‘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 * * * *

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers

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WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. DON’T SAY YOU WEREN’T WARNED!

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” is actually one of the best films in this long running franchise, and it did more than just drop a bunch of bloody good killings on us with little regard to everything else which makes a movie strong. There was actually some thoughtful work put into the screenplay, the acting is better than you might expect it to be, and it does have some very scary moments the other sequels seriously lack.

The “Halloween” movies often defy the timeline of events they set up for themselves because logic doesn’t always apply to horror movies. Despite the huge explosion which ended “Halloween II,” Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis somehow managed to survive. It never seemed likely either of them would have come out of the burnt wreckage without turning into shish kabobs which were left on the barbecue for far too long, but this sequel shows you can’t keep a doctor or an evil monster down.

“Halloween 4” starts off with a couple of doctors assigned to transfer the seemingly comatose Michael back to Smith’s Grove where he should have stayed from the beginning. But of course, Michael wakes up and kills his naïve caretakers who think he is nothing more than just another prison transfer. These doctors also make the mistake of mentioning how Michael has one living relative left, his niece Jamie. Guess where she lives…

Going into a description of the plot is tiring, but you know what happens from there on out. “Halloween 4” is genuinely scary at points. The first appearance of Michael through the reflection of the mirror definitely had me standing up straight, and childhood terrors like the monster under the bed are exploited to strong effect. The movie does play around with the clichéd moments we often find in horror movies, but then it manages to pull the rug out from under you. You think you have a good idea of what is going to happen, but the filmmakers smartly play on your misplaced confidence to pull a fast one on you.

“Halloween 4” was directed by Dwight H. Little who later went on to direct one of Steven Seagal’s best movies, “Marked for Death.” Little deserves credit for not just doing everything according to formula. What he accomplishes here isn’t groundbreaking for the horror genre, but he pulls off something stronger than your average slasher flick. Instead of doing the usual opening with the pumpkin, he fills the screen with symbols of the October holiday which eventually leads us into the dead of winter. With that, he perfectly sets the mood and atmosphere for this particular sequel. He remains respectful of the original and does the right thing by keeping Michael hidden in the shadows like Carpenter did in the original. When that mask of his peeks out of the darkness, it becomes even more unnerving than watching him tilt his head.

The writer, Alan B. McElroy, managed to finish the script just mere hours before the 1980’s writer strike began. Listening to his audio commentary from the Anchor Bay release, McElroy makes it clear he came to this film as a fan of the original and was not about to throw the usual crapfest at us. He also gives us characters we actually come to care about and who don’t always do the stupid things we expect them to do in the average horror flick. You even find yourself caring about that hunk of a man Brady (Sasha Jenson) even after we find him cheating on his girlfriend with the movie’s obligatory big breasted lady (who also happens to be the sheriff’s daughter no less).

In retrospect, “Halloween 4” was one of the last slasher movies which featured actors who looked and felt down to earth. After this sequel, the genre was invaded by beautiful models with bodies very well taken care of or surgically enhanced. Whether or not they could act was another story, one which usually didn’t matter to the financiers.

This one is also not as bloody or gory as the other sequels came to be. Granted, there are a couple of nice bloody shots which illustrate how creative Michael is at killing people after coming out of a long coma. On top of sinking his thumb into a doctor’s skull, he also rips a big hole in a beer guzzling vigilante’s neck. Actually, this does bring up a weakness in the movie which involves a subplot with a bunch of middle aged guys who are regulars at a local bar. They almost seem tossed in as an afterthought, and their own hunt for Michael leads them to do the dumbest things.

Watching Danielle Harris here is a little weird as she has since grown up and gone on to play a completely different character in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” movies. She plays Jamie, the daughter of Laurie Strode who was said to have been killed in a car accident along with her husband (Curtis would later return in “H2O”). You have to admire any young actor who does a horror movie at the age of 11 because it’s like we’re asking them to become emotionally scarred for life. On top of having a great set of lungs, Harris instantly wins our sympathy gives this movie one of its scariest images.

Ellie Cornell, who plays Rachel Carruthers, does Jamie Lee Curtis proud. We’re not talking an Oscar winning performance here, but she gives us the heroic female character we want to root for as she goes from being vulnerable to Sigourney (“Aliens”) Weaver tough.

And, of course, we have the only returning actor from the original “Halloween,” the late Donald Pleasence. Having miraculously survived the fiery explosion which should have killed him were a highly profitable box office possibility not taken into consideration, Dr. Loomis has become absolutely single minded in his pursuit to destroy Michael once and for all. Even if Pleasance was slumming by doing this movie, he still played this role to the hilt and gave this particular entry a legitimacy which eluded future installments. Heck, it probably would have been criminal to do a “Halloween” movie without Dr. Loomis at that point as he was an essential part of this franchise.

Actually, there is another “Halloween” veteran who returns to the fold here: Alan Howarth. Along with Carpenter he scored “Halloween II” and “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” and they also provided great scores for “Prince of Darkness” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” Howarth goes solo on this one, but even without Carpenter he composes a memorable and atmospheric score, and his opening theme to “Halloween 4” is one of the best pieces of music in the franchise.

Stunt performer George Wilbur plays Michael here, and he does good work as the heavy-breathing killer. While no one can touch what Nick Castle did in the original, it’s nice to see a Michael who more mobile than Dick Warlock’s was in “Halloween II.” Wilbur gives Michael a formidable look which strikes terror in us even when this murderous character is not onscreen. The thought of Michael Myers in this one is just as scary as seeing these characters come face to face with him, or it as Dr. Loomis describes him:

“You’re talking about him as if he were a man. That part of him died years ago.”

DANGER! DANGER! SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

Now let’s talk about Halloween 4’s” ending. Michael has been shot dozens and dozens of times in a scene which reminded me of the scene from “Predator” when Schwarzenegger and company blasted a forest to waste with their massive weaponry. Everyone is back home and safe, but then a scream erupts from upstairs. Loomis runs up to find Jamie has stabbed her stepmother with a pair of scissors and is covered in blood, looking much like young Michael did after murdering his sister. Like Pleasance, you find yourself screaming “NOOOOOO!!!!!!” Harris holding those scissors ranks as one of the series’ most chilling moments. Indeed, the corruption of innocence is a terror that can be all too real onscreen as well as off it.

Now this could have led the franchise in an inspired direction, but the producers wussied out and instead found a way (they always do) to bring Michael back from the dead yet again. Perhaps the late Moustapha Akkad felt the fans would never accept any killer other than Michael himself. It’s a shame because this brilliant plot twist could have made the series even more frightening than ever before, but the demands of the box office always dictate just how much you cannot change a winning formula.

Regardless, “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers” still proves to be a strong entry in the undying franchise, and this is especially the case when you watch the two sequels which followed it.

* * * out of * * * *