PLOT: In this recut of Rocky IV, the Italian Stallone (Sylvester Stallone) clashes 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 for exit Covid-19 it certainly is Rocky Vs Drago, Sylvester Stallone’s 35th anniversary director’s cut Rocky IV. While loved by fans, Rocky IV has always been seen by many as a comic. It is the fantasy compared to the realism of the former Rocky movies or those that followed. There are a lot of 80s funny things about the film that date it, like Paulie’s ever-controversial robot and over-the-top political content.
I suppose Stallone, in a sense, agreed with the criticisms, as this is a radical new take on the film that I would hesitate even to call a director’s cut. It’s a complete reimagining of the film. The press kit notes that even though the runtime is almost the same, forty-two minutes of the film has been edited. This includes inserts ranging from alternate cutscenes in training montage to various modifications in Apollo vs Dragon combat and more. Some changes are more significant than others, but overall the film is quite different from before.
Notably, it’s far less fantasy-driven than the original. The film now begins with an extended summary of Rocky III, complete with a deleted song from the Rocky IV soundtrack, “Sweetest Victory” by Touch, which fits perfectly. From there, he goes straight to Apollo in the pool with his dogs, seeing Drago and the Soviet Union’s challenge to Rocky on TV. Everything about Paulie’s birthday, including the robot and Adrian’s anniversary surprise, is gone. Instead, it keeps the film’s first half-hour focus on the relationship between Rocky and Apollo. The alternate scenes are used to show Apollo asking Rocky to support him in a fight with Drago.
Rocky and especially Adrian go out of their way to discourage him here. In one notable add-on scene, Rocky has a private conversation with Adrian showing how upset she is by the idea. They both know that Apollo’s motives are wrong. He hopes a win will put him in the history books and make him love him again. He’s obviously 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 around, with him fighting more against Drago.
Notably, Sly humanizes Drago to some degree. It is no longer so robotic; There are many alternate scenes that allow Dolph Lundgren a much more nuanced performance. He even seems reluctant to take part in the glitz of the Las Vegas fight. The second half of the film is more familiar. Stallone clings to much of the DiCola wins soundtrack (although Bill Conti’s best cues have been substituted for some crucial scenes, such as Apollo’s funeral), and, of course, the famous montages. But, even here, some critical subscribers 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 movie, I liked the cheese, but I guess Sly didn’t. There are times when I think the theatrical cut is superior, like in the montage of the second half of the training montage set to “Heart’s on Fire”.
Still, there are other times when Rocky vs Dragon it is far superior, with the final above all much more serious. Rocky’s speech is cut differently, with everything, including the music, in a much lower key. There is also a little surprise between Rocky and Drago that made my jaw slam to the ground. The conclusion is much better this time around and more in tune with where the franchise would go from there.
At the end, Rocky Vs Drago is a fascinating review by an artist (Stallone) that he is has evolved significantly in the years. It’s a must have for anyone who respects Stallone’s work. It’s also a masterful lesson in how subtle editing changes can fundamentally change a film.