Tom Jolliffe pits Sylvester Stallone’s recent Directors Cut of Rocky IV up against the original theatrical cut…
Much like the iconic villain within it, Rocky IV defeats all man. A much treasured film which was always rated highly among Rocky fans, even if it might not have been objectively considered a great film. A wonderful cohesion of 80’s style, music, montages and fights, the film found a particular growing love for its unique quirks in the 00’s onward. A heady rise in rose tinted nostalgia for the 80’s saw people gaining a new found love for certain films, and Rocky IV aged particularly well. Perhaps it’s a growing acceptance and love in the modern era of hollow cinema. Escapist fare in the most pure form. As far as brain off at the door, there are few as perfectly formed and expertly delivered to rouse the senses like Rocky IV. It’s a visual and audio feast. A constant, sometimes melodramatic uppercut to the senses.
As Rocky Balboa on screen, and as the creative driving force of the franchise off it, Sly Stallone has created perhaps the most iconic and endearing underdog there’s ever been. Every film, bar the maligned fifth, has those triumphant moments and pulse pounding ring set pieces. Increasingly through the first three sequels, this balance between drama and spectacle leaned increasingly to the spectacle side, but at the same time never seemed to effect our will as viewer to see Rocky succeed. Part of this, aside from the continually affable portrayal by Sly, was in upping the odds each time. Whether it was the ferocity of Clubber Lang in Rocky III, or the gargantuan step up in the evolutionary scale in perfect soldier Ivan Drago in IV, those climactic bouts were (and still are) astounding. For myself too, and many, the fact the fourth film is so unabashedly dialled up to eleven on spectacle, and removed of all subtlety (almost) is what made it so great. Furthermore the Christmas time placement of the final bout with Drago has made this a Christmas time staple for many (myself included).
So Rocky IV, with its physically astonishing pugilists, in its own style, is cinematic perfection. The ultimate fast food that still manages to be emotionally rousing with one of the all time great fight sequences. With such love all around, one might imagine Stallone would have been perfectly happy with the impact and legacy the fourth film maintains. Evidently not though. Stallone has long had a tendency to announce things that didn’t come to pass, or spit ball train of thoughts on resurrecting old properties like Demolition Man, Tango and Cash, Cliffhanger and more. He perpetually rumoured the fourth Expendables film before it eventually went into production. He teased a number of rough ideas for Rambo V, including something not far removed from a Predator riff, before finally delivering Rambo: Last Blood (I’d have preferred Rambo against the ‘feral beast’ personally). So when he announced to all and sundry that he was contemplating a director’s cut for Rocky IV, I took it with a Dolph Lundgren sized pinch of salt.
Step forward to the recently departed November and colour me surprised…Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut hit cinemas and streaming. It’s the cut no fan of the original asked for, but likewise, couldn’t miss. Just prior to release, Stallone also released a fascinating, if rough, documentary on his process in moulding the fourth instalment into something more tonally consistent with the first two (and most of three). So how does this compare to the MTV styled majesty of the theatrical cut? Was it a worthwhile exercise? I won’t list every change to the minutest detail. There are several noticeable and positive changes to the film:
- Apollo Creed is a more rounded character. His demise, whilst still suitably brutal, is a little more subtle and slightly less one sided.
- Drago has more character. We see more of his character slipping through the cracks of his regimental, militaristically controlled demeanour. There were moments in the original (his rebellious tirade against his trainer after Rocky begins turning the tide in the fight), but more so here. There’s moments of him revelling in the Russian crowd support and showboating, and more is played out to give him a kind of personal pride and personality.
- The fights and montage have been recut and refined but thankfully still maintain the essence of what made them so great. The final fight is still jaw dropping and very exciting.
- The transfer is gorgeous. The film even more than ever looks utterly stunning.
- The biggest improvement for me, is that Adrian feels more of a rounded character again. It really does improve Talia Shire’s part in the film and it pays its dues to a character who, just as much as Rocky, made the first film.
As far as negatives, there’s not a lot that won’t appeal to fans, as generally the added layer of dramatic weight and touch ups are positive, and many alt takes interesting, even if they’re not always quite as good. There are a few moments here and there that could have been left on the cutting room floor. A slightly melodramatic funeral speech from Balboa clangs. There’s also a sequence with the boxing board (who deny the fight) which feels like an imperfect and rough version of what Stallone would later rework far better in Rocky Balboa. Likewise a few edits and scene restructures are a tad clumsy.
So it brings us neatly to fight night. A Vince DiCola and 80’s rock soundtrack laden theatrical cut verses a Vince DiCola and 80’s rock soundtrack laden director’s cut (thankfully the music was largely retained). These are two respective heavy hitters. The theatrical has the perfect package of cheesy spectacle at a very briskly paced 90 minutes that barely stops for drama. Those brief stops are still present in the directors cut (which is also lithe), but played out a tad more with some extra additional supplements too. So the DC throws some good swings for drama, even though objectively it’d be difficult to call this film weighty. Then there are the key selling points, the montages and fights. That final fight does seem to carry just that bit more weight because there’s added layers of drama prior, whilst there’s just that bit more subtlety in the sound mix and the swing of the fight. No longer is Balboa’s head pounded relentlessly by what sounds like asteroids colliding with the Earth. You’d struggle to call it grounded still, but it’s certainly more so, and still edited exceptionally well… and now the fight is over. The score cards are in. The verdict:
- The Winner (Jan-November): Rocky IV: The Directors Cut
- The Winner (Christmas Time): Rocky IV: The Robot Cut
What are your thoughts on Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago? Which version is best? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.