It takes about 30 seconds for Rocky IV to let us know the political climate of the movie.
Yup. That’s literally the opening sequence. It’s going to be a showdown! West vs. East! USA vs. USSR! Balboa vs. Drago! Rocky IV is understood to be a ridiculous, patriotic celebration of American life but I’m starting to wonder if maybe we’ve got it all wrong. What if it’s not actually a stupid American propaganda movie but rather a movie whose American propaganda is so stupid that it’s actually Soviet satire?
Among the most infamous parts of the movie is that damned robot. Early on, Rocky gives his wastrel brother-in-law, Paulie, a robot for his birthday. The robot serves all of Paulie’s needs and even develops an oddly sexual relationship with him. It demonstrates the American propensity to commercialize the world and to trivialize innovation for the sake of novel consumerism.
It’s a present that is programmed to help deliver presents. It is consumerism incarnate. Compare this to Ivan Drago’s relationship with technology. In Drago’s USSR, technology is used toward the advancement of humanity. The brightest minds are working together toward figuring out a method to maximize human potential. They are toiling, collectively, to bring about a new level of physical capability. In America, technology is used to become as lazy as possible whereas, in Russia, it’s used to increase the utility of the human body. Sure, all of this science manifests in a single human being but he is the result of a collective experiment, representing a collective success, rather than celebrating his own, singular accomplishments. Between superman Ivan Drago and lazy, unaccomplished, tag-along Paulie, it’s not hard to see who is better optimizing the advancements that humanity presents itself through technology.
As we ramp up for Drago’s eventual fight with Rocky, someone makes the accusation that the former is using steroids. As it turns out, we do see Drago get injected with some kind of ambiguous medical goo. We’re meant to compare that to Rocky’s salt-of-the-earth training methods (lifting sleds and swinging hammers and so forth) but realistically, between Dolph Lundgren (age 28) and Sylvester Stallone (age 39), who do we really think is on the juice?
It speaks to an implicit American hypocrisy that either the character of Rocky, or Sylvester Stallone himself, is in a movie that shames the use of steroids while showing up wearing a body so shredded as to be impossible for a man of his age.
Before Drago gets the chance to fight Rocky, he has an exhibition match with Apollo Creed. On fight day, Creed comes out to the ring in the most elaborate and ridiculous entrance ever seen before or since. It’s a three-minute dance sequence where Creed, dressed up as Uncle Sam, dances his way into the ring while fireworks explode around him and dozens of backup dancers, all set to a live performance of “Living in America” by James Brown. The whole sequence is patriotic, excessive, and gaudy. Even Adrian and Rocky roll their eyes at the display. It’s about the most Americanly-coded performance possible but what happens to the boxer at the centre of it all? He gets punched to death. There is no question of who wins that fight nor is there any question of how little value there is in American sensationalism.
In a subsequent scene, Rocky is at a press conference along with some of Drago’s handlers. Here, as much as anywhere, more support for the Soviet Union comes to light. When it is announced that Rocky will be fighting Drago in Russia, the room explodes with horror. Keep in mind that everyone was 100% okay with Soviet Drago coming over to the States in order to fight but as soon as it’s suggested that it’s Russia’s turn for home field advantage, suddenly everyone goes bananas? Then, Drago’s wife, Ludmilla, goes on to explain the request, saying that they don’t feel safe in America. “You have this belief that you are better than us,” she says. “You have this belief that your country is so very good and we are so very bad. You have this belief that you are so fair and we are so very cruel.” Another Russian takes over the monologue, “It is all lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government!” In four movies, we have yet to hear any speech that sounds so well thought-out. Once we do, it’s out of the mouths of alleged enemies who sound like reasonable individuals who are frustrated by the unfair treatment they face.
Fast forward to the final fight when Rocky finally meets Drago in the ring. As the fighters make their entrances, the American commentators are blissfully unaware of the delusion and hypocrisy they show as they chastise the Russian spectators for booing Rocky. They call it the worst display of hatred they have ever seen at a boxing event, despite the fact that the abuse hurled at Drago in his fight against Creed was exponentially louder and more vicious. As Ludmilla has already pointed out, Americans are incredibly skilled at ignoring their own faults and flaws while disparaging the same behaviour in others.
When the fight starts, in typical Rocky franchise fashion, Rocky begins with his usual technique of getting the ever-loving crap kicked out of him. Drago continues to dominate Rocky through the majority of 14 rounds. Sure, he takes a few good punches and gets his face scrunched up but, realistically, Drago is winning the fight all the way through. It’s not until he abandons his Socialist ideals for personal satisfaction that Drago really gets into trouble. Between the 14th and 15th rounds, Drago yells “I fight to win! For me! For me!” In a truly American movie, this guy would be a hero, rebelling against the oppressive shackles of Communism but this is Socialist Rocky IV. When Drago loses sight of the common Russian good and devotes himself entirely to selfish acquisition of glory, he is soundly defeated. Don’t let the American flag draped around Rocky at the end of the movie fool you; he is the Soviet champion of boxing. In sticking with his ideals of strength, and endurance he has won over the crowd and become a better symbol of communist culture than Drago, who has fallen prey to the American charms of selfishness.
Rocky IV is propaganda but just not the way it pretends to be. In mockingly celebrating an American culture of consumption, delusion, ignorance, and hypocrisy, communism can’t help but seem like the more reasonable way to live.
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Rocky IV is also available from Amazon as part of the Undisputed Collection