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Film

Why 'Rocky IV' is more relevant than ever before

A sound like a bare-knuckle fist bristling against a lower jaw is what this film delivers: only laced in metaphor, and punctuated by a series of thoughtfully written parables equating the wants and needs of the average American against those in Russia. It is the beat of a Rocky film discarding the nuance of the other entries, to hammer across a point based on rigour, fairness and equality.

Rocky IV is punchy, polished, polemical and deeply entertaining; it is on the nose, but decidedly well-intentioned in its appraisal of the world’s geopolitics. In a matter of minutes, the film draws on the titular boxer’s energy reserves by throwing him headfirst into the centre of the world’s debates, cautioning viewers to the changes in tone the film will undertake.

Rocky IV was Sylvester Stallone‘s dizzying reinvention of the formula that had serviced three films, and it takes the character out of his comfort zone into the frozen landscapes of the Russian plains. We see our hero weary, clenching to the beats of his younger years in the hopes that he might one day return to his home country with greater insight into the workings of the world around him.

The film’s emotional linchpin is again played by Talia Shire, who abandons the trappings of her dowdier beginnings to become the emblem of the American women, her long flowing hair shading the tears that hang just behind her pupils. Ken Loach it ain’t, but Stallone never set out to direct Land and Freedom but to use his popcorn platform as a means to teach people how to treat each other better.

The foil is played, fairly magnificently, by Dolph Lundgren, who seems to capture the essence of silent brooding, taunting his garrulous opponent with a collection of faintly sinister smiles. His great height, though highlighted by camera angles, was evidently one of the reasons why he was cast, and he towers over Stallone, making him the one formidable threat that makes the hero question himself in the midst of the ring.

The film imbibes the imprints of the 1980s, but perhaps the most bizarre moment comes when a robot butler enters with the sole purpose of entertaining Rocky Balboa’s brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young): this android appears to offer physical services: a joke of considerable impulse and lack of imagination. The film is clotted and busy, punctuated by some awful moments of dialogue, but the journey is worth the final scene, and the picture is fundamentally one of growth, both for the narrators and the audiences.

The narrative beats overshadow the character ones, giving a despairing and disquiet montage scene that shows the central character lifting logs in the snow-laden mountains. Various moments echo the tensions between the US and USSR but the film wisely ends with an impactful speech, as the eponymous hero abandons glory to espouse the virtues of goodwill and harmony under one banner. “If I can change,” Balboa bellows, “And you can change, everybody can change”.

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Between some masculine tête-à-tête, the film never loses sight of the central treatise, and a musical sequence that highlights the importance of the respective national anthems has added pathos. The musical release confirms the importance of national identity above all else, as legions rise to sing out the words that they learned in school. As directed by Stallone, the numbers highlight the characters in differing habitats, and Lundgren’s sneer at his American colleagues is faintly indistinct.

The story is operatic, energetic, Faustian, hinting at a vision of universal harmony and peace, as long as the people will it upon themselves. Stallone himself brings certain trapped animal energy to the proceedings, flitting from national pride to reserved humiliation, never completing the ambitions his country had intended for him.

The film was released in 1985, during an era of Reaganomics and Glasnost. It was growing harder for mainstream films to avoid the Cold War, which might explain why Timothy Dalton’s first James Bond film was so indebted to the ongoing conflict. In some ways, Rocky IV could be accused of genre-hopping, although the script does a tidy job of updating the central arcs to compensate for the film’s changing geography and central tone. And by plunging the all-American hero in the middle of a political conflict, the audience could engage with a perspective that was swiftly becoming shorthand for evil in the realm of cinema.

Rocky IV certainly confirms the credentials Stallone has as a director: this is a boisterous, lush, self-aware film, delivered on an epic scale. In many ways, the messages and central themes are more prevalent than ever. At a time when Russia is emerging as a malevolent force in the eyes of the Western media, it’s easy to forget that behind the smoulder, the swagger and the horror, it’s a country filled with ordinary people, just like any other on this planet.