Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago — The Ultimate Director’s Cut will be available on digital and On-Demand Nov. 12.
Thirty-six years ago this month, Rocky IV hit theaters and sent the iconic Italian Stallion (Sylvester Stallone) to Russia to avenge the in-ring death of his pal Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) at the hands of Soviet pugilist Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Arriving in the midst of “peak Stallone” (the star’s Rambo: First Blood, Part II was a smash hit that same year), Rocky IV always sat uncomfortably with the rest of series, both thanks to its MTV-inspired editing style and the intrusion of rah-rah jingoism into what had been a fairly apolitical series up to that point.
Even as it was derided critically, Rocky IV took in a very healthy $300 million at the global box office and earned a permanent place in the annals of “so bad it’s good” 1980s kitsch. One would think this “glass half full” reception would have been enough for Rocky’s creator, but clearly it never sat well for Stallone. And more than three decades later, the writer-director-star hit the edit bay again to see if he couldn’t fine tune his most commercially successful Rocky movie –– and shock of shocks, he’s done it!
Armed with the unwieldy title Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago – Ultimate Director’s Cut, this new version adds a total of two minutes to the original 91 minute runtime, but it also boasts 40+ minutes of new footage woven throughout. As someone who’s watched Rocky IV so many times I know practically every shot and scene transition, I can say some of the changes are so subtle they’ll likely pass without notice for many. However, others are so substantial as to alter the entire trajectory and emotional weight of certain scenes.
There’s always a risk in filmmakers revisiting works decades after the fact. Sometimes, as with 2006’s Richard Donner edit of Superman II, the lack of finishing materials makes the recut feel lesser than it should be. Other times, as with Francis Coppola’s re-edit of The Godfather III last year, there’s no amount of re-editing that can paper over casting or story mistakes. But Rocky IV largely dodges these pitfalls thanks to the combination of a wide array of alternate scenes to choose from, and wise decisions on what to keep and what to change.
Don’t worry, the various music video montages –– including the “No Easy Way Out” montage comprised of other montages and Apollo Creed’s dance number with James Brown –– are all still here (albeit all with subtle changes throughout), and most of Vince DiCola’s extremely ‘80s synth score remains in place (though some orchestral Bill Conti tracks from the other films have been added as well). And while the arc of the story remains largely the same, it moves at a more deliberate pace rooted in the character interactions as opposed to a full-speed hurtle towards the third act brawl.
As far as deletions, the most talked-about will likely be the dreaded robot. Yes, Rocky IV has a side plot with a seemingly self-aware robot living in and keeping house in the Balboa mansion, and everyone in the movie acts like it’s the most normal thing in the world. What was likely the result of a fleeting fancy at the time of production ended up becoming a running joke for three decades. Stallone has wisely chopped every instance of the robot, and wouldn’t you know, we don’t miss it even a little bit.
Bigger picture, there are other, more meaningful changes throughout. For instance, the original opening montage, which quickly recaps the finale of Rocky III, with Rocky regaining his title from Clubber Lang (Mister T), has been swapped out for a deeper dive highlighting the key role played by Apollo Creed in getting Rocky back on his feet. While I do miss the earlier take cut to the strains of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (which is now heard during the closing credits), the new take shifts the focus to the Balboa-Creed friendship, making Apollo’s arc feel more tragic as a result (helped by some more discussion between the two friends leading up to Creed’s fateful fight).
In fact, it’s rather remarkable to see just how many varied takes Stallone got during the mid-’80s shoot, with Creed’s funeral allowing for a moving speech from his trainer Duke Evers (Tony Burton) but also a much more emotional farewell from Stallone’s Balboa. Despite the runtime remaining basically the same, the shift in focus and story progression allows more breathing room and build-up. We also get some meaningful interplay between Rocky and his wife Adrian (Talia Shire), highlighting just how underserved Shire was previously.
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Heck, even Dolph Lundgren’s bad guy boxer Ivan Drago gets a few extra moments here, which one imagines came at least partly from Stallone having revisited the character in his script for 2018’s Creed II and seen an opportunity, separate from Cold War fervor, to make him a bit more than a monosyllabic man-mountain. Not to say Drago is suddenly delivering Eugene O’Neill monologues, but he’s given just a hint more texture now than we got before. In fact, the only character who doesn’t get to do more in this re-edit is Burt Young’s Paulie, whose arc went away along with his robot love interest (don’t ask).