This article was originally published November 12, 2021, on Free Range American.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the country was mostly locked down in 2020, Sylvester Stallone told Rocky fans that he’d been occupying his time by doing something that nobody really expected — completely recutting Rocky IV (1985), which is a fan favorite of the eight-movie film series spawned by the Oscar-winning original. He’s been teasing the Rocky IV director’s cut on Instagram ever since, and now, the new version of the 1980s classic is finally here.
What became Sly’s lockdown obsession was released in theaters across the country for a one-night showing on Nov. 11 via Fathom Events and will be available for streaming today, Nov. 12. The promo materials say the new cut features 40 minutes of never-before-seen footage, which is quite a lot for a 90-minute-ish movie, but I’d wager that number doesn’t include alternate takes and shots of the same scenes from different angles. The changes to the movie are more extensive than many may have expected and in a good way.
We’ve all seen director’s cuts of movies before, and Stallone is no stranger to them. Usually, there are a few changes here and there, a different take, a slightly different ending, and maybe a subplot that was excised to cut runtime is reintroduced. Sometimes these changes make a big difference; such is the case with James Cameron’s director’s cut of Aliens (1986). But more often than not, they are underwhelming. That’s not the case here.
There isn’t one scene in Rocky IV that Stallone didn’t tweak in some way. He changed the whole feel of the movie, the tone, even the color palette and the score (don’t worry, the songs are still there, including Hearts on Fire). You could list the scenes that were unchanged more easily than listing the changes.
In an intimate, rudimentary documentary filmed by Stallone’s longtime friend and fellow director John Herzfeld about the making of this new cut of Rocky IV, Stallone revealed he now views the original film, which he wrote, starred in, and directed, as being a vanity project that was too superficial and that doesn’t fit with the dramatic tone of the other films in the series, especially since the events of Rocky IV are now so closely tied to the two Creed movies.
“It was too superficial,” Stallone says in the doc. “Obviously, I’m a lot older, and I’ve been through a lot of wear and tear emotionally, and you understand the human condition. I think my biggest problem as a younger filmmaker was a lack of patience and confidence in extending the moment. I was always very cognizant of, ‘Okay, the audience is going to get bored, jump ahead,’ instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt and let the emotions sink in, I would rush right through it. And now, I completely see the fallibility in all that, and it’s very frustrating.”
Digitally re-editing a movie that was shot on film 35 years ago is no easy feat, especially when you consider how muchfootage there was to work with. Stallone said they shot about 1 million feet of film for the fight scenes alone. There was so much that he was seeing some takes and shots for the first time ever during the editing process, which took place over countless hours in a small, spartan room in the depths of an LA office building rendered an otherwise unoccupied ghost town by the pandemic.
How Does the New Cut Play?
In the finished product, you can see where compromises were made. The first act is a bit rough and choppy in places because of a lack of adequate transitions. The second half feels much more fluid and natural, mostly because it’s still two awesome montages followed by the big fight at the end.
So what was Stallone trying to accomplish with this entirely new version of the film, laboriously titled Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago? In the doc, he says he wanted to remake it into a drama, like the other Rocky movies.
The original Rocky IV does stand out from the rest, and that’s partly why it’s been such a fan favorite all these years. Stallone sees it as a project that he didn’t quite get right in retrospect, but for fans, it was a Rocky for the 1980s. When I was a kid, I thought of the first two Rockys as the more boring, more grown-up movies, whereas Rocky III (1982) and especially Rocky IVwere new and more contemporary. Sly said in the doc that he got a lot of shit for changing the tone of the series with the fourth film and that some critics called it a “90-minute music video” because of all the montages set to songs, quick cuts, short scenes, and nearly frantic pace.
It is a crazy movie, and it takes a film series previously about internal struggle and a boxer trying to take advantage of his one shot at making it and turns it into a boxing-action movie culminating with a titanic face-off on a world stage. Plus, there’s the fucking robot. Paulie was banging that grasshopper-looking thing somehow, right?
Instead of feeling like a commercial for 1985, this new cut feels like a Rocky movie that just happened to be shot in 1985. But isn’t that just killing everything awesome about the original? Not really.
Let’s not forget, the original still exists. This isn’t a replacement. It’s a fascinating filmmaking experiment that has produced a new version of a classic movie from 35 years ago without using any CG fuckery or de-aging bullshit, just footage we’ve never seen before. And it does mesh better with the series when viewed as a continuous story. Plus, no robot.
If you love this movie, grew up watching it, and have seen it so many times that you know its rhythm like an old song, it’s definitely worth seeing this new cut.
This version isn’t better or worse; it’s just different. In the context of turning Rocky IV into more of a drama that fits better with the series, the new cut does succeed to a degree. Sacrifices were made, like much of Paulie’s (Burt Young) presence in the movie, but the rewards are worth it, like the improved Apollo funeral and the build-up to the Apollo vs. Drago fight.
Some roles are diminished, but others are enhanced. However, some changes will leave fans confused, like why did Sly remove the dressing room scene between Rocky and Apollo (Carl Weathers) before the fight but still use a piece of it in a brief flashback later?
Rocky’s Revamped Motivation
To me, the most significant changes were made to Rocky’s overall motivation. In the original, after Apollo’s death, Rocky is driven by guilt and vengeance. Part of the reason he wants to fight Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), I always thought, was to punish himself for what he saw as failing his friend. After all, he knew from the beginning the fight between Apollo and Drago was a bad idea, he tried to wave Apollo off a couple of times, but he never went as far as to bail on the fight.
The way the end of the bout is cut, Rocky has the towel in his hand but hesitates to end the fight for a few seconds, allowing Apollo to take the final blow that kills him. Rocky feels like he has some shit to atone for. Interestingly, Stallone says he doesn’t remember thinking about guilt when he was making the movie.
In this new cut, Rocky’s motivation is a little more pure. He doesn’t have time to throw the towel. Instead, he picks it up right as that last blow is struck. Yeah, he feels some guilt for failing Apollo, and he verbalizes this, but it’s not as pronounced.
Rocky is basically buffaloed into everything by Creed’s powerful personality and never really has a chance to object much, and this part of the film moves a lot faster than it did before, possibly too fast. It then slows down for a longer funeral scene and a much improved and longer version of the scene with Adrian (Talia Shire) and Rocky arguing from the top and bottom of a staircase before he leaves for Russia.
By the time he gets in the ring, his motivation has pretty much returned to where it always has been in the series: proving himself to himself, avenging his friend, and proving he can do something because he couldn’t live with not knowing if his determination and heart could overcome a scientifically engineered super fighter. Hey, no matter what you do to it, some elements of this movie shall forever remain ‘80s-as-hell.
New Visual Tone and Fight Changes
As for the look of the film, the colors are more muted throughout, and the contrast is not as high, making it look a bit more realistic. However, it doesn’t look very good in some places, perhaps due to the quality of the alternate cuts of footage.
The final fight looks markedly different. The colors are supersaturated in the original. Rocky, despite having been training in snowy-ass Russia for who knows how many months, shows up on fight night looking like he just got airbrushed at the tanning salon, and Drago’s blonde flat-top is damn near neon yellow. That’s all turned down a bit to produce more realistic skin tones, but in the theater where I saw it, some shots looked a bit washed out.
That said, both fights are very different and a bit more in the realm of reality this time around. The OG cut of the Rocky vs. Drago fight is fucking crazy. Rocky gets knocked across the ring on his ass like 10 times, and all the hits are super bombastic and over-the-top with thunderclap sound effects. The re-edit uses a whole lot of new footage, and I mean a lot. Apollo still gets rocked, obviously, but it’s a bit less one-sided now, and so is the Rocky vs. Drago fight — instead of getting the Christ beat out of him for most of the bout, the momentum constantly shifts back and forth from beginning to end.
While I love the familiar beats of the original version of the fight, this new version is pretty amazing, especially the final round where both Rocky and Drago look way more spent and beat up. Drago is also given a bit more depth with a couple more lines throughout the movie and some more emotion during the fights.
And if you always thought Rocky’s end-of-the-movie speech delivered whilst draped in the American flag was just a bit too cheesy, you’ll be much happier with the new ending.
The movie sounds a lot different too. The punch sound effects have been fixed, but the score has also been completely reworked.
No longer is Drago’s every appearance accompanied by deep, menacing, and super ’80s synth tones, though Drago’s theme is still used in more subtle ways. The songs the movie is so well known for remain, but they seemed to be mixed down a bit compared to the original. They’re not so overwhelming. The parts of the original score that remain have the synth elements mixed low and the guitars brought to the foreground to make it sound less dated.
This all serves to make it feel less like a “90-minute music video.”
Sly knows what is sacred, though. He didn’t cut the songs, or the montages, which is probably a good thing, as I overheard the 20-something dude behind me in the theater say to his friend before the lights went down, “If Hearts on Fire isn’t in there, I’m booing and walking the fuck out.” That guy was the first to clap when the credits rolled.
But that doesn’t mean Sly didn’t mess with the montages. There are different bits of footage and different takes of existing footage used throughout, and during the driving montage set to Robert Tepper’s No Easy Way Out, the flashbacks are all in black and white.
He didn’t cut any of the lines people love, especially Drago’s, but he did do away with a lot of the movie’s groaner moments and quips — the scenes of Rocky’s kid watching the fight back at home with his jerkoff friends and the robot are mercifully gone, and Adrian’s overall character is much improved, though still a little thin compared to the other films.
Where’s Mrs. Drago?
There is one other character, besides the robot, that has nearly been deleted. I’m not sure why he did it, and he didn’t bring it up in the doc, but unless I missed something somewhere, Sly cut all of Brigitte Nielsen’s dialog.
In the original, the former Mrs. Stallone played Mrs. Drago, a famous Soviet Olympian who served as a mouthpiece for Ivan. Her lines from both press conference scenes were cut, her little interaction with Mrs. Creed before the fight: gone. She doesn’t even yell at Drago from ringside during the final fight. She’s just there. At one point, she flashes a half-smile at Adrian, and that’s pretty much it.
Perhaps he made the cuts to give character actor Michael Pataki some more screentime as Drago’s Soviet handler. He mentions Pataki was underutilized in the doc. Or maybe he just didn’t want his ex-wife in his movie anymore.
“That’s why I’m so happy to get a shot at this. Imagine getting a shot to re-edit your life, to go back and do things that you always wanted to do,” Stallone said. “Obviously, you can’t do that with everything, but that’s the beauty of film. You can go back and revisit your reality.”
If Apollo Hadn’t Died
Perhaps it’s a good thing Sly couldn’t make too many changes to the movie. In the doc, he says if he had it to do over again from scratch, he wouldn’t have killed Apollo off. Instead, the fight with Drago would have left him confined to a wheelchair, and he would have become a father/brother/mentor figure for Rocky going forward.
“It was foolish [to kill him off]. I thought I needed that kind of springboard to project the drama on this great, powerful velocity forward,” Stallone said. “Him in a wheelchair, he would have assumed the role of Mickey. Now his physicality is diminished, we would see a different side of Apollo. He could have opened up to all these other things that we didn’t even know about him.”
“It would have changed the entire trajectory of all the Rockys,” he added. “Rocky V would have never happened, and Rocky 6 (Rocky Balboa) maybe never would have happened. Creed probably never would have been made. Crazy, huh?”
Frankly, Hollywood would be better off financing more ventures like this. Compared to making a new movie, it costs next to nothing, and it’s way more interesting than the current endless stream of nostalgia-stoking remakes and reboots currently gurgling out of the movie industry’s asshole.
Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago set a pandemic-era record for Fathom Events, and I know my theater was full on a Thursday night. Maybe Stallone will use this as an opportunity to recut some of his other films that aren’t such revered classics, like Nighthawks (1981), which was heavily edited for violence thanks to the MPAA, or Cobra (1986), which was similarly chopped for brevity and violence. However, that last one might be a tough sell for Sly, considering his co-star.
I don’t think any amount of editing could fix Rocky V, but you never know what ended up on the cutting room floor.