Who Needs a Rocky IV Director’s Cut? In 2021, Apparently All of Us.
This is a review of the Rocky IV Director’s Cut, a project I am very surprised to write about. It may be pedantic, but I’ve always tried to differentiate movies from films. Films being an artistic practice while movies are made for commercial success and profit. When you hear of a Director’s Cut being released, rarely would you expect them to come from the “movies” category. Nobody expects a Director’s Cut of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. What could Michael Bay have missed? Thankfully, my binary is flawed. During lockdown, Sylvester Stallone finally found the time he needed to revisit the wildest Rocky movie and give us the product he always wanted.
What’s more, he allowed a friend to make a documentary of the process and put it on YouTube for free. I can’t tell you how excited I was to get a glimpse into the creative process of one of Hollywood’s oddest stars. Someone whose first screenplay was written in three days and went on to win best picture (Rocky) and who then developed into a mega celebrity committed to writing and directing cheesy action flicks for the next 40 years. Rocky IV certainly fit the cheesy build and captured a very tacky moment in time. Though I always loved watching it, I had to assume there weren’t better options available to the editors than what appeared in the final product.
The Rocky IV Director’s Cut Documentary
The documentary shows us quite a bit into Stallone’s thoughts around the Rocky universe. “Every society deals in mythology,” says Stallone. And for Sly, action movies were our society’s mythology. Soldiers and cops are the mythology he follows, which certainly explains his own politics over the years as well as the movie roles he chased since the mid-80s. Yet he doesn’t consider Rocky an action film, or even a sports film. It’s a serious drama to Stallone, who sees the movie as rugged individualism against a machine (class, culture, Drago, to name a few).
In the documentary, we are told the original script of Rocky IV did provide some political agency for the Americans. Apollo Creed wanted to fight the Russian. Where Apollo wanted the role of political hero, it was cut from the final take and instead he pursued the fight for hubris. In the version we got, only the Russians are pursuing a political agenda. The Americans are just responding and defending.
So much of Sly’s early work was political in nature. First Blood was the story of a Vietnam vet returning home only to face stereotyping and hostility, and the first three Rocky movies are supported by class conflict. It’s a shame such political agency was cut to support the propaganda of the Cold War.
It surprised me to learn Stallone didn’t view the movies as political when considering so much of the class conflict Rocky struggles with throughout all 8 films. An uneducated gangster who doesn’t fit into the high class world his boxing takes him and lives out a life as a middle class restaurant owner all sound rather political to me.
Not to mention the race relations and cultural conflict between Rocky, Apollo, and Clubber Lang from the first 3 movies. But it also becomes clear in the documentary that Stallone fully bought into the propaganda he was making. Believing Rocky to be Joe Louis to Drago’s Max Schelling (the Nazi boxer who represented the apex of the white race). Rocky IV is the culmination of his views on American symbolism and is the start of his push to dive into the action hero role after.
Reviewing the Rocky IV Director’s Cut
The majority of the changes that are made in the director’s cut are more style than substance. So much of the documentary is Stallone griping about things he missed from juggling other projects instead of focusing on Rocky IV’s post-production. Whether it be the use of British announcers, a Philly voice yelling at Rocky while in Moscow, or the warm filter making all the Russians look tan. The abundance of quick cuts prevented the viewer from being immersed in the picture. When discussing one closeup Sly turns to the camera with a look of disgust, “It’s just too…vain.”
The greatest improvement from theatrical cut to director’s is certainly the fight scenes. Instead of 20+ fake punches with egregious sound effects are replaced by more deliberate and accurate portrayals of a boxing match. Stallone found a few takes of real punches he landed on Dolph Lundgren to add into the fight scene as he said, “I was a cheap shot artist.” Now, Rocky and Drago trade punches as opposed to 10 rounds of a Rocky beatdown followed by an incomprehensible comeback.
The greatest controversies feature around Stallone’s decision to handle the rest of the cast. Burt Young’s Paulie character received noticeably less screen time. Paulie’s robot was also cut out entirely as was the Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas tape he listened to in the Russian cabin. Bridgette Nelson’s character also has a different vibe. The original has her cast as Drago’s supportive (albeit managerial) wife, while this new cut has her role changed to more of a keeper than a partner. The documentary doesn’t really speak to Stallone and Nelson’s failed marriage, but I can’t help but wonder if that may have affected the outcome.
All in all, the Rocky IV Director’s Cut certainly improves on the original film. The montages are still long, the fighting intense, and the patriotism more than over the top. I think this version will certainly age better than the original, but I do wonder if taking away the cheese factor will lessen the nostalgia. Sly does issue one regret, that he shouldn’t have killed Apollo. While I think Carl Weathers would agree, I can’t help but be happy his character wasn’t tainted like everyone else in Rocky V.