By this point in the Rocky series, Sylvester Stallone had transformed the once sincere and humble Rocky Balboa into a muscular action hero who has more in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger than Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. Despite this, 1985's Rocky IV is a guilty pleasure - this mind-blowingly ridiculous film is easy to enjoy due to the inclusion of so much testosterone and cheese. In this sense, the quality of Rocky IV drastically varies depending on how you perceive it. As a Rocky movie, Rocky IV is abysmal - the human element has been drained from the series, and the flick contains a number of scenes which the original Rocky from 1976 would've found repugnant. However, if judged as an '80s action film, Rocky IV scrapes a passing grade - it's just so damn entertaining, with a barrage of enjoyable pop songs, a few exhilarating boxing bouts, and manliness seeping from every pore.
In the film, a Soviet boxer named Ivan Drago (Lundgren) travels to the United States hoping to make his mark on the country. Drago is a superbly conditioned athlete who was scientifically trained in the USSR, and his people propose a fight against World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa (Stallone). However, Rocky's good friend and former adversary Apollo Creed (Weathers) wants to be the first man to battle Drago in the ring. Unfortunately, Drago is too strong for Creed, and Creed is killed during the match. Rocky blames himself for the death due to his failure to throw in the towel before the crucial moment, and in an act of retribution he challenges Drago to a boxing match. With Apollo's former trainer Duke (Burton) by his side - along with his brother-in-law Paulie (Young) - Balboa travels to the USSR in order to prepare to take on Ivan Drago.
For Rocky IV, it's clear that Stallone forgot about all of the elements which made the original film such an unmitigated masterpiece. Rocky was a delightful, affecting movie populated with unique, lovable characters. Balboa was a clichéd character to be sure, but his colourful language and humble disposition made it easy to overlook the clichés. Rocky II retained these charms, but Rocky III marked a tremendous decline in quality for the franchise. And then along came Rocky IV. Punctuated by countless MTV-style musical montages, Rocky IV boasts a brilliant soundtrack, but the series has come a long way (in the wrong direction) from the human story that was the original Rocky. In fact, the title should have been Rocky IV: The Music Video, as more time is spent progressing the plot through lengthy, heavily-edited '80s-style montages than scenes of dialogue, drama or character development. At about 90 minutes, Rocky IV is the shortest entry in the series, and it's very lean. Similar to Rocky III, the antagonist comes out of nowhere, with no background or even a motivation. Meanwhile, you'll only root for Rocky based on his appearances in the first three movies.
After Rocky III, the pressure was on Sly to deliver another Rocky film before he became too old for the part (how ironic, looking back), and Rocky IV is therefore plagued with all the hallmarks of a rush-job. The dialogue is incidental and seems improvised, the acting is as mechanical as Paulie's robot, and the narrative is so painfully by-the-numbers that even those unfamiliar with the series will be able to figure out the ending a mile away. Also, Stallone appears to have cheated because he got away without actually telling a story - Rocky IV is a couple of fight scenes sandwiched between half a dozen montages. But fortunately, the film is not without its entertainment value. The formula still works, and Rocky IV is slickly-produced. The Balboa vs. Drago boxing fight is still fist-pumping and goosebump-inducing, even if it's the furthest thing from realism.
And then there's Dolph Lundgren, who looks more dopey than menacing as Ivan Drago. Dolph is a woeful actor, but at least his presence is tolerable and he delivered a few classic lines ("I must break you" is rock solid gold). However, Brigitte Nielsen - Stallone's wife of the period - was horribly miscast, and her Russian accent falls somewhere in between "woeful" and "offensive to actual Russians". In addition, Rocky IV is imbued with blatant, in-your-face jingoism which is about as subtle as one of Drago's jabs. Tunes like Living in America are on the soundtrack, while the stereotyping is offensively simplistic (USA = Good, and Russia = Evil). The pro-American propaganda is so prominent that another more appropriate title would have been Rocky IV: The Italian Stallion Enters The Cold War. Such content may have been relevant in 1985, but it's a problem that there's more flag-waving than human drama here. Added to this, it's clear that Stallone's stardom got to his head and made him slightly delusional - when the Soviets begin cheering for Rocky at the end, it's impossible not to roll one's eyes in disbelief.
Yet, while Rocky IV is atrocious from any respectable critical standpoint, it all works beautifully. The film is disposable franchise filmmaking at its best, and an exhilarating guilty pleasure - it's difficult not to love the film on some kind of juvenile level. The Rocky series had definitely run its course by this point, but Rocky IV is enjoyable if you approach it in the right mindset.