Movie Review: Rocky IV: Rocky Vs. Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut

Well, it’s only a few days until Christmas now… yeah okay, I admit it. I forgot to do a Christmas article for this year. I usually plan and write my Christmas article(s) in early November but I’ve been too damn busy this year and I just plain forgot. Still, something Christmassy was released a while back that I could take a look at. Rocky IV: Rocky Vs. Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut. See, during the whole lockdown/covid bollocks of 2020, Sylvester Stallone decided to do something with all the spare time he had, he thought it would be a good idea to go back to his 1985 Rocky IV film and re-edit it on what would’ve been the film’s thirty-fifth anniversary.

We all know the plot of Rocky IV, don’t we? A big, nasty Russian boxer man comes to America and kills Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky Balboa gets upset and agrees to fight the Russian boxer man in Russia on Christmas Day. See… Christmassy, it counts.

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Anyway, I adore the Rocky films. For me, creating Rocky Balboa was the greatest thing that Stallone ever did. That character is one of the most charming, endearing and loveable ever captured on screen. There isn’t a Rocky film I outright dislike but my least favourite, if pushed, is most definitely Rocky IV. Yeah, I know that popular fan opinion would be more than happy to get in the ring with me and fight it out over my view.

I don’t dislike Rocky IV at all, I think it’s a good, stupid, over the top, riot of a film. But I’ve always considered it the black sheep of the franchise because it was so stupidly over the top. Every other film in the franchise has been grounded in a level of believable verisimilitude. Even when being a bit silly (see the Rocky vs Thunderlips fight in Rocky III), it still always felt relatable and grounded.

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With Rocky IV though, it was typical eighties cheese. The previous film’s heart had been replaced with a huge dose of ‘America is the greatest country in the world’ hyperbole. That human element of the Rocky character was gone, paving the way for ham-fisted Cold War propaganda. Sure, Rocky IV is a fun movie… it’s s just a very stupid Rocky flick.

When Stallone announced he was going to do a director’s cut of Rocky IV, I honestly couldn’t muster up the interest to even give it the time of day. Then I read a headline of an article covering the new cut that claimed Stallone would be cutting the fucking annoying robot out completely. That one headline was enough to pique my interest. If Sly was going to cut that, what else was going to be cut and what would replace it? The weeks passed and then, a trailer for this new version was released, along with a new title that’s a hell of a mouthful. Rocky IV: Rocky Vs. Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut. I watched the trailer and my previously piqued interest was piqued further.

In that trailer, I saw more of the human factor that I loved about the Rocky franchise. There seemed to be more drama, more dialogue… even from Drago. That is what was missing from the original cut, those human moments. The original cut was about being big, loud, brash and bombastic. This new cut seemed to be far more character-driven and I liked it. I’m not saying that there were no character-driven scenes in the original cut, I’m just saying there weren’t enough of them.

So yeah, after not being all that interested in this new version, I suddenly had a serious drive to want to see it. So I did… hence this review. Just to get in the mood and also as a refresher. I watched the original cut first. As I said, Rocky IV is my least favourite of the franchise and while I have seen it a few times, I’ve watched it far less than the others. So I thought it would be best to rewatch the original before the director’s cut. After watching the original film… I still think it is a stupidly dumb but fun flick. But onto the main event.

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Now, I’m not going to cover every difference between the original and this new cut. I’ve read that forty minutes were cut and forty-two minutes added. Plus there are alternate takes and shots of scenes from the original cut too. There are quite a few changes both big and small. As I say, I’m going to cover all of the additions and changes but I will take a look at the ones I feel make the film feel different.

So, the film opens with a seven-minute recap of events from Rocky III. This change from the intro of the original is a bit of a double-edged sword. I felt that seven minutes of the previous film was a bit too much but on the other hand, it does help to get the Rocky and Apollo relationship across… which is pretty important for what does happen in the film later. Plus, this version also cuts out the secret Rocky vs Apollo fight and all references to it too, a bad cut in my opinion.

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Yes, that fucking annoying robot is gone and that’s a good thing. The bad side to this piece of film exorcising though does mean less Paulie and I really do love the Paulie character. In place of the robot scenes are more human moments. More scenes with Rocky and Adrian, more scenes with Apollo talking about the Drago fight and so on. Adrian herself has more to do in this cut and it all just feels more grounded now.

The montages are all still here too, they had to be really. No Easy Way Out, Burning Heart and the Hearts on Fire montages have been recut, there’s some editing changes and new scenes added to them. Those changes don’t really alter the montages too much though but they do add a bit more gravitas.

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The Apollo vs Drago fight has some new footage and is more brutal. However, new footage added gives Apollo more of a chance here. In the original, he just straight up gets destroyed. In this new cut, Apollo fights back more, lands more punches and generally, it feels more like an actual boxing match over a complete destruction. There are also some very small changes that feel right. Like when Apollo is lying in the ring dying. In the original cut, the Russians seem quite nonchalant about it. Here, it shows them to be more shocked. Plus, Rocky throwing in the towel has been edited to make it seem like he was just too late as opposed to being too stupid in the original cut.

The Apollo funeral scene has an extended speech by Duke and the previously silent Rocky now delivers his own eulogy that helps reinforce their friendship as he takes the blame for his Apollo’s death. This feels so much better in terms of character development and really helps play on the guilt of the character. There’s also the inclusion of a scene where Rocky talks to the boxing commission over the whole fight against Drago. Something that was missing from the original as it was just a fight that went ahead with zero questioning. Here, it is covered how dangerous Drago is and that perhaps Rocky shouldn’t go ahead with the fight. It’s shown in the trailer too, but there’s a bit where it is brought up how Drago has only had one professional fight and one man is dead. You know what, that’s actually a bloody good point to highlight in a boxing match.

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One of the biggest changes in the film is the fact that the Russians are far less stereotypical eighties bad guys. Don’t get me wrong, they are still not exactly pleasant and you’ll never be rooting for them. Yet, they do come across as actual characters now instead of just 2D caricatures. Drago has a few more lines of dialogue and this helps to flesh him out a bit more. He feels more like the Drago from Creed II now, and I think that may have been Stallone’s intention all along with this cut, to make it feel more like the other films in the series. For the most part, it does just that too. It’ll never be as grounded or gritty as other films in the franchise but this cut does get it as close it probably could be.

The big fight at the end is also re-edited. Subtle changes like different angles and shots. Even the ending has been changed. When Rocky wins, in the original cut, the Mikhail Gorbachev lookalike stands up and claps, cheering Rocky on. That doesn’t happen here. Instead, he stands up with his entourage and walks out. For me, this makes more sense that he would be disgusted with Rocky winning over lauding him as a hero. Rocky’s speech is also different with some new lines about Apollo and it feels a lot less cheesy overall.

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There’s also a nice shot of Rocky leaving the ring and tapping gloves with Drago to show respect from fighter to fighter. Now, I’m not sure if that was a character moment for the film or just behind the scenes footage of Stallone out of character thanking Lundgren as an actor after a difficult shoot. Either way, it really works.

It’s not all just visual changes though. The sound editing and mixing has been altered too. Some of it is very subtle and unless you do a back to back watch, as I did, then you’re not really going to notice much. But things like the sound effects of the punches are more ‘realistic’ I guess. The original cut opens with Eye of the Tiger but this cut ends with it instead. There are a few other musical edits and changes throughout the film.

Overall, I felt this new cut was far better than the original. It’s still a bit of a silly film and perhaps that really is part of its charm. The changes here make the film feel just a bit less eighties cheese and you do get a better sense of the character’s emotions. I don’t think that every change is for the best though, we do get less Paulie due to the robot being cut. Some edits really made no sense to me, for instance, when in Russia and Paulie is going on his rant over the shack they are staying in, he says the line “We’ll crack out here.”. It’s a very Paulie thing to say, yet it has been cut in this version and I don’t know why.

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Brigitte Nielsen has pretty much been cut out of the film entirely. She is still here, just about, but her screen time has been massively cut down from the original. I’ll need to double-check but I think she now only has two lines of dialogue in the whole film and one of those is off-screen. To me, this feels a bit petty on Sly’s part as if it is some kind of revenge over their very public relationship breakdown. Especially given how important her character is to the plot and Drago as a character. We get more Dolph Lundgren instead, which isn’t a bad thing but does bring me to a notable point.

The runtime between the two cuts is pretty much the same at around ninety minutes. I feel this ultimate director’s cut (as it is called) should’ve been closer to a two-hour cut. Instead of Stallone cutting scenes and replacing them, I don’t see why some of the old scenes couldn’t have been kept to complement the newer ones. Why cut and have less Brigitte Nielsen and replace her with more Dolph Lundgren instead of having both? In short, this really doesn’t feel very ‘ultimate’ at all, I think there’s still a better cut of the film that could be made here. I’m sure a fan will do their own edit in time that does feel more ultimate.

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As I have already said, Rocky IV is my least favourite and least watched of the main films. I’d be more than happy to sit through this (full title) Rocky IV: Rocky Vs. Drago – The Ultimate Director’s Cut again over the original version though. It still has some of that silliness and eighties cheese but it feels more refined. This version is still a bit rough in places due to Stallone’s insistence of removing scenes completely, instead of using them to work with the new ones and I do think this would’ve worked better with a longer runtime.

There is a workprint of Rocky V on the interwebs too. A rough version with deleted scenes. I’m one of the few that actually liked Rocky V (I did start writing an article that I need to finish). It had some stupid moments sure, but it felt that the film worked and was a great down to Earth moment for the characters after the events of Rocky IV. I’d like to see Stallone’s re-edit of that next. Still, that could be a bit too much of an ask what with Sage Stallone playing his son and all. but yeah, I really liked this new cut of Rocky IV and think it’s well worth a watch.