner protagonist of Rhinoceros.) Instead, Sly is clearly working out something in his own life — specifically, his feelings about aging and mortality — by working over Rocky IV.
“Imagine getting a shot to re-edit your life,” he muses. “That’s the beauty of film.”
Back when Rocky IV was the third highest-grossing movie of 1985 — it was bested only by Back To The Future and Stallone’s own Rambo: First Blood Part II — it was savaged by critics as jingoistic hogwash, the very worst of Reagan era, anti-Russian propaganda. In the movie, Stallone once again plays Rocky Balboa, the lovable underdog from the streets of Philadelphia who becomes heavyweight champion of the world. Reconciled with one-time rival and now BFF Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky tries to talk his pal out of an exhibition match against a fearsome foe from the USSR, a walking stick of steroid butter named Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren).
Is it a spoiler at this point to divulge that Drago kills Creed in the ring? (If it is, apologies, but you’ve had literal decades to see Rocky IV before now.) At any rate, Rocky IV from then on is a revenge picture. The rest of the film is a collection of training montages set to C-list arena rock songs and flashbacks to other Rocky movies, culminating in one long, epic concluding match between Rocky and Drago that takes up nearly one-third of the film’s scant 91-minute running time. If you can’t guess who wins that fight, then you must be a commie bastard.
That was the logic in 1985, anyway. While Stallone proved with both Rocky IV and First Blood Part II that audiences craved action movies with heavy patriotic overtones completely devoid of nuance, the era’s professional cinephile class recoiled. “The Rocky series is finally losing its legs,” wrote Roger Ebert. “Rocky IV is a last gasp, a film so predictable that viewing it is like watching one of those old sitcoms where the characters never change and the same situations turn up again and again.”
Ebert was wrong about “the last gasp” part — Stallone won a Golden Globe for playing Rocky in Creed nearly 30 years after that review was written — but you sense watching the “making of” documentary that Stallone in a way agrees with Ebert. As he re-works the film, he continually expresses frustration at his brasher, younger self over not respecting the audience enough to simply let moments land without constantly bulldozing them with flashy editing and overripe melodrama. Stallone is surprisingly open throughout the movie about not being able to forgive his own aggressiveness back in the mid-’80s, when he was almost half as old as he is now.
“Why does wisdom come late?” he asks the camera rhetorically. This time, he lets the moment land.
Here’s the odd thing if you decide (as I did) to watch the “making of” documentary before Rocky vs. Drago: I had assumed that those 38 extra minutes were added to turn Rocky IV into a much longer and more reflective film, a sort of transformation of a B-movie into a raw, cathartic, dumbed-down version of John Cassavetes. But the new edit is only two minutes longer than the original! Sly basically took out half of the old film and replaced with a new half. The result is a movie that’s still dumb, just a different kind of dumb.
The most significant changes involve downplaying the USA vs. USSR gamesmanship that animated the original but is now politically incorrect. For instance, those scene-setting boxing gloves adorned by American and Soviet flags that open Rocky IV with a literal bang are gone from Rocky vs. Drago. What we get instead are more scenes that are meant to deepen the relationship between Rocky and Apollo, and (more strikingly) humanize Drago. In Rocky vs. Drago, he’s not the mere grunting Amazon of Rocky IV, but rather a muscle-bound innocent who rebels in small ways against his exploitive, political-minded handlers.
Frankly, I’m not sure any of this amounts to “improving” the film. Rocky IV is high-calorie comfort food that isn’t necessarily helped by replacing the sugar with Sweet & Low. Stallone’s most lamentable decision is to cut out all the scenes with Paulie’s robot, which grounds the movie inextricably in the time period in a way that the auteur must have found embarrassing but many fans no doubt find charming. (Who will fetch Paulie’s beers now?!)
What changed how I looked at Rocky IV wasn’t Rocky vs. Drago but watching Sly Stallone edit Rocky vs. Drago in the “making of” doc. After hearing him talk about the film, I’m inclined to view Rocky IV not as an allegory about the rivalry between Americans and Russians, but rather a meditation on Stallone’s own celebrity. As Rocky, he plays a pampered superstar who’s in constant danger of losing what once made him vital. All of the Rocky movies are about recovering that lost version of himself, the guy with the “eye of the tiger,” the Sly Stallone who dug down deep and wrote the first (and best) Rocky film.
In Rocky IV, he battles a towering behemoth with a funny accent who I’m now inclined to view as a stand-in for Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian upstart who was just starting to challenge Sly as the world’s top action star in 1985. Though by the time of Rocky vs. Drago, Stallone’s enemy now seems to be his younger self. If the subtext of this Rocky movie is different, it’s that Stallone is now trying to drag his younger self not backward to his primal youth but forward to a more enlightened present. As he says in the documentary, “I’ve evolved, but the movie hasn’t evolved.”
Like Rocky IV, Sly remains a work in progress.