The original “Rocky” (1976) remains that rare breed of Italian Stallion that was both groundbreaking enough to win Best Picture and such a crowd pleaser that it became the year’s box-office champ, earning the title of the most influential sports movie ever made.
And yet, many fans of the eight-film franchise point to a more action-packed favorite, a guiltier pleasure in cinematic terms but a knockout in pop-culture lore, watching American underdog Rocky Balboa chop down Soviet juggernaut Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” (1985).
Get ready for a fascinating Cold War time capsule of patriotic fervor and “tear down this wall” possibility as Rocky’s gutsy in-ring demonstration wins over the hostile Russian crowd by declaring, “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”
Granted, a lot has changed between the U.S. and Russia since Ronald Reagan coined the phrase, “Make America Great Again.” As such, Stallone has removed the cheesier ’80s elements, particularly Paulie’s birthday robot. On Instagram, Stallone wrote, “The robot is going to the junkyard forever,” pleasing fans who long recognized it as the film’s albatross.
Don’t worry, Sly is not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The killer ‘80s soundtrack remains with Survivor’s “Burning Heart,” James Brown’s “Living in America,” Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out,” John Cafferty’s “Heart’s on Fire” and Vince DiCola’s “Training Montage,” as well as Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” first introduced in “Rocky III” (1982).
It’s hard to imagine the Rocky-verse without these tunes, making “The Rocky Story” compilation an unrivaled workout album, jacking you up for the weight room, treadmill, or better yet, to ditch the gym entirely to chop wood, climb mountains, trudge through snow with a plank across your back and do crunches suspended in mid-air. That’s “Rocky IV.”
Of course, the franchise is still most synonymous with pounding raw meat to Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” voted the American Film Institute’s No. 58 Movie Song of All Time. The original 1976 soundtrack also features underrated Conti instrumentals like “Philadelphia Morning” and “Going the Distance,” sampled by Notorious B.I.G. in “Victory” (1997).
Visually, the original film used this instrumental music to underscore slow-burn images that crescendoed into underdog inspiration, while “Rocky IV” was admittedly a lazy series of montages strung together. While these montages are entertaining like music videos, it’s a fair argument to say that they helped raise a generation to have shorter attention spans.
The reason John G. Alvidsen won Best Director in 1976 (beating Martin Scorsese!) was for patient imagery, symbolically showing Adrian trapped inside a pet-shop bird cage, then panning to a mirror to see her outside of the cage with Rocky. Later, she sits next to a bird cage when she asks to move in with him: “Need a roommate?” Love is freedom, hey, yo!
Aesthetics aside, the original was also technologically groundbreaking with the famous Steadicam shot climbing the Philly steps or a long single-take tracking from right to left showing Stallone sprinting along the docks, picking up speed in real time to pass a ship.
Alas, most viewers don’t care about shot selection. They’re coming solely for the David vs. Goliath fight, and for that, “Rocky IV” soars. Just as he avenged the death of trainer Mickey at the hands of Clubber Lang (Mr. T) in “Rocky III,” Rocky now avenges the death of his best friend and former rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), killed in the ring by Drago.
In 2015, I asked Dolph Lundgren what he would tell Creed’s son (Michael B. Jordan).
“I must break you,” Lundgren said, laughing. “Sorry kid, it’s your turn.”
Lundgren actually attended the premiere of the seventh installment, “Creed” (2015).
“I was gonna do ‘if he dies, he dies’ to my neighbor as we were sitting there in the seats, but I thought, no, I shouldn’t,” Lundgren said, quoting his villain’s callous line.
All joking aside, Lundgren enjoyed “Creed,” which earned Stallone an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor and launched director Ryan Coogler to make “Black Panther” (2018).
“It was very good,” Lundgren says. “The director did a great job and the lead actor is good. Stallone is very good in it. He plays an old Rocky and he really kind of plays his age, but he’s actually fitter than the guy he plays in the movie. … I was especially happy because they never showed how the father, Apollo Creed, was killed. … I’m the one that did it!”
At the time, Lundgren said that he didn’t want to see Drago resurrected on screen.
“He should rest in peace back in the ’80s,” Lundgren said. “That’s where he belongs.”
However, after the success of “Creed,” Lundgren reprised his role in “Creed II” (2018).
“How do you fulfill people’s expectations?” Director Steven Caple Jr. told WTOP. “You rewind it and ask yourself, ‘What would I want to see on screen? What would be too much? What did I like about the old Rockys? What didn’t I like about the old Rockys?’ You go from that foundation and you plant the seeds of callbacks I want from Drago’s son.”
Playing the role of Drago’s son was German-Romanian boxer Florian Munteanu.
“Dolph is one of the most humble and grounded people,” Munteanu said. “He really wanted to create a father-son bond. We had a lot of Russian classes together, he initiated working out together, having dinner together to create this bond so we are authentic on screen.”
As Hollywood ramps up for “Creed III” (2022), we’re reminded just how crucial Rocky vs. Drago was to the overall Rocky mythology in a franchise that continually reinvents itself.
Now, we rewind the clock to watch the titanic grudge match in Stallone’s director’s cut, which features 40 minutes of additional footage and a Q&A with Stallone, all of which is sure to leave moviegoers shouting from the mountain top, “Dragooooooooo!”