On the 4th of July, several of us got together to grill out. We took it as a “cheat day” and sat aside our healthy eating plans for a day of chili dogs and pie. And more chili dogs. And more pie.
And yet, as fun as it was, it didn’t quite feel like Independence Day. Sure, this was how most of America celebrated the 4th, but we needed more. We needed something to put us in the spirit. We needed some goddamned patriotism.
We needed “Rocky IV.”
If you’re not a child of the eighties (or if you’ve simply forgotten about Rocky IV), it is possibly the cheesiest of the Rocky sequels.
And yet, when it was released, this was a movie that all of America fell in behind. It couldn’t be ignored. It couldn’t be forgotten. It had to be watched multiple times as a reminder that we, the United States, were the heroes of the Cold War.
Films like “Rocky IV” instantly make me think of summertime. We’d come in from a long, hard day of playing outside (which, to those of you younger than me, was an archaic activity that we partook in until video games and the internet came along) and plop down in front of the television with an ice cold lemonade to watch two grown men pummel each other senseless.
Before we go any further, let me say that I LOVE the Rocky franchise. If you’ve never seen it (or have also forgotten about it), go back and watch the first “Rocky”. It is hands down one of the best American films of the twentieth century. The sequels, however…
Well, let’s start with the opening of Rocky IV. First off, Rocky has just defeated Clubber Lang (played by the versatile Mr. T) and cemented a new friendship with his former foe / current trainer, Apollo Creed. Rocky goes home for his brother-in-law Paulie’s birthday where he reveals the present he purchased for Paulie.
Cut to Apollo throwing tennis balls into a pool for no discernible reason (or maybe I wasn’t paying close attention at this point) when his poolside television (which was honestly playing a fried chicken commercial as we cut into the scene) reveals that the Soviets have decided to enter pro-boxing. True to stereotypically evil form, they dis American boxers and reveal their boxing protégé, Ivan Drago, played as a Nazi wet dream by then-unknown Dolph Lundgren.
So Apollo, feeling past his prime, decides to take up the torch for the good ol’ USA and challenge Drago. Rocky tries to talk his friend out of the fight, but Apollo is intent on schooling the Commie. At their match, Drago is placed inside the ring, which is in the basement on an elevator. It lifts up onto the stage like King Kong being presented for the world.
And then, with a hundred Solid Gold dancers around him, the Godfather of Soul himself comes out performing “Living in America.” As he does so, Apollo Creed is lifted onto the stage in front of a giant golden bull dressed as a version of Uncle Sam that apparently has also been suffering from economic strain and has taken up stripping as a side job.
We are reminded here of America’s excess, especially the coke-fueled excess of the eighties that flashdanced to Motley Crue while giving the finger to the Red Menace.
Later, when Rocky travels to what looks like a Siberian farm to train like… well, a farmer, the stark difference between the two cultures is revealed .
Anyway, Drago kills Apollo and the rest of the movie turns into one never-ending music video as Rocky restores America’s honor and shows the Russian people (Gorbachev included) that there’s no beating good ol’ fashioned American heart.
As Rocky sequels go, it’s one of the most popular. I personally prefer part 3 as far as cheese factor is concerned (I mean, come on: in part 3, Rocky fights Mr. T AND Hulk Hogan), and the first “Rocky” and “Rocky Balboa” are actually excellent films. But “Rocky IV” has that stamp on it that only Cold War-era propaganda can. For any of us who grew up during the Cold War, no matter how much our rational minds have changed and adapted to the world around us, there’s still a part of us that yearns for that “good versus evil” situation we as a country found ourselves in. We want the Big Red Menace to exist so that we have some height to rise to, some courageous test of our collective will as a nation to overcome.
It makes me think of another excellent piece of cinema verite’: RED DAWN.
Written and directed by John “I am fucking insane” Milius, “Red Dawn” (also known as “punainen vaara” in Iceland, if you cared), cast a veritable Who’s Who of upcoming superstars and tabloid headlines. It’s plot was one that seemed infinitely feasible in 1984: the Soviets invade the US. In a small Colorado town, a band of hard scrabble teenagers band together in the woods to form a resistance against the Soviet army.
A remake of the film was recently done where they replaced the Soviets with the Chinese. Then someone realized we owe China trillions of dollars and went back and changed the Chinese to the North Koreans. Someone else then pointed out that this was really fucking stupid and the film was shelved.
(Note: Since I had first written this, some genius decided to go ahead and release the Red Dawn remake. It did not do well.)
The idea of a remake simply doesn’t work because we aren’t afraid of invasions anymore. There is no Big Bad in the world. Instead, we helped dismantle the Soviet Union, taking all of our enemies out of one centralized location and scattering them around the world while simultaneously destroying the only stop gag that existed to keep despotic ideologues from doing as they please. Oh, and let’s not forget all those Soviet weapons, including chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons that went missing after Communism died.
The world is a different place. Possibly a scarier one.
And maybe that’s the primary draw to me for these Cold War-era action films. Sure, there’s the cheese factor. But they also represent a certain innocence and naivety, which is what summer is about. They capture a time where, even if we thought the opposite, there was no real chance of the world blowing up. It was a perpetual stalemate and, color me silly, but I miss that.
Besides, Montage Scenes rule.