Rocky IV

Sylvester Stallone’s commercially successful Rocky series focuses on the importance of charac­ter for living a decent life. The boxer brings out whatever is decent in the people about him; for example, a homely Talia Shire reveals her beauty. But maintaining a good character and enhancing it is arduous; after all, it is easy enough to lose good habits. Hence the audience’s fascination with his rigorous training-early-morning runs through the streets of Philadelphia and brutal workouts. Is it any wonder that audiences cheer his triumphs loudly? Rocky embodies the way Americans like to view themselves: hard-working and decent.

The latest installment in the Rocky series emphasizes these same themes, but the purpose of all these good habits is lost. The scientifically trained Soviet champion Ivan Drago challenges all comers. Former Rocky antagonist and now friend Apollo Creed accepts the challenge, for a mixture of motives, both noble and base, Rocky did not want his good friend to fight the robot-like Drago, but Creed insists that he “can’t change” who he is—a fighter. In a gaudy exhi­bition at Las Vegas, the Russian kills Creed. Stunned, Rocky seeks to slay the Dragon—in Moscow on Christmas Day.

Again, as in Rocky III, Rocky trains to imitate his opponent’s strengths: He moves to Russia and lives as a peasant, while scientists put Drago through his paces. Before the Politburo and a Mikhail Gorbachev both confident in science, and a screaming mob of Russians, the two fight for the world championship—with predictable results. But there are some nice touches: Like the vulgar American crowd in Las Vegas, the Moscow crowd switches sides when it sees an upset in the making. And Drago, when threatened ringside by a party functionary, rebels and insists that he fights for himself—doubtless encouraged by the cult of personality the Party has thrown about him, which includes raising his portrait up to those of Marx and Lenin while the “International” is played. In breaking with the Party, the boxer had broken the hold of both the scientific and the socialistic tyrannies.

Unfortunately, the film’s ending, like those of Rambo and Red Dawn, betrays virtually all the good that preceded it. As Rambo does in the end, Stallone here calls for understanding—”You can change,” he shouts at the world—and Gorbachev rises and applauds. But this means that the “born-again” Rocky can change his nature as a fighter and cease to fight. And this weari­ness with struggle is what the film winds up promoting, even as it lauds discipline. Could the ending not have stressed Drago’s break with Communism rather than Stallone’s news network slop? Or would that have been equally pointless, assuming the Las Vegas and Moscow mobs, and Drago and Rocky, are fundamentally alike—that is, both equally bourgeois in their desires and goals?

Rocky might win by being able to take punches, but this is a dubious policy for the West. With films as soft on Communism as Red Dawn (see “The Problem with Red Dawn,” Claremont Review, Fall 1984, p. 26), Rambo, and, now, Rocky IV, one wonders how it is that film critics can whine about jingoism at the movies