I spent the best part of my teenage years watching VHS re-runs of the entire Rocky franchise: a franchise that inspired me to box. So when I saw the release of Rocky Vs. Drago - The Ultimate Director’s Cut (a release which I nearly missed If it wasn’t for an inconspicuous tweet), there was only going to be one place to watch it - the big screen. After managing to book a ticket to the one and only showing before it’s released on stream, I headed off to my local Odeon.
Now for me personally, Rocky IV may claim victory for the greatest soundtrack, but ultimately, it’s one of the weakest films in the franchise - controversial, I know; as most will opt for Rocky V, but Rocky V offers a great circular narrative to the first four films and a bridge to the films that came after. Therefore, I wasn’t expecting much from the new director’s cut of Rocky IV - just a handful of extended scenes that would appeal to only the most esoteric Rocky fans. But I was wrong.
As with most films that I watch, I like to go in blind, I try not to watch trailers, listen to reviews or read the synopsis. I enjoy watching the story unfold without any prior influence or spoilers. So after taking a seat on a luxury recliner, and gorging on the exquisite nacho cheese sauce, I was pleasantly surprised to see the film begin with an insightful, 20 minute Q&A with Stallone himself. And it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t just a “money-spinner” which I initially assumed; it was in actual fact, a brand new cut that took 9 months to put together - a cut so extensive, it completely changed the entire feel of the film.
I'm going to start with my biggest gripe; a gripe that I was hoping had been left on the cutting room floor, but as the scene approached, and the swell of anticipation inflated, I was soon left feeling flat. Now, this isn't a criticism of Sly (who worked relentlessly for the best part of a year - check out the making of Rocky vs. Drago here), it's just what I would’ve done differently if I was at the helm of the chopping board. The scene in mention is that of a needle entering Drago’s arm during a training montage - implying that Drago was using anabolic steroids.
Stallone may have had his reasons, but I find this narrative leaves a sour note that lingers on the palate. Yes, doping exists, but so do elite athletes, and although he may have his faults, I would much rather have seen Drago portrayed solely as the conditioned, disciplined, super athlete that he was. Implying Drago was a cheat has ramifications that ripple across the entire film - especially with the exhibition bout with Apollo Creed, and his subsequent death that follows. When it comes to boxing, any boxer will tell you that there ain’t no such thing as a “friendly” -at the age of 43 and 5 years retired, Apollo should have never stepped foot in the ring with a six-foot-five, 260 pound, prime wrecking machine without prior research. Therefore, if the over-the-hill Apollo had died at the hands of an elite athlete because of his ego, he becomes the 1985 Darwinism Heavyweight Champion of the World. But on the other hand, if Apollo’s death can be attributed to the use of an illegal, performance-enhancing substance by his opponent- well now it’s starting to look a lot more like manslaughter.
Maybe Stallone wanted to portray Drago as having beyond human capabilities - he’d probably of given Drago a T-800 skeleton if he thought he could’ve got away with it (Rocky Vs. Terminator - coming to a cinema near you), but in the end, I just don’t believe it enhances the movie in any way whatsoever.
Now that my *minor* gripe is out the way, let’s look at the improvements. Firstly, the entire film has had the pace kicked out of it. No longer does the film feel rushed, but rather like we're watching a story naturally progress. A story that’s less superficial, more grounded, with additional scenes and extended emotive dialogue that offers a more human connection. The cheesy one-liners are out. The abysmal Robot with its flirtatious and alluring voice has been scrapped, and the Cold War element has been subdued.
The film also digs deeper into the reasons why Apollo stepped back into the ring. The audience is given a chance to understand his motivations, his convictions and his philosophy. Furthermore, the funeral scene (which was lacklustre and skimmed over in the original) has also been strung-out with supplementary empathetic sequences - one of which contains a heart-wrenching speech by Tony Burton, who plays the role of Apollo's long-time coach, Tony “Duke” Evers. The emotionally charged segment also reveals Rocky expressing more guilt for the tragedy in which he blames himself. This time around, The funeral scene hits home hard, and if you’re the emotional type, I wouldn’t bet against you reaching for a Kleenex.
Sly also opted to give more screen time to Drago. His dialogue is still minimal but additional scenes of his facial expressions offer a subtextual nuance and go a long way in increasing his terrifying demeanour, and in turn, increases the audiences' angst. And finally, the fight scenes have been completely polished. The implausible punches are gone, and the monotonous one-sidedness has been replaced with an exhilarating equilibrium that will not only have you on the edge of your seat but additionally, induce spine-tingling moments that will make you want to literally jump for joy.
To conclude, the new cut transforms an average film into a masterpiece. It embodies a more serious tone which aligns more with the look and feel of the original motion picture. Rocky Vs. Drago will make you want to laugh, cry, wince, eat lightning, crap thunder and take a five-mile run whilst listening to “Hearts on Fire”. But the most powerful lesson that I take away from this new iteration, is that not only does subtle editing have a colossal impact on the final presentation of a film, but (in the immortal words of Rocky Balboa) “ain't nothing over, till it's over”.