By: John M Jerva
It’s weird as I feel this should be an entry in Action Rewind or Essential Action but seeing that it’s a director’s cut and a reimagining of the original 1985 film, it feels like reviewing a new film that has just come out. Hollywood star Sylvester Stallone has dabbled with director’s cuts of his films before and to this day I only watch his definitive cut of the first Expendables film as I believe it truly made that movie better and enhanced a movie I already loved. Stallone sacrifices certain aspects of his films for a wide theatrical release but gets opportunities to revisit some of them and change the things that he feels didn’t work or just simply puts in material that enhances the overall viewing experience.
During the COVID lockdown, Stallone went back to the drawing board on Rocky IV which he helmed over 35 years ago and while many feel that this is one of the weakest entries in the franchise, I always had this one as tops on my list. It was pure 80’s and most of it was like a music video but I thought it was still the most dramatic one in the series with the death of Apollo Creed played by Carl Weathers. Let’s not forget that it has some of the greatest training montages in sports film history.
Now we have Stallone’s definitive version titled Rocky Vs. Drago. I will say first hand that this cut changes the tone of the movie a great deal making it a more somber experience and Stallone adds in more dramatic character interactions. It is funny that the cut is almost the same length as the original as Sly has basically removed just as much as he put in but we do get 40 or so minutes of never before seen footage that drastically alters the movie.
One of the biggest differences is the opening as the bombastic version from the original is removed and in its place we get a more solemn approach. Gone is the visual of the American flag boxing glove converging with the Soviet model and instead we get more footage of the third film. I was immediately drawn to this newer opening and it peaked my interest.
I’m not going to go into all the changes as that would take all day plus I would think that you would want to go into it the film not knowing a lot. I will say that the added dramatic tinge is welcome and I especially liked the newer scenes between Stallone and Weathers. I believe it showcased better at just how great a friendship the two fighters shared.
Stallone also adds more touching and tender moments between himself and Adrian played by Talia Shire. Adrian was always the compass for Rocky when he’s lost and his rock in life so it’s fitting that their relationship is heightened in this version.
Stallone also gives Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago more to do and I felt that he was more of a sympathetic character this time around. This version of the film is a much better prequel to Creed II and it would make for a great double feature. Yes, he still ruthlessly beats Creed thus causing his death but you can see the fact that his brutal upbringing has created a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts.
Stallone has also removed most of the 80’s excess which I didn’t have a problem with in the first place. Gone is the silly robot that Rocky gives Paulie for his birthday and actually Burt Young is given less to do here as a lot of his comedic scenes are cut. Once again, I was completely fine with the original but I could see where Stallone was going with these decisions.
Fans will be happy to know that the two exceptionally 80’s training montages are still there and I was happy as they really drive home the fact that these two men literally go through training hell and I always loved the differences in style as Drago’s preparation is the best that money and science can buy and Rocky’s is good old fashioned low fi and stripped down spit in your hands work. The music also was a highlight and that is still a part of the proceedings. After all, Rocky climbing the mountain to eventually shout “Drago!” was one of the best goosebump parts of the movie.
The funeral scene where we say goodbye to Apollo is slightly different and it’s for the better. Stallone infuses a more heart felt and wrenching speech from Rocky that’ll literally make you weep and blame your tears on onions being near by. This added and altered speech from Balboa drives home the close friendship that the two men had elevating the stakes for the rest of the film.
Stallone does make some questionable editing choices but he probably had his reasons but this Director’s Cut is like his others as some things are mysteriously removed. This is one of the main reasons that I believe that I can’t pick out which version I like better. Simply put, there are pros and cons to both so unlike the first Expendables movie which I never watch the original version any more, I will probably watch both Rocky IV versions in the future depending on what mood I’m in. There’s no clear cut winner in my eyes.
The classic and climatic boxing match is still there and in tact in all its glory and Rocky taking on Drago was always my favorite boxing match of the series. Aside from Rocky’s blistering and fast paced dismantling of Mr. T’s Clubber Lang in the third film, the fourth showdown was always tops in my books. I still get chills to this day when Rocky cuts Drago for the first time reaffirming just like Tony Burton’s Duke points out, he’s not a machine, he’s a man. It’s an exhilarating 180 turn in the fight that just hooks you in for the back and forth brawl to follow.
One of the best parts about the new version is like the original and it comes at the end as Rocky’s famous speech is still in tact and his sentiments ring just as true today as they did back in the 80’s. There’s also a short and sweet interaction between Rocky and Drago that is simply icing on the cake for the epilogue.
Overall, Rocky Vs. Drago is a curious film that at the same time makes things better but also removes aspects from the original that I enjoyed. Do I like this one better then the first? Simply put, no. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like it but it does mean that I like both for different reasons. Stallone has truly altered the original vision and while it heightens the dramatic aspect of it, the cut also stumbles in a few places. Like I said, I’ll watch both from here on out depending on what mood I’m in but I believe that makes it better as we now have two great versions of the same classic Rocky movie to enjoy. Simply put, I love this movie and the franchise and now there’s more of it to love.
Check out a great documentary where Stallone details his reworking of Rocky IV.