I wanted to write a Rocky article on December 26th because of it being Boxing Day and all, but then I got in a rotten blizzard-based car accident and that ruined my last couple of days. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but my wallet’s taking a hit. Feeling a bit down, I figured to hell with it. Writing about Dolph Lundgren might cheer me up a little.
I love the Rocky series. The first one is a genuinely great film and what follows is an excessive tour through the 80’s. It loses its inspiration for Rocky II, becomes cartoony fun in Rocky III and Rocky IV, becomes a complete shell of itself in Rocky V (though let’s be fair, “Get up, you son of a bitch! Because Mickey loves you…” redeemed it ever so slightly) and Stallone went out of his way to make Rocky Balboa happen, thereby leaving the series on a critical high note. Despite my unhealthy love for Mr. T and the way Rocky III is responsible for helping shape the landscape of mainstream professional wrestling, my favorite of the series has always been Rocky IV.
Rocky IV is so enjoyable in its simplicity. It’s a movie with two plot points: Drago kills Apollo and Rocky defeats Drago. Also, there’s a robot in it for no reason. There’s a robot and Rocky’s brother-in-law reprograms it to have a sexy lady voice.
The thing the movie is mostly remembered for is the antagonist, Ivan Drago. Of all the Rocky opponents, Drago gets the least screen time. He’s mostly spoken for by the Soviet representatives and his wife. When he does speak (he has a total of nine lines), he usually comes off as a cold monster, devoid of any humanity. That’s on the surface, though. On the surface, Rocky IV is the story of the Soviets coming to America to smugly show off their boxing superman, leading to Rocky Balboa watching his good friend Apollo Creed die in an attempt to defend his country’s honor. Rocky then avenges his friend by taking down the big Russian and gives a rallying speech that wins over the commies.
I’ve watched the movie enough to notice that there’s more to it and especially more to Drago. You see, while Rocky is indeed a pawn in a Cold War battle, he doesn’t appear to understand the true nature of what’s going on around him. What I’m saying is that as far as I see it, Ivan Drago is the true protagonist of Rocky IV.
To the series’ credit, no matter how bad they got, they never made Rocky’s enemies fully evil. Or more specifically, not those he fought in the ring. They all have legitimate reasons for doing what they do. Apollo, Clubber Lang, Tommy Gunn and Mason Dixon all challenge Rocky for the sake of gaining respect in one way or another. Thunderlips gleefully shows that he only assaulted Rocky for the sake of giving people a good show. So what of Drago? He’s just a Soviet weapon, right?
Well… yeah. But he’s not happy about it. His actions and quotes in his battle with Rocky show that despite being a lackey for the USSR, he’s got a deep passion for boxing and, dare I say it, a sense of honor buried deep inside. You can’t really blame the guy for allowing the heads of state to lead him around and tell him what to do. They’re allowing him to box and show his dominance around the world, they’ve stuck him with an at-the-time hot wife for the sake of publicity and the alternative to following orders probably isn’t pretty, especially since these officials aren’t on the up-and-up.
Drago’s problems finally pop up when he fights Apollo.
Now, in my eyes, Apollo Creed is a gigantic self-serving asshole in Rocky IV. There’s nothing all that heroic in his actions and despite his Uncle Sam outfit and stars-and-stripes trunks, his challenging of Drago has nothing to do with fighting for America. Apollo is fighting because he wants to die.
It’s pretty apparent in the first act of the movie. Apollo lives in a big mansion and has a ton of money from his reign as champion, but as he gets closer to middle age, it’s become apparent that his glory days are gone and are never coming back. He’s distraught at this and it shows when he spends time watching old fights with Rocky, knowing full well that there won’t be any new fights to watch. When he hears about Drago, he finds an out. He proceeds to verbally rip into him and makes such a show out of it that even if the Ruskies weren’t planning on making an example out of him, they are now!
And so, he goes into the fight, knowing that he’ll go out fighting. He does this while insisting Rocky doesn’t throw in the towel and gives his wife a knowing final wink. Like many suicidal people, he doesn’t take into account the ramifications of his actions on those he loves. Hell, the global ramifications too!
We have a fight and on paper it appears that Drago kills the brave Apollo because Drago’s a heartless villain. It’s really Apollo who goes in there wanting to die while Drago appears almost reluctant. Sure he coldly tells him, “You will lose,” but his post-fight interview says a whole lot more. Delivering the dark lines, “I cannot be defeated,” “I defeat all man,” and, “Soon… I defeat real champion,” should sound just as stone cold, but Drago’s delivery is elsewhere. The look on his face and the inflection of his words make it seem like he’s trying not to scream, “HOLY SHIT I JUST KILLED APOLLO CREED! OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD! WHY DID THEY HAVE ME DO THAT?! I USED TO WATCH THIS GUY AS A KID AND NOW HIS BLOOD IS ALL OVER ME! JESUS FUCK!”
I just hate how bad the editing is when he delivers, “If he dies, he dies.” He goes from being on the verge of tears and nigh hysterical to deadpan at the drop of a hat for the sake of dramatic effect.
Apollo’s selfish actions lead to this international grudge match where both competitors are driven to destroy each other. Drago has to pull another in-ring hit to keep his bosses happy and Rocky needs to avenge his buddy. As Drago says, “I must break you.” Key word is “must”. Not “will”. He’s doing this because he has to. Rocky ends up helping save Drago’s soul by kicking his ass. Rocky has the will to live and the skill to do it, even if he does suffer from some serious brain damage that’ll be waved away in a couple decades. Drago is ordered to kill Rocky, but he can’t because Rocky is too strong. “He’s not human. He’s a piece of iron.”
Rocky’s spirit leads to the communist crowd to rally behind him and that gets the Russian politicians angry. One of the representatives shows up to yell at Drago for being a failure, even though the fight is still going on. Win or lose, Drago is considered a failure for some political bullshit. That’s when he’s had enough, puts his hands on his boss and flings him away by the throat, garnering a shout of, “NYET!” from his wife.
Drago stands up for himself and lets it be known: “I fight to win! For me! For me!” The crowd is still against him, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not about them. He may not get the public respect that all the other Rocky opponents hungered for, but he has made a step in regaining his self-respect and that’s just as important. His final line is a more honorable quote as he and Rocky begin the final round, touching gloves: “To the end.”
Drago loses the fight and is shown for a couple shots seeming down. Yet the last time we see him is during Rocky’s big speech about how much better it is that the Cold War played out between these two pugilists instead of a bunch of soldiers. Drago appears to be listening in to the speech in a way that suggests that he sees some wisdom in it rather than simple, expected bitterness.
Maybe Rocky did realize that Apollo played him for a fool and set him up with his “heroic” suicide. Rocky never mentions Apollo during his speech. No dedication or anything. He shows more of a nod to the big, bad Russian than his dead friend. Apollo is never really brought up again in the following movies. Hell, Rocky isn’t even wearing the iconic trunks in Rocky Balboa. Uncle Ben he is not. He tried to go out in a blaze of glory and ended up forgotten about and ignored.
As for Ivan Drago? Interestingly enough, Drago appears to be the only Rocky opponent to get any kind of official epilogue. In the book Rocky: The Ultimate Guide, it’s explained that Drago was indeed punished for attacking that Soviet official via being blackballed from boxing. Once the Soviet Union fell apart, Drago was able to get back into the ring and proceeded to have a healthy career that included becoming a heavyweight champion and blazing through the opposition with 30 straight knockouts. Not bad.
Here’s hoping one of those knockouts was over Tommy Gunn. I’d shell out pay-per-view prices for that beating.