How ‘Rocky IV’ Became the Franchise’s Greatest Guilty Pleasure
On Nov. 21, 1985, Rocky IV premiered. The movie would become beloved among fans of the franchise despite its obvious shortcomings.
With each installment, Rocky creator and star Sylvester Stallone had to find ways to up the stakes. Rocky II was a rematch, Rocky III brought in a new villain. Hollywood’s unspoken law of sequels decreed that Rocky IV would have to go bigger than any of its predecessors.
Doing so would require a new foe, more powerful and intimidating than any of Rocky’s previous adversaries. Enter Ivan Drago, a U.S.S.R. fighting machine, designed to embody Soviet strength.
Dolph Lundgren was cast as Drago, though the chiseled actor was not initially what Stallone had in mind.
Watch the Trailer for 'Rocky IV'
“I was looking for a monster, like a hairy beast of a guy to play someone from, you know, the other side of the world,” the star explained during an interview with Moviefone. “[Lundgren] was the complete antithesis, the opposite of what I was looking for. Then I thought, 'All right, why don't we move it into more of the sci-fi and that he's the man of the future?'”
Drago would be shown as the perfect specimen, an unstoppable force with a robotic-like demeanor. "This is what I would imagine they would create as an athlete — someone who is literally perfect, indestructible," Stallone recalled to Fox News. "Shoulders, calves, forearms, giant butt, neck, back, everything.”
The character’s superhuman strength and merciless force was evident from the first time viewers saw him in the ring: a bout with Apollo Creed that ended with the former champ’s death.
Watch Ivan Drago Defeat Apollo Creed in 'Rocky IV'
Lundgren was the key component to Drago's fierceness. A former bodyguard and karate champion, the star was new to acting at the time. He took his fighting scenes very seriously, often going full force rather than staging his punches. Carl Weathers reportedly threatened to quit after Lundgren got too physical during one of their scenes. At another point, Lundgren sent Stallone to the hospital.
“He hit me so hard he almost stopped my heart,” Stallone admitted. “I told him, ‘Why don’t we just do it? Just try to knock me out. Really cut loose as hard as you can.’ That was a really stupid thing to say. Next thing I know, I’m on a low-altitude plane to the emergency room, and I’m in intensive care for four days.”
Even though Drago says only 46 words in Rocky IV, his shadow hangs over the entire movie. The icy fighter was symbolic of the Cold War Soviet Union, while Rocky Balboa represented the All-American hero enlisted to defend the red, white and blue.
Watch the Training Montage From 'Rocky IV'
Everything in Rocky IV was exaggerated to a degree that the film resembled more of a comic book adventure than a boxing flick. The lights were brighter, the colors more vibrant and the fight sequences more savage than anything shown in the previous movies. Many choices even stretched the boundaries of what was believable. Drago supposedly punched four times harder than any man in the world, a physical impossibility (even with his steroid use). Rocky trained in the harsh frozen terrain of Russia, carrying giant logs and pulling sleds in arguably the most far-fetched montage of the franchise’s history. Even the movie’s music felt like it was from another planet; the classic orchestral Rocky theme from the early installments replaced by a largely synthetic score.
Still, the biggest departure from reality was the film’s ending. Rocky and Drago face off in a highly anticipated bout, held on Christmas Day in the Soviet Union. The crowd is, naturally, very hostile toward the American boxer. However, as the brutal, grueling battle stretches round after round, the audience turns. The Soviet crowd cheers Rocky’s name as he rallies the strength to defeat his gargantuan opponent. The stakes have been raised from championship belts to international diplomacy, as Rocky victoriously grabs the microphone, preaches about how people can change and (seemingly) ends the Cold War with the might of his fists.
Watch Rocky's Post-Fight Speech From 'Rocky IV'
Far too absurd to be believable, Rocky IV was panned by critics upon its release. The Los Angeles Times decried the movie’s “grim and witless storytelling,” while the Chicago Reader called it “a crass, careless, shamelessly padded film.” Roger Ebert opined that Stallone should have retired the franchise, claiming Rocky IV was “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.”
Still, the movie was a box-office smash, earning more than $300 million and becoming the most financially successful entry in the franchise. The film’s sheer ridiculousness - decried by critics - actually endeared it to mainstream moviegoers. Generations of fans have since been drawn to the flick, so much that the popular website College Humor even created a fake 30 for 30 documentary chronicling Rocky Balboa's ability to end the Cold War.
Watch College Humor's '30 for 30' About Rocky
In its own distinct way, Rocky IV holds a special place in history. It’s not the best movie, didn’t revitalize the franchise and would never be confused as high art. Instead, it’s a guilty pleasure, silly yet unquestionably entertaining, and classically steeped in the ‘80s era in which it was created.
Stallone even teased a director's cut of the film, tentatively scheduled to celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2020. The star uploaded several videos to his Instagram account showing the tedious reediting process. Among the changes fans might expect from the director's cut: more lines by Drago, deeper character development and additional fight footage.