Friday, 26 November 2021

Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago - The Ultimate Director's Cut

Writer-director Sylvester Stallone returns to Rocky IV for a (belated) 35th anniversary Director's Cut, determined to trim and repackage his hyperbolic feature until it provides a more obvious point of connection with the rest of the punch-drunk boxing series - particularly the two most recent entries, Ryan Coogler's Creed and Steven Caple Jr's Creed II. Stallone's most obvious alterations then are focused around the character of Apollo Creed, unearthing unseen footage and alternative takes then sewing them back into the film in an attempt to massage the character's previously ignominious death towards some note of dignity. This director's cut also begins with a truly massive recap section, played upfront and presumably for neophytes, that slashes Rocky III down to eight minutes of footage centred around the moments where Rocky and Apollo's relationship thawed, transforming from a bruised-up rivalry into a dear friendship. 

Stallone and project editors Dov Samuel, Justin Barham and Kate Prescott have completely reorganised Rocky IV's first act, deleting Paulie's birthday party, and the rickety robot that his brother-in-law presents to him, to find more space for Carl Weathers and a kitchen corner for Talia Shire's worried Adrian. Weathers benefits the most in this assembly, his Creed elevated from an afterthought in Rocky's Cold War battering arc to an active participant in his own, curtailed, story. With Rocky unenthused by challenges from Drago and his Russian entourage it's Apollo who lobbies for, then receives, the exhibition fight with Dolph Lundgren's Soviet superman. The former heavyweight champion explicitly doing so out of a misplaced sense of patriotism - one lost on the comfortably oblivious Balboas. In the theatrical cut Apollo assumes this sacrificial lamb role out of pure plot mechanism; here Stallone splices around his own indifferent boxer, allowing an anxious Apollo to fill the frame and speak to his friend about geopolitical concepts that - quite apparently - have never occurred to the Italian Stallion. 

Structurally, the fight between Apollo and Drago is completely different here too. Stallone and his editors weave a palpable sense of unease into the deliberately bombastic proceedings. While Apollo dances around with James Brown to Living in America, the film focuses on the grim expression taking hold on the faces of Adrian and Sylvia Meals' Mary Anne Creed. There is no submission to the gaudiness of the pre-fight spectacle. While Drago has been colour corrected to the point where he seems to be radiating light, Apollo's cavorting strikes a note of mania or, perhaps more accurately, desperation in this edit. Weathers plays a condemned man trying to bluster his way through an impending death sentence. Speaking of wives, Drago's other half, played by Stallone's ex Brigitte Nielsen, has been almost completely excised from the film. Ludmilla's role has been reduced to little more than a neutral glance between herself and Mrs Creed and the moment where she allows Drago's handler, played by Michael Pataki, to place a cigarette in her mouth - an interlude that has always suggested a note of sexual impotence in Lundgren's technological titan. 

The decision to omit so much of Nielsen's performance is disappointing - even suspect given Stallone's marital history with the actress - but the deletions do somewhat align a 1985 character - who was, originally, aggressively personable - with the Ice Queen seen in the second Creed film. 2018's Ludmilla, now cushy with the golden oligarchs running modern Russia, goes out of her way to reject her former husband and their child, essentially consigning them to an ongoing exile in Ukraine. Generously, you could offer then that Stallone was simply reaching for a sense of unity with the Caple Jr film rather than, say, picking at a personal grudge. With Nielsen's character all but erased Stallone instead uses Lundgren to suggest a (malfunctioning) human element within the Soviet machinery. Following his fight with Creed - in which Ivan has been used as an unthinking proxy to level a blow against the United States - Drago starts chanting his own name, over and over, as if on the verge of a tearful breakthrough. A programming blip that seems to suggest that the Russians are pumping their prize boxer full of something more than just steroid cocktails. 

Originally screened at 1.85:1, this re-aligned cut crops the image to cinemascope dimensions, Stallone further focusing the eye on contorting faces as the beats powering his film's edit. It's an assembly edict not completely dissimilar to the one Stallone and director John Flynn employed for their prison film Lock Up. There the weather-beaten extras conferred weight on an otherwise light story; here Stallone's choices seem indicative of a nostalgic affection for many of his fellow cast members. Thankfully, none of Rocky IV's unassailable training montages have been altered or re-ordered to any significant degree; if anything the sequences are buoyed by a modern sound mix that discerns discrete layers and electronic separation in Vince DiCola and John Cafferty's adrenalin hammered music. As with the opening Creed bout, the Moscow set sequence that concludes IV has been completely reworked. Stallone's director's cut uses pounding repetition and overlapping, multi-channel, intensity, to place the viewer inside the action. IV now generates a panicking back-and-forth, not just in terms of the physical assaults hammering away at Rocky and Drago but also the confidence-sapping glances they each take at horrified loved ones. This decision - coupled with a foley design that suggests wooden clubs striking meat - leaves the audience with the unshakable impression of having witnessed two beasts, locked together in agony, pulverising each other's ribcage. 

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