1985 was a fine year for Hollywood. Icons fell under the stampede for sequels while future classics were created. It’s time to look back.
In the coming weeks and months the HeyUGuys team will focus on some of best from ’85, exploring their legacy and capturing something of their enduring essence.
Today we start with a wearied franchise buoyed by some good, old-fashioned cinematic jingoism. Cai Ross steps into the ring with Rocky IV…
Mid-1980s. It was dark; the air was thick and fetid with expectation. There can’t have been any fewer than two hundred young souls in that auditorium and the appetite for blood coursed through us all like an electrical current. We would get our wish. There would be blood. And talking robots.
In 1985, the very concept of a fourth Rocky movie was absurd, above and beyond the definition of the word. Rocky III had been received with disbelief in 1982 – remember the poster in Airplane II: The Sequel depicting an ageing Stallone in Rocky XXXVIII? – and yet it had also made an absolute fortune.
Sylvester Stallone had followed his first iconic performance as Philadelphia’s favourite southpaw with a run of box office turkeys – FIST, Paradise Alley, Escape To Victory and Night Hawks – that was broken only by Rocky II and John Rambo’s first appearance in 1982’s First Blood. Stallone was coming to terms with the unpleasant fact that Joe Public only seemed to want to see him playing two characters and in 1985, he gave the public what they wanted – in spades.
Rocky II felt very much like it was set from the same mould as the original. Many of the same key background personnel were retained and the low-rent, dingy late Seventies look was carried through, along with Stallone’s bulky, doughball figure. By the Go-Go 1980s, everything had got brighter, snazzier and shinier – everyone in Rocky III looks like they have just been varnished. Jane Fonda’s famous mega-selling Workout videos had America in the throes of a new Keep Fit revolution so Stallone unveiled his classic, 0% fat look that made him look so sculpted you could get a tune out of his torso with a xylophone hammer.
So it was that the Rocky saga maintained its relevance into a fourth outing by tapping a culturally contemporary vein. If I & II were the grim 1970s realism movies, and III was the soft rock/body-beautiful ‘Rocky’, IV was the MTV version – literally. Everything from a gear change to a KGB agent lifting his binoculars is cut to the beat of a drum machine.
We’re treated to a live musical interlude, courtesy of James Brown’s pre-bout concert before Ivan Drago pummels Apollo Creed to death. There’s even a greatest hits montage as Rocky hits the streets in his Lamborghini for a Sonny Crockett-style night drive to Robert Tepper’s No Easy Way Out, letting Stallone pad out four minutes of screen time with clips from the last three movies.
Ah yes, the montage. Team America’s ‘Montage’ song may have made this Eisensteinian editing technique unfashionable in 2005, but Rocky IV had already taken the montage to the brink of satire twenty years earlier with its third act which consisted almost entirely of intercut vignettes of Stallone and Dolph Lundgren going through their paces while John Cafferty and Vince DiCola tinkled away in the background on their Fairlight synthesizers.
Stallone didn’t just want to steal MTV’s style, he wanted its target audience too and his abbreviating shorthand catered specifically for a young crowd with a short attention span – at 91 minutes, Rocky IV is the shortest film of the saga. If you spotted a ten year old out jogging in 1985 wearing a Live Aid T-Shirt, punching the air and occasionally trying to run in slow motion, it was almost certainly the Rocky IV soundtrack they had spooling away in their Walkman.
Alas, the childish simplicity that informed the plot also informed the film’s politics. A reductive Cold War fairy tale, its tale of cold, Russian intransigence defeated by plucky American indefatigability is told in the broadest possible strokes. The Russian characters speak only in dialogue so villainously on the nose, it makes the lyrics to Survivor’s Burning Heart sound like Dostoyevsky.
It all ends with Rocky Balboa single-handedly bringing down the Iron Curtain and ending the Cold War as a teeming crowd of once-hostile Russian nationalists cheer his name. John G Avildson’s 1976 Oscar-winning love story suddenly seemed like it was made a thousand years ago.
American audiences lapped up this victory for the home team to the tune of $127m, ranking it third in 1985’s top ten behind Rambo: First Blood Part II. If Rambo was the movie version of Reagan’s foreign policy, Rocky IV was canny enough at least to factor in the coming thaw of Glasnost. “In here, there were two guys killin’ each other,” Rocky suggests after the fight, “but I guess that’s better than twenty million. I guess what I’m tryin’ to say is that if I can change and you can change, everyone can change.”
Stallone’s MTV style forged the leanest, most muscular Rocky of the series, but the one-dimensional nature of its characterization and its world view means that Rocky IV looks and feels conspicuously different to the other movies in the Balboa saga. This one is a kids’ movie (it’s telling that the only Americans seen watching the final fight are Rocky’s young son and his cheering pals). There can be no other reason to justify the inclusion of a talking robot into a Rocky movie.
In one of the most audacious non sequiturs of the 1980s, the robot wanders in, seemingly from the set of Explorers, to interrupt a crucial plot-establishing scene, serve Paulie a drink and play a new Kenny Loggins song. It then leaves and is never seen again and Apollo picks up from where he left off.
It’s practically a superhero movie. Don’t think I can’t suspend disbelief in the name of entertainment but in reality, a 1,850lbs per square inch punch to the face from a 268lb man-mountain would have snapped Balboa’s head back like the top of a Pez dispenser and killed him instantly.
No such gripes however can sully the memories of my cinematic experience watching Rocky IV, aged 10 at the Astra in Colwyn Bay when I was the target audience. We filed eagerly in, carrying our Kia-Oras – despite them being too orangey for crows. Rocky carried us with him up that mountain, pumping us up for the final titanic battle. Our Hearts really were On Fire.
When Rocky finally managed to cut Drago with a hard right at the end of Round 2, we were all on our feet with a deafening cheer, fists aloft. We breathlessly held each other close through the slow-motion rounds where Rocky looked to be faltering, and when Drago finally tumbled back through the ropes, there were scenes of pandemonium that I have never experienced at a cinema before or since.
30 years of critical opinion and seismic shifts in global politics have left Rocky’s fourth adventure a little adrift – it now seems somehow to be even older and less relevant than Rocky II and a 38% score on Rotten Tomatoes hardly demonstrates a wellspring of good will from the critical community. However, the next time you go to your local gym, check out the 40 year old guy on the treadmill running a little bit too fast for his own good. There’s a very good chance that he’s still listening to Vince DiCola’s Training Montage from the Rocky IV soundtrack. You’ll know for sure when he forgets himself and shouts ‘Drago!’ at the top of his voice.
Can Out of Africa boast such a legacy?
Read on about other classmates from 1985…
Most Likely to make an inappropriate joke while arching an eyebrow: