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Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago – Ultimate director’s cut

Rocky
United Artists/Getty Images
Joe O’Neill watches Sylvester Stallone’s 2021 rehash of a Rocky cult classic

THE Rocky series populates an odd place in the mind of boxing fans. While almost universally loved as a concept and a memory, do many of us actually remember them as movies? Really, think about it. Are they films we actually re-watch and enjoy time and again or are they just fight scenes we recreated in the schoolyard, and inspirational training montages on YouTube that trick us into leaving our houses and signing up for expensive gym memberships?

The 1976 original was a Best Picture winner at the Oscars and was followed up by a similarly gritty sequel. Moving into the ‘80s, things got increasingly flash and camp with Rocky III and IV before the fifth installment, which all fans brush under the carpet. Rocky Balboa offered a surprisingly superior closing chapter in 2006, that splintered off into the strong Creed movies.

In Rocky IV: Rocky Vs Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut, Sylvester Stallone aims to take some of these iconic memories from one of the series’ messiest instalments and, 36 years after its original release, bludgeon it into a coherent movie. The Hollywood heavyweight largely pulls it off; it’s a completely different film – familiar but having undergone large-scale cuts, while also being punched up with lots of additional footage (40 minutes of the original have been cut and replaced with 42 minutes of new and altered footage). It all adds up to a tighter and more emotional story, and, believe it or not, a movie that is far superior than its source material.

While one of the lowest scoring movies with critics, Rocky IV remains the highest-grossing of the series with its iconic villain, ‘80s cheese, Siberian (actually Wyoming) setting, and late-stage Cold War chest-thumping. For those who remember just the set-pieces, they’re all still there – from the full Living in America Apollo Creed walk-in to the back-to-back training montages in the mountains and the ludicrous fight scenes in Vegas and Moscow.

It’s still undeniably ‘80s, with synth riffs rumbling through your bones, but substance has been added and this relic of its time has been given a good few extra layers of sheen.

Creed (Carl Weathers) is a much bigger part of this update, with the prologue including extended scenes from Rocky III before some more insight into his now-established friendship with Balboa. It makes the ill-fated ‘exhibition’ with Drago all the more of a gut-punch – not to mention some added funeral scenes to really hammer things home.

“You gave me a break when no-one else would. You believed in me, when no-one else would. I really loved you.”

Now part of the movie title, Drago (Dolph Lundgren) too, is a more fleshed out character. 2018’s Creed 2 had done a good job in bringing ‘The Siberian Express’’ story full circle and this re-cut also adds a few new beats. In promoting this edition, Stallone has accurately referred to Drago as Frankenstein’s Monster and there are a few more glimpses of the increasingly prideful human inside inside, rather than him purely being a cold robot.

”Soon the whole world will know my name: Drago!”

And, speaking of robots, Paulie’s infamous pal is thankfully nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately it means a lot less screen-time for the brilliant Burt Young, but the cutting room floor must always have a victim. Thankfully Adrian (Talia Shire) still features prominently and the raw debate on the staircase between her and Rocky hits even harder when viewed in this streamlined vehicle. Why does he want to fight?

“You Can’t Win!”

Visually, a few jarring cuts aside, everything looks great, having been bumped up to beautiful 4K, while the fight scenes are also vastly improved. Gone are the gun-shot sounds that accompanied blows landing, to be replaced with slightly more realistic effects. It’s all slight improvements in this regard, Rocky still does hit the canvas more times than the combined total of the away corner at the York Hall on a Friday night, but some of the more ridiculous exchanges are gone.

Decades on from the end of the Cold War, the clanging jingo has been somewhat erased. Balboa, now with a nod to Apollo, still tells people they can change in the famous final monologue. Additionally, Gorbachev, rather than having his political ideals seemingly changed by a blubbing boxer instead storms out rather than giving a standing ovation. We now have a more personal movie rather than a time period case-study. 

Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut succeeds where the original failed. This update goes some way to showing why fighters fight. It’s not about vengeance, penance, ego, or ideology, it’s just who they are. A difficult concept to convey to those who never make that walk, Stallone has taken a time capsule of a movie and made it timeless.

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