“Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago” enhances the beloved classic

Sylvester Stallone has answered a question that I’d never thought to ask: How do you make “Rocky IV” a better movie? Stallone’s 2020 project was a director’s cut of “Rocky IV” entitled “Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago.” The movie had a one-night Fathom Events screening in theaters on Thursday, and hit Amazon Prime Video the following Friday. Stallone added a new depth to the movie, which is notably very 1980s and emphasizes style over substance.

At the core of every “Rocky” movie is a universal underdog story; a man versus self conflict about perseverance. The low budget 1976 original is far more grounded than the bombastic Cold War drama that is “Rocky IV.” The director’s cut, while still “pure escapism,” puts more life into the characters and more emphasis on the little moments that make up the beloved film.

1985’s original “Rocky IV” is cut in a distinct way. Montages are what carry the movie from event to event. The movie is structured to be fast and jumpy. Picking up at the end of “Rocky III,” we’re treated to a long montage of Rocky’s heavyweight title defenses leading up to Apollo Creed’s fatal fight with Ivan Drago. One quick jump later, and Rocky is out in the mountains of Russia training to Vince DiCola’s epic score.

The biggest omission from the film is Paulie’s robot, which Stallone said can be found in a “Los Angeles dumpster.”

The director’s cut changes around some of the iconic montages — cutting in a little more Drago into the training montage, for instance. There are more small moments between Rocky and Adrian peppered throughout the film, which adds more depth to the strain that the Drago fight puts on their relationship.

Stallone wanted to do a special cut of a “Rocky” movie while the film industry was largely shut down during mid-2020. According to an interview with Fathom Events, “Rocky IV” was the most likely for MGM and him as well, because he always felt he could make it a better film.

It certainly is a good canvas for Stallone’s goal: to make the movie more grounded in reality. And there is no omission of the beloved montage scenes, which still serve as the film’s most distinct element. It’s still what carries the film from point to point.

This mixture of ideas was in no way aided by the film’s barely increased runtime. Most of the bulk was added to the beginning of the movie. After the funeral for Creed, everything speeds up, and the movie starts to feel like a bullet train to the titular fight.

For all of Stallone’s efforts, the beginning of the movie was definitely enhanced in this director’s cut. There were a few moments added between Rocky and Adrian before and after Creed’s death. Rocky has an extended part in his speech at Creed’s funeral, which is probably the best addition to the film.

Another area of emphasis for Stallone was characterizing Drago a bit more. My main gripe with the original film is Drago’s status as an emotionless propaganda machine for the Russians. What we get in “Creed II” is the better side of Drago — his motivations become more clear in that film. In the director’s cut, Drago gets more of his own soapbox.

Drago versus Rocky represents Russia versus America during a time when America had a clear No. 1 rival. Rocky’s speech on how it was better for him and Drago to kill each other in the ring rather than the two countries — which follows his climactic fight with Drago — can fall on deaf ears of nationalism.

The movie’s message still doesn’t change. Rocky wins over the Russian crowd with his efforts against Drago, and once again recaptures the underdog spirit he lost during his title defenses. Despite the sometimes wonky nature of the director’s cut, I respect Stallone’s commitment to recut something that still stands on its own.