This weekend I started what I hope will become a 4th of July tradition. I watched Rocky 4, which is of course the one where Rocky wins the Cold War by beating a giant Russian. It is one of the most American movies of all time and the last true Rocky movie. Not that Rocky Balboa was bad, but it came out so far after that it feels more like strange coda than part of the series. Rocky 5 never happened. Nevertheless, Rocky 4 should have probably been the last movie in the series. There was nowhere to go but down. Even Rocky cannot top winning the Cold War.
Rocky 4 is smarter than most people give it credit. Not that it that smart, or subtle at all, but there is more there than blind patriotism and propaganda. It is about growing old and how to face that. There is no one who grows old faster or more publicly than professional athletes do. All sports fans have seen a favorite player hang on past their prime, winced at the struggles of those who used to be great. For some, like Bret Favre, while their skills have obviously diminished there are still enough flashes and moments of the player, we used to know and love to make us believe that he still has something left. Too often, it is just gone and is painful for both players and spectators. Rocky and now friend Apollo Creed are both dealing with this. Apollo cannot let go, despite the advice of all those close to him. Rocky, not quite as old as Apollo, still has something left, but he can see the writing on the wall. Due to his inability to accept the changes that time has, wrought Apollo pays the ultimate price. There is also Rocky’s guilt because he did not throw in the towel. Like Rocky told Mickey in the first movie, Apollo told him not to throw the towel and Rocky let it go. He did what he would have wanted Creed to do foe him in the same situation, but he say why people do throw in the towel.
On top of the aging issue is the comparison of the USA and USSR. Apollo is part of America. He is loud, boisterous and arrogant. He is also capable and honest, but even the honesty hurts the loud and arrogant part. Drago is stoic and cold. He is also just as selfish as Creed. In their fight, he doesn’t care that it is an exhibition or that he is clearly the better fighter he still is relentless. Because a resounding victory is helps him and his groups agenda, sportsmanship be damned. The biggest contrast is in Rocky and Drago’s pre-fight training methods. Drago has a committee that cares nothing for him and with the most advanced technology available. Rocky has a few close friends and uses simple training methods. While Rocky 4 is about as fair as a mid-80ies movie can be, they show the American methods to be better than the Russian ones. Like what actually happened, America wins in the end.
However, while there is this veneer of real issues, Rocky 4 is still a 90-minute movie with about 35 minutes of music montages. It is still a movie that has Rocky win the Cold War by punching out a giant Russian. It is not as good as the first two Rockys, but it is possibly the most entertaining movie in the series for repeated viewings. In the end, Drago turns on his uncaring trainers and the crowd turns on him. Rocky draws strength from his friends and from the crowd. Because everybody loves Rocky.