With Superman, Hulk Hogan, and Rocky Balboa, America pretty much beat the hell out of Communist Russia in the eighties, and we were proud of it. While “Rocky III” is the superior sequel in the original “Rocky” series, “Rocky IV” is perhaps the most talked about of the Rocky mythology and is also the most action packed. “Rocky IV” has a brisk pacing with almost no slow down in its storytelling and that brevity is probably why the sequel is still so beloved, despite its camp and homoerotic overtones. There really isn’t much to “Rocky IV” that’s tough to figure out. It has a robot that talks like a woman, features scenes of Rocky’s son trading one-liners with his friends while watching his dad’s fight, and a stern jingoistic attitude that it unapologetically waves around.
Russia has developed a new fighter named Ivan Drago, who has been genetically refined as the perfect boxer. Anxious to reclaim his glory days, Apollo Creed convinces Rocky to help him train and challenges Drago to an exhibition bout. Despite his best efforts to train, Apollo is way out of his league and is literally beaten to death in the ring. Hoping to avenge his best friend, Rocky decides to train harder than ever and goes back to America to challenge Drago to a fight. From there it’s America versus Russia in the ring, with Drago getting the one up mainly because his wife is the absolutely sexy Brigitte Nielsen in her prime. “Rocky IV” is essentially a revenge movie where Stallone preaches about the honor of America by making Rocky in to someone who doesn’t just beat Drago in the ring, but even goes to his country to train as a Russian would, in the snow.
The stand out in “Rocky IV” is the debut of Dolph Lundgren whose turn as Ivan Drago is absolutely memorable. Drago loks exactly like a man genetically altered to become the perfect boxer, and looks absolutely imposing towering over Stallone during the big fight in the finale. As for “Rocky IV” along with the camp, there’s also the thick homoerotic overtones that make the sequel something of an anomaly. There just seems to be so much more there with Balboa and Creed that it’s almost impossible not to notice at times. Rocky and Apollo’s re-match in the beginning is teeming with sexual tension, Rocky almost becomes Apollo’s Adrian, cheering him on and standing ring side to provide emotional support.
Rocky mourns Apollo’s death on a different level than he did Mickey’s, there’s the whole montage in the car where Rocky’s driving and almost seems torn between his passion for Adrian and his passion for Apollo. In the ring he dons Apollo’s trunks, and only when he overcomes his grief for Apollo can he focus on avenging him and beating Drago. Adrian is almost an afterthought in “Rocky IV” mainly standing in the background looking stoic and offering support for her husband when he isolates himself in Russia. It doesn’t tarnish what’s an otherwise entertaining sequel, but it’s just a fascinating recurring theme so powerful it almost seems to imply a lot about Rocky we never understood. While “Rocky IV” is still entertaining and action packed, it’s the lesser sequel in the original series, and offers no real weight or complexity that “Rocky III,” or even “Rocky II” did.