Monday, May 1, 2017

The mystery that is Rocky IV

If you were to poll people who grew up in the 80's (and perhaps even a bit later) which one of the Rocky movies is the best, at least 90% of them will say without hesitation the fourth one. In other words, the one with the big Russian bad guy named Ivan Drago.

It is, however, completely mysterious to me why, given that Rocky IV is by far the worst movie in the entire series (including all current six movies). I'm being completely serious. Please hear me out.

Movie "connoisseurs" will invariably choose the first Rocky movie as the best. In a sense, it arguably is. However, I would also argue that the first movie is of a different genre altogether. It's not really a boxing movie, nor a sports movie. It's a drama. The boxing is just incidental; a framework for the drama. It's about a poor Italian nobody living in an American ghetto who through determination and hard work raises to the top and get to challenge the world champion in a sport (boxing in this case, although, as said, that's not really the core essence of the movie.) What hammers in the fact that the boxing itself is not the point, and that this is a drama, not a sports movie, is that Rocky loses the match. The match wasn't the point. The point was the journey to get there.

The second movie, while not bad, seems superfluous. It feels like it was made because the first movie got very popular, but it was a bummer that Rocky lost, and thus they had to make a sequel where he actually wins. Which kind of misses the point of the first movie entirely. It wasn't about winning or losing, it was about the journey. It was about the story of a nobody who got to challenge the world champion through determination and hard work. Yes, there is of course still something of that in this sequel as well, but it just feels like a rehash of the same idea, and it feels superfluous. But, as said, it's not a bad movie per se.

Now, the third movie changes gears, and arguably genre, quite radically. This is an actual sports movie, an actual boxing movie, and it's one of the archetypal sports movies of the 80's. It's, possibly, the movie that cemented the archetypal "80's training montage". It has its share of campiness, but not too much. It has a good story, it has good pacing, and overall it's an excellent boxing movie. In my opinion it's the best movie of the series.

But then we have Rocky IV. The favorite of most people who grew up in the 80's. But why?

Most of these people don't even remember but a small fraction of what happens in the movie. They remember the "Russian" bad guy (actually a Swedish actor), they remember that he beats Apollo Creed to death in the ring, and they remember the famous "I must break you" line. And Rocky beats him somehow. But that's about it.

How many of them remember the silly robot? Yes, there is a silly robot. One of those absolutely ridiculous human-sized robots of 70's sitcoms, who apparently has a better AI than computers even today. I'm not making that up. A completely unrealistic, completely out-of-place 70's sitcom "robot", in a boxing movie.

How many of them remember that James Brown is in the movie? Yes, singing an over-the-top Broadway musical in the boxing arena. (Yes, I understand what they were trying to do here, ie. show how showy and cocky Americans are, but it still just doesn't fit in this kind of movie. It feels so out of place.)

How many of them remember the sappy inspirational speech at the end about world peace?

Another problem I have with the movie is that in all three previous movies the main antagonist (if you can even call Apollo Creed that) were good clean strong boxers, who got there honestly, fair and square. Ivan Drago, however, is depicted as a boxer on steroids, literally. It becomes less Rocky vs. another very strong boxer, and more Rocky beats a monster. I suppose that what I'm trying to say is that the spirit of boxing isn't there. Rocky is fighting against a cheater, not just a strong opponent.

This movie lacks the same kind of down-the-earth drama that the first, and even the third movie had. And even the final fight is mostly a montage. Yeah, the pinnacle of the entire movie is mostly a fighting montage.

Some might argue it's "so bad it's good". It's so silly and over-the-top, that that is what makes it so enjoyable. However, I think that most people did not enjoy it as a child because of that, nor answer such poll questions because of that. It's only after you refresh their memory about what actually is in the movie, and if they accept it, that they resort to this argument.

I don't really understand why Rocky IV is so universally considered the best of the series, especially buy people who grew up in the 80's. Perhaps it had all the right stuff that appealed to kids in that decade. Perhaps, in a way, it was actually genius, maybe serendipitously. It appealed to the right demographic at the right time, even though in retrospect it's a really silly and, let's be frank, bad movie.

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