‘Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago’ – A Vast Improvement

I have always had mixed feelings about “Rocky IV.” On one hand, it is a well-oiled machine which is entertaining, never drags, and you easily find yourself caught up in the action to where you join in with the audience chanting, “ROCKY! ROCKY! ROCKY!” On the other hand, it turned Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character of Rocky Balboa into a superhuman comic book character who has clearly spent far too many hours at the gym to develop his well-chiseled body. This character was a relatable human being who wanted to go the distance, and now he was being rendered as some untouchable force of nature who undergoes the most brutal training regime which no mere mortal can easily endure. Basically, I found this installment of the seemingly endless franchise lacking in humanity, and it would take 2006’s “Rocky Balboa” to bring the character back down to earth.

Well, it turns out Stallone felt the same way about “Rocky IV,” and thanks to this time of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw one of his projects get shut down, he decided to revisit this particular “Rocky” sequel which is still this franchise’s most financially successful as even he found it to be flawed. What resulted is his director’s cut entitled “Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago,” and it has the humanity which was once missing, but now has been found.

The story of “Rocky IV” remains the same. Apollo faces off against Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and pays with his life, and Rocky travels to the Soviet Union to face off against Drago on Christmas Day. Does Rocky win the fight? Bitch, please, you know the answer to that.

Unlike Francis Ford Coppola’s recent director’s cuts of “The Cotton Club,” “Apocalypse Now” and “The Godfather Part III,” not much about “Rocky IV” has changed here. But again, the characters are fleshed out more here than they were previously, and this made for a more fulfilling cinematic experience for me, and that’s even if the pace drags at times. And yes, Paulie’s robot has been rendered obsolete in this cut. Suffice to say, that robot was no C-3PO and will not be missed.

After a look back at “Rocky III,” this cut starts off with Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in his luxurious swimming pool playing with his dogs when Drago and his entourage appear on his television set. This helps change the narrative a bit as we quickly see how this cut is more about Apollo as it shows the character as being restless in his retirement, and it becomes clearer to us how he wants to still matter in a world which may prefer to see him remain retired.

Indeed, Rocky thinks it is time, not just for Apollo, but for him to think about what else they can do with their lives as both have seemingly hit their athletic peak. But in Weathers’ eyes, you can see how desperate he is to remain relevant in the minds of many. It is not just Apollo’s ego crying out for acknowledgement, but also for a need to remain relevant and not easily forgotten. Watching Weathers’ performance here, I can see why Stallone regretted killing Apollo off. Of course, this did lead to the brilliant “Creed.”

Another actor who stands out here is Talia Shire who again takes on one of her most famous roles, Adrian Balboa. When you take the inevitable flashbacks into account, it is fascinating to watch Shire take Adrian from being a shy girl to becoming Rocky’s much-needed conscience as she exerts a confidence which has long since been earned. Indeed, this cut reminds us what a strong anchor she is to Rocky. She is the voice he needs to hear, and that’s even when she yells at him, “You can’t win!” Whereas she appeared quite meek in “Rocky,” she is a force to be reckoned with this time out.

And then there is the late Tony Burton who returns as boxing trainer Tony “Duke” Evans. His character really gets fleshed out a lot here as Tony gives a moving tribute to Apollo, and Burton later shares a thoughtful and moving scene with Stallone where he makes clear with his eyes that Rocky will be the last one standing. Stallone was right; Burton’s eyes were full of soul.

With the Sico the Robot gone, and the chance for Robert Doornick to earn residuals, what else is different about this “Rocky IV” cut? Well, Brigette Nielsen’s role Ludmilla Drago is pared down quite a bit to where her husband gets to talk for himself a bit more. In fact, the late great character actor Michael Pataki gets to speak more for the Russians as Nicolai Koloff this time around, and his wounded face at the movie’s end speaks volumes.

And because of the robot elimination, we see less of Burt Young’s Paulie here to where he is almost forgotten about in the first half. But Paulie does eventually make his cantankerous presence known as he flails around in the snow once in Russia, and his moving tribute to Rocky before he enters the ring is still quite touching. Of course, once Drago pushes Rocky’s gloves down, Paulie takes back what he said. It is very understandable why Stallone did not cut this scene out.

If there is anything I was hoping for in this “Rocky IV” director’s cut, it was to see Ivan Drago humanized a bit more. Part of this is because, during an interview Stallone did with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, he talked about Drago’s harsh origins and how he grew up in the gulag which he eventually escaped. This was very interesting to hear, but we do not see any of this onscreen. While presented as slightly more human, Drago is still portrayed as an invulnerable beast of a man. There isn’t much more to this character than that.

Other than that, it’s nice to see a lot of the cheesiness of the theatrical cut gone. Then again, the line of dialogue when Rocky tells Adrian to never ask him “to stop being a man” does land with as loud a thud as when Luke Skywalker begged his Uncle Owen to let him go into town to get some power converters in “Star Wars.” And no, I still don’t believe all the Russians would have began cheering for Rocky after booing him so viciously as he entered the ring. Sure, some would have started cheering him, but not all.

“Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago” is not a perfect movie, but I consider it a vast improvement over the original version. Around the time this sequel was released 35 years ago (I know, that freaks me out too), Rocky and the franchise was turning into a joke as we had been down this path one too many times it felt. Weird Al Yankovic spoofed Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and called it “The Theme from Rocky XIII” in which Rocky bought the neighborhood deli, “Airplane II: The Sequel” featured a poster of a fictious “Rocky” sequel which showed the Italian Stallion fighting way past his prime, and who can forget this classic line of dialogue from “Spaceballs?”

“Coming up, Pongo’s review of Rocky Five… thousand.”

But to hear Sylvester Stallone talk about his director’s cut and having watched it myself, it is clear he did not simply want to just repeat the formula we had come accustomed to. Rocky Balboa rescued this actor, writer and director from a life of poverty where his dog ate more than he did, and it should be no surprise at how much he cares for this iconic character and the others surrounding him. Had this version of “Rocky IV” been released back in 1985, perhaps many of us would not have been so quick to start joking about the Italian Stallion.

After all these years, we are still clapping along to those songs by Survivor, and we still cheer on Rocky even though the conclusion is never in doubt. While I used to roll my eyes whenever Stallone wanted to revisit this franchise, I say let him do whatever the hell he wants. Except for another “Rambo,” movie, we don’t need it. The last one was awful.

Theatrical Cut: * * ½ out of * * * *

Director’s Cut: * * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Creed II’ Movie and Blu-ray Review (Written by Tony Farinella)

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When “Rocky Balboa” was released in 2006, many wondered how a sixth “Rocky” film would perform when the last one prior to that was released in 1990.  Sylvester Stallone himself was not all too pleased with how “Rocky V” ended, and he wanted to do right by Rocky Balboa.  Needless to say, he did so as he was the writer and the director behind it.  Because of the good will he had built up from the sixth installment, fans were excited for “Creed,” which was released in 2015 and directed by Ryan Coogler.

Coogler was coming off the success of “Fruitvale Station,” and it was set to star Michael B. Jordan, also from the aforementioned film. It was in good hands, as they were wise to hand the franchise over to Jordan while still keeping Stallone around.  The film was organic, funny, entertaining, and powerful at the same time. When it was time for “Creed II,” they handed it over to Steven Caple Jr.  I’m happy to report he did a terrific job with “Creed II,” and the writers also had a fresh idea to bring to the table: bring back Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) and introduce his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu).  After all, everyone remembers how things ended up in “Rocky IV” between Drago and Apollo Creed.

When the film gets started, everything seems to be going well for Adonis Creed.  He wins the World Heavyweight Championship, proposes to his girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and he also has a baby on the way.  His world, however, gets turned upside down when Viktor Drago, son of Ivan Drago, challenges him.  This is the same Ivan Drago who killed his father back in 1985.  Rocky tries to tell him to stay away from the fight and that he is fighting for the wrong reasons.

Adonis’ pride, however gets in the way and he ends up taking on the fight, regardless, and without Rocky his corner.  His life only becomes more complicated and painful from that point forward.  Now, he needs to figure out what to do in order to get his career, his health, and his life back on track.  It won’t be easy for Adonis, but everything in his life has always been a fight.  Rocky just wants him to figure out what he’s fighting for and also realize he has other people counting on him as well.

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There is a lot to like about “Creed II.”  I’m not going to say if it is better or worse than 2015’s “Creed.”  It is just as good.  It is just different, and it is dealing with different themes and different messages.   Jordan gives a knockout (I know, easy pun) performance here.  All of his emotions are in his face, and it’s a performance with a lot of nuance and complexity attached to it.  As an audience member, you understand what he’s doing and why, even if you don’t always agree with him.

His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca also brings a big heart to the film.  These two have tremendous chemistry together and it is a joy to watch them on screen.  Stallone has said he is walking away from the franchise after this movie, and it seems like the right move.  Make no mistake about it, Stallone’s the backbone of this franchise and he makes the most of every scene he’s in even though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.  He does a lot with a little.  I imagine this was intentionally done, as he was one of the writers on the project.

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The film deals with the complexity of a father/son relationship and how men are trying to carve out their own image and legacy.  There is a lot of meat in this script, as Adonis is becoming a father himself. Phylicia Rashad is back here once again, and she brings such fierce intensity and knowledge to her role as Mary Anne Creed.  There is not a bad performance in the film.  It’s heartwarming, intense, and very, very entertaining.

With that said, it is not a perfect film.  I would argue it is about twenty minutes too long.  As with most boxing movies, the boxing itself and the training montages are not all that interesting compared to the relationships in the film. What transpires throughout the film will not surprise anyone, but when it’s done with such warmth and commitment from the actors, it helps elevate the material into something really, really special.  While I don’t think we need a “Creed III,” I can’t say I would necessarily mind one if the right people are involved in the project.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Blu-Ray Info: “Creed II” is released on a two-disc Blu-ray combo pack, which also includes a digital copy, from Warner Brothers Home Entertainment. The film is rated PG-13 for sports action violence, language, and a scene of sensuality.  It has a running time of 130 minutes. It is presented in 1080p High Definition with an aspect ratio of 16×9, 2.4:1.  The audio formats are Dolby Atmos-TrueHD: English, DTS MA: English 5.1, English Descriptive Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital: Français 5.1, and Español 5.1. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish.

Special Features:

Fathers and Sons (07:16): This special feature talks about how “Creed II” touches on the father/son dynamic and what a big role it plays in the film and also in life.  Interviews with the cast and crew are featured as well as some famous boxers including Sugar Ray Leonard.  They even talk about the Shakespearean aspects of the story.

Casting Viktor Drago (05:43): This special feature is all about the casting of Florian Munteanu who comes from a boxing background.  Stallone wanted him in the film and saw something special in him.  Munteanu talks about how grateful he is to be in the film as he is familiar with all of the “Rocky” films.  He trained for seven months and really committed to the role, which impressed his fellow actors and the director as well.

The Women of “Creed II” (05:51): Sugar Ray Leonard appears once again, and he gives credit to the women that are alongside the boxers through all of the training and the punishment in the ring.  Director Steven Caple Jr. didn’t just want Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad to be in the background of the film.  He wanted them to get their due.  It’s a big reason why the film is as effective as it is because each and every character serves a significant purpose.

The “Rocky” Legacy (15:01): This is hosted by Dolph Lundgren, and it discusses the impact the “Rocky” franchise has had not only on boxing movies, but also on the sport itself.  They also tie it together with “Rocky IV” and “Creed II.”  The cast and crew of “Creed II” talk about the music, the boxing scenes, and why the franchise has lasted as long as it has going all the way back to 1976.

Deleted Scenes (09:46): One notable deleted scene worth mentioning is one where Rocky performs a eulogy for Spider Rico, the first fighter he ever fought in the “Rocky” films.  It’s a powerful scene and one which should have been in the film despite my issues with its length.  The other three deleted scenes include Rocky training young kids to box, Adonis and Bianca talking about his legacy, and the aftermath of the fight between Adonis and Viktor.

 

First Trailer for ‘Creed II’ Enters the Ring

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“Creed” may not have reinvented the “Rocky” franchise, but Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan succeeded in making it feel fresh and reinvigorated to where a sequel was not only inevitable, but more than welcome. Now we have the first trailer for “Creed II” which promises a powerful follow-up as Adonis Creed faces the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed his father Apollo Creed in “Rocky IV,” Viktor Drago.

In some ways this trailer is a bit anti-climatic as we have known for a while already how the son of Ivan Drago was going to Adonis’ next big opponent, and the trailer keeps building up to a reveal we can see coming from miles away. Viktor is played by Florian Munteanu who previously appeared in “Bogat.” Now we never get a clear look at his face, but when he turns around we see “DRAGO” stenciled on the back of his robe. Personally, I was hoping for a little more than just this reveal, but then again, this is a teaser trailer.

I also kept waiting for Dolph Lundgren to reappear as Ivan Drago as he is slated to be co-starring in “Creed II,” but no such luck. One of the things I am really looking forward to is seeing him come face to face with Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as I wonder how each character feels about the other following their bloody bout in Russia 30 years ago. I’m guessing Brigette Nielsen will not be back as Ivan’s wife and official spokesperson, so Lundgren will obviously have more dialogue to work with than he did back in 1985.

The trailer does have a lot of cool shots of Adonis training and throwing brutal punches, and the moment where we see him practicing punches underwater is especially cool to where I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene like this in the previous “Rocky” films. Using Kendrick Lamar’s “Loyalty” to score the trailer was a great move as it has a powerful beat which will stay with you to where downloading the song off of iTunes is a must unless you own it or the album it is on already.

But what I really liked about this “Creed II” trailer is how it reflects the challenges Adonis and Rocky face outside of the ring as opposed to in it. Both characters are still stuck in a past which will not let them be. Whether it is the guilt Rocky feels over letting Apollo die in the ring or the feeling of inadequacy which gnaws constantly at Adonis, their struggles are never limited to a boxing match. Seeing this quickly reminded me of when Rocky and Adonis were looking at themselves in a mirror in “Creed” and of Rocky telling him how he will always be his own biggest opponent. And as Rocky talks about the “cheap shots” life is constantly giving him, I was taken back to his great speech in “Rocky Balboa” in which he said the following:

“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Taking this into account, I believe “Creed II” looks to focus on the characters even over the intense fight sequences we can expect to see. Besides, what’s a fight like without the psychological depth? You can have great choreography, but it won’t mean as much if you are not fully invested in the characters’ plights and of what they stand to win or lose.

Directing “Creed II” is Steven Caple Jr., and the returning cast includes Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad who proves she is still a badass with her brief appearance here. The sequel is set to be released on November 21, 2018.

Please check out the trailer below.

 

Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren Join Forces in ‘Black Water’ Trailer

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For many, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are still a match made in action movie heaven. They first appeared as soldiers on opposite sides in Roland Emmerich’s 1992 film “Universal Soldier,” and they returned to this franchise years later for two sequels, “Regeneration” and “Day of Reckoning.” And, of course, they had to make at least one appearance in “The Expendables” franchise to show they were not worse for the wear, and they did so together in “The Expendables 2.” Now, Van Damme and Lundgren share the screen in their fifth film collaboration, the action thriller “Black Water.” But this time, they are on the same side.

The first image we see in this trailer is of a submarine diving underwater, and from there we are introduced to deep cover operative Wheeler once the hood over his head is removed. Wheeler has been imprisoned on the submarine which serves as a CIA black site, those places we are not supposed to know about but do anyway, and his interrogator, Patrick Ferris (Patrick Kilpatrick), tells him he is an enemy combatant and will not be granted any rights. Upon giving Wheeler the old action cliché of “welcome to hell,” Patrick orders an agent to prepare to insert a hypodermic needle into Wheeler’s eye in the same way Michael Myers did to an unsuspecting nurse in “Halloween II.” But as you can expect, Wheeler breaks free of his captors and escapes, and from there he does what he can to clear his name.

This just released trailer for “Black Water” is of the “what you see is what you get” variety as the movie’s plot points come from a dozen other action flicks of the past like “The Fugitive” and “Air Force One.” Clearly, no one here is trying to present us with something original, and this one is designed to show us the kind of story we all grew up on to where it makes us interested to see it done once again. Having the story take place in a submarine underwater is clever as the claustrophobic nature of such an environment will make the action more intense. I also imagine it is a way for the filmmakers to keep costs down as they won’t have to build too many sets.

Van Damme’s face is beginning to look a bit like Danny Trejo’s these days as it shows a life lived hard, perhaps too hard. Perhaps these hardened looks of his will help add to his role here. At the very least, we know he can still perform the perfect split.

Having interviewed Lundgren in the past, I know what a great sense of humor he has and seeing him in this trailer makes me hope he will bring some of it to this movie. Furthermore, he looks to have loosened up a lot over the years, and I hope Van Damme can loosen up to the same degree as well. But even though these two stars are headlining this underwater adventure, I get the feeling one will have more screen time than the other.

Kilpatrick looks to give “Black Water” the typical CIA agent who obsesses over controlling the uncontrollable, but I couldn’t help but be amused when he talks about how Wheeler is a “highly trained officer and a trained killer,” so it makes me wonder if he put enough thought into how he would handle this operative to where he would not be a problem (my guess is he did not).

We are also meet Cassie Taylor, a rookie agent played by Jasmine Waltz who, like any other rookie, wants to know what the hell is going on here. She also shows a bit of skin here which suggests there will be a sex scene at some point. The question is, can such a scene take place between her and another character (I am guessing Wheeler) when they are busy avoiding detection in the most claustrophobic of environments? In space no one can hear you scream, but in a submarine, you should be able to hear an orgasm let alone gunshots.

Black Water” is set to be released on the Dish Network on May 25th, and it will premiere in theaters and on demand starting June 29th. Please feel free to check out the trailer below.