IT'S DECEMBER 3, and brother is it cold. Icicles are beginning to form on my eyebrows as I stare in amazement at the long line of people who are braving near-zero temperatures for the chance to see Rocky IV, the latest installment in what has become America's favorite myth. It takes more than cold weather to kill off a legend in the making. I consider elbowing to the front of the line to pick up my press tickets and head for a cup of coffee, but the people waiting at the ticket booth do not look like the sort who would believe me if I told them I had important business ahead: the cold may be stabbing, but at least it's not packing a knife.
Rocky IV is no ordinary movie--in fact it's barely a movie at all. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk done MTV style, a self-inflicted patriotic catharsis of shameless propaganda exploiting the current American past-time of reasonless xenophobia. Whatever you call it, I cannot deny Stallone's drawing power nor can I blame the people who froze with me in order to see his hulking physique. For better or worse, the former porn star has created a myth that exerts a definite influence over the attitudes and behavior patterns of most viewers.
The key to this film's influential power lies in its simplicity. The plot has been stripped down as far as possible. Russia has decided to throw its best amateur boxer, Ivan Drago (played by the amazingly-Aryan Dolph Lungren) into the circle of professional boxing. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the bad guy in parts I and II and the helpful friend in installment III, decides to recapture his old glory by fighting the massive Russian in an exhibition match. Drago kills (I'm not kidding) Apollo in the ring, and Rocky sets off to Russia to avenge his friend. One, two, three; Fight, Kill, Revenge.
After the messy business of plot has been taken care of (in a scant 30 minutes), Stallone gets down to his bread and butter, training and fight scenes. The last hour of this short film is filled with flashbacks from the first three Rocky incarnations, scenes of the Italian Stallion hauling a sled full of chopped wood up a 90-degree cliff in training, and finally the American boxer stopping hundreds of punishing sounding blows with his forehead and chin and upper cheekbones. Apparently, Rocky thinks that masochistic training strengthens the bones in the human head to the extent that a steamroller running over the prepared cranium will cause only a slight scratch above the left eye. Warning: readers should not attempt this sort of thing at home, on their spouses, children, pets, etc...
Stallone further pares down the film by eliminating all the interesting characters. Creed of course is dead, as is his manager Micky Goldmill, who bought it in Rocky III. Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) has approximately five lines and the dreaded Drago even less. In place of the grimy hodgepodge that peopled the now primitive Rocky I, Stallone gives us a talking robot maid, droves of stony-faced KGB agents and a shadowy figure in the royal box who bcars marked resemblence to current Soviet Premier Gorbachev.
ROCKY IV contains few elements of a traditional film. Instead of a movie, Stallone has created a visual and aural experience design to bombast and overwhelm the viewer's senses. All the blows have been amplified and run through some electronic thingamajig to produce a sound much akin to a pack of wolves attacking a square mile of sheet metal. Clips from the earlier three movies fly past with the incredible rapidity of a flurry of Marvin Hagler haymakers to the pounding strains of "Burning Heart" by Survivor. The audience has to weather flashing lights, smoke, flags, flying drops of sweat, blood stains, chanting crowds and the ever-present metallic thuds of potentially lethal blows. And like a punch drunk pugilist the audience succumbs.
It's December 3, and the theater is hot and smelly and loud. I have withstood Stallone's assault so far, but I'm beginning to duck punches on the screen and cry out when Rocky gets nailed. All of a sudden, a man slams into a seat three down from me and rolls to the floor. Another figure is upon him at once panching, grabbing and kicking. Pretty soon, 15 people are involved to some degree in the emerging mayhem. A cop on duty finally convinces the contenders in the crowd to take a breather and watch the movie. The original two combatants are escorted out.
After this brief interruption, the crowd returns to its normal level of participation. Rocky is by now starting to punish the seemingly invincible Drago, and various cries of "Kill him!" escape from alleged human beings. Rocky (and Stallone), I think, is no longer "da bum from Philly who don't talk too good." The audience really believes this cartoon of men named after Greek myths who have superhuman strengths and superhuman purposes. Stallone/Rocky no longer plays the aspiring Sigfried. He is no Wotan himself entering the Valhalla of mass popularity.
At the end of the movie, Rocky delivers a speech telling us that Americans and Russians should be friends, not enemies. Stallone seems to have his heart in the right place, I think. At least, he seems to realize that Rocky is fantasy, dangerous if taken too seriously. "We can all change." "We should be friends." To these simplistic but well-intentioned sentiments, someone in the front yelled out "Bullshit!" In fact, half of the audience decided that punches were better than words and walked out on Stallone's pacifist comments. Maybe I should write to Stallone: if he really means what he says as Rocky (and I think he does), perhaps he should put pacifism at the start and not the epilogue of Rocky V.