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Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago The Ultimate Director’s Cut Review

Right off the bat, let me make this very important disclaimer: I love Rocky IV. Yeah, it’s loaded with cheese, silly moments, and eye-rolling melodrama, but it’s also a blast from start to finish and — in many ways — a perfect encapsulation of the cocaine-infused ’80s era, a time of neon lights, big hair, rock ‘n roll and rebellion.

This time also signaled an about-face from conservative filmmaking and shepherded in the unrefined fantasies of hotshot directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese, whose productions had a certain rough-around-the-edges flair that only added to the charm. Filmgoers were easier to please and obviously more forgiving of schlocky special effects, mediocre performances, and bland writing so long as the movie dazzled and/or entertained to some degree.

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As such, Sylvester Stallone’s fourth go as the Italian Stallion emerged as a box office juggernaut when it released in November 0f 1985 and raked in an astounding $300M worldwide against a $28M budget — one of many occasions where critics (43% on RottenTomatoes) and audiences (75% on RT) simply didn’t agree. The flick even produced a legendary soundtrack that catapulted four songs into the U.S. charts Top Five.

The film has it all: drama, action, blood, sex, testosterone, music, and style all wrapped in an expertly paced 90-minute package.

In other words: Rocky IV is perfect, even if it feels miles away from the original 1976 small-budget film that initially sparked the franchise.

And so it was a little weird to hear Stallone, during a live Q&A before a screening of Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago the Ultimate Director’s Cut, disregard Rocky IV as a bad film — a comment that induced an audible gasp from an audience who turned out in droves to witness the blood-soaked spectacle they grew up adoring on the big screen. To his credit, Stallone, who directed the film (along with Rocky II, Rocky III, and Rocky Balboa), spent nine months recutting his big-budget revenge tale into something more closely resembling the Academy Award-winning Rocky, restoring 40-minutes of new footage whilst jettisoning a huge chunk of the original’s cheese — specifically, anything and everything to do with that silly robot. The results are fascinating and, in some respects, better, but also wholly unnecessary.

In fact, the jubilance radiating from the audience (including chants of “Rocky!”) during my jam-packed screening was silenced right from the get-go when the film opened on a somber recap of Rocky and Apollo’s budding friendship in Rocky III rather than the original cut’s Survivor-infused montage of Rocky’s final bout with Clubber Lang. By film’s end, during the climactic fight with Dolph Lundgren’s monstrous Ivan Drago, there weren’t many audible cheers; the crowd more or less stumbled out of the auditorium in a drunk and confused manner — they came for Rocky IV and found themselves participating in a wild artistic experiment.

Look, Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago the Ultimate Director’s Cut is actually quite good. The changes made to the picture are mostly positive, at least from a critical perspective. Many of them add a distinctly human element missing from the theatrical cut, which mostly rendered its characters as larger-than-life action figures. This new version takes the viewer on a powerful emotional journey, one featuring seedier Russians, a more despondent villain, and a hero completely at odds with his personal fame and responsibility. Supporting characters like Adrian (Talia Shire) and Duke (Tony Burton) are given more to do, while others, like Brigitte Nielsen’s sneering Ludmilla, have been largely excised.

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Make no mistake, Stallone has made a completely different film along the lines of Zack Snyder’s Justice League — same dialogue, same characters, same plot beats … but different. (Also, it should be said that the film looks absolutely glorious in full 4K.)

On the other hand, Stallone has also diminished much of what made Rocky IV great in the first place. This is one of those movies that only works if everyone involved doesn’t hold back, and shying away from the silly moments only robs Rocky IV of its abundant charm.

In other words, your enjoyment of Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago the Ultimate Director’s Cut greatly depends on your love of the theatrical cut. If you were itching for a darker, less campy version of Rocky IV, then this new edition will likely rock your world. Of course, if you’re like me and thought Rocky IV was already a perfect piece of 1980s entertainment, you’re probably better off with the original.

Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago the Ultimate Director’s Cut may be the better movie, but the theatrical cut is far more entertaining.

SCORE: 8/10

As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8 equates to “Great.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the art succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.

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