PLOT: In this recut of Rocky IV, the Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) goes head-to-head with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Soviet boxing champion, after the brutal defeat and death of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).
REVIEW: One of the most exciting projects to emerge from Covid-19 is certainly Rocky Vs Drago, Sylvester Stallone’s 35th-anniversary director’s cut of Rocky IV. While beloved by fans, Rocky IV has always been seen by many as comic-book-like. It’s the fantasy compared to the realism of the early Rocky films or the ones that followed it. There are a lot of goofy 80s things about the movie that date it, such as Paulie’s ever-controversial robot and the over-the-top political content.
I suppose Stallone, in some ways, agreed with the criticisms, as this is a radical new take on the film that I’d hesitate even to call a director’s cut. It’s a complete re-imagining of the film. The press kit notes that even though the running time is almost the same, forty-two minutes of the film have been changed. That includes inserts that run the gamut from alternate footage in the training montage to different editing in the Apollo vs Drago fight and more. Some changes are more significant than others, but overall the film is quite different from before.
Most notably, it’s a lot less fantasy-driven than the original. The movie now starts with an extended recap of Rocky III, complete with an excised song from the Rocky IV soundtrack, “Sweetest Victory” by Touch, that fits right in. From there, it goes directly to Apollo in the pool with his dogs, seeing Drago and the Soviet Union’s challenge to Rocky on tv. Everything involving Paulie’s birthday, including the robot and Adrian’s anniversary surprise, are gone. Instead, it keeps the focus of the film’s first half-hour tight on Rocky and Apollo’s relationship. Alternate scenes are used to show Apollo asking Rocky to back him in a fight with Drago.
Rocky and especially Adrian try a lot harder to discourage him here. In a notable added scene, Rocky has a private conversation with Adrian that shows how disturbed she is by the idea. Both of them know Apollo’s motivations are wrong. He hopes a victory will put him in the history books and make him loved again. Of course, he’s chasing the wrong dream. He needs to change, but he can’t. It makes Apollo an even more tragically flawed character in some ways. However, Stallone also gives him more dignity this time, with him putting up more of a fight opposite Drago.
Notably, Sly humanizes Drago to some degree. He’s no longer as robotic; there are a lot of alternate scenes that allow Dolph Lundgren a much more nuanced performance. He even seems reluctant to take part in the pageantry of the Vegas fight. The second half of the film is more familiar. Stallone hangs on to much of the Vince DiCola score (although better Bill Conti cues have been subbed for a few crucial scenes, such as Apollo’s funeral), and of course, the famous montages. But, even here, some critical subs have been made, some more jarring than others.
Is it a better movie than Rocky IV? It’s a more serious film, that’s for sure, but it’s also a lot less political and a lot more personal. Sly cut a lot of the lighter stuff. As a fan of the film, I enjoyed the cheese but I imagine Sly did not. There are moments where I think the theatrical cut is superior, such as in the editing of the training montage’s second half set to “Heart’s on Fire”.
Yet, there are other moments where Rocky vs Drago is far superior, with the ending especially a lot more serious. Rocky’s speech is cut differently, with everything, including the music, much lower key. There’s even a surprise bit between Rocky and Drago that made my jaw hit the floor. The conclusion is much better this time and more in tune with where the franchise would go from there.
In the end, Rocky Vs Drago is a fascinating revision by an artist (Stallone) who’s evolved significantly over the years. It’s a must-watch for anyone who respects Stallone’s work. It’s also a masterclass in how subtle editing shifts can radically change a film.