Is Rocky IV a classic sports movie?

There have been lots of sports movies made over the years and almost every sports fan seems to have opinions about them.

Some are classic tales that still resonate today like “Field of Dreams,” “The Natural,” “Remember the Titans,” “Miracle,” “Hoosiers” and “A League of Their Own.” Others are just goofball comedies with quotable lines can still make you laugh years later like “Major League,” “Slap Shot,” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Mighty Ducks,” “Dodgeball,” “The Sandlot” and yes, even “Space Jam.”

With the release of “Creed II” last weekend, that got me thinking about that other boxing saga, the “Rocky” series. I was specifically focused on “Rocky IV”, which is the backstory to the plot of Creed II and it made me wonder “Is Rocky IV a classic, or just a movie that makes you laugh years later at its absurdity?’

For those who have never watched the Rocky series (and apparently, there’s quite a few of you, including my wife), I’ll give you a quick summary of the series (Spoiler alert). Sylvester Stallone is Rocky Balboa, a struggling boxer from Philadelphia. He has talent, but seems to be wasting it fighting weak boxers and being a smalltime enforcer for a local bookie. Somehow, he gets his shot at greatness when heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (who is obviously based on Muhammad Ali) decides to give a local fighter a chance to face him for the title after his original opponent backs out. Enticed by the nickname “The Italian Stallion,” Apollo chooses Rocky.

Rocky goes through his famous training montages, like swigging raw eggs, chasing a chicken, using meat carcasses as punching bags and running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He ends up going the distance with Creed, but loses. Despite this disappointing outcome, you’re left inspired by Rocky’s grit and you’re left hoping he gets a rematch.

Well he does in Rocky II. This time, Rocky’s coming out on top because Creed couldn’t get up before the count of 10. I didn’t really understand why they ended it that way because it makes it look like Rocky didn’t beat Creed, he was just too tired. They could’ve probably ended things there with that positive, though unsatisfying ending, but no. Then came Rocky III along with the iconic song “Eye of the Tiger.” In this film, Rocky faces Clubber Lang, played famously by Mr. T. Lang pummels an overmatched Rocky to take the title. All is not lost though as Creed trains his former rival to help him get his title back, which he does. Now would be the perfect time to end this series since he’s champ again and he vanquished a famous person, but apparently, there was more that needed to be said about Rocky for some reason.

So here comes Rocky IV, which if you asked some of my friends, is the best of the series, if not the best film ever. That’s a huge stretch, but it is a memorable flick, both good and bad. So let’s go back to 1985 when it takes place and it opens with two boxing fists coming together, one with the American flag and one with the Soviet Union flag. When they hit, the Soviet one explodes because… I’m not sure why. Maybe because I was an infant at the time, who had no idea what was going on.

In the movie, the Soviets introduce Ivan Drago to the world, who is somehow unknown despite winning a gold medal. Drago is almost superhuman in his strength and ferocity and the Soviets market him as unbeatable. Creed doesn’t believe it and despite being terribly washed up, challenges Drago to an exhibition bout.

Meanwhile, Rocky is retired and is hanging out with his family, while his brother-in-law Paulie, broods in jealousy. I still don’t know what Paulie brings to this saga and I’m convinced he’s only still there because actor Burt Young needed to find work and Stallone felt bad for him.

Anyway, back to boxing. The day of the fight comes and it’s quite the spectacle. While Drago waits in the ring, Creed decides the best way to get ready for the match is to do a lengthy dance number with James Brown on his way to the ring. Not surprisingly, Creed gets the crap beat out of him in the first round and Rocky, who is returning the favor as trainer, says he’s going to stop the fight.

A bleeding and battered Creed begs him not to and stunningly, goes back out there. Drago continues to just pound Creed into submission and Rocky has an internal debate over throwing in the towel to stop the fight.

However, he thinks too long and Drago decks Creed with a cross that sends him to the canvas. While Rocky cradles an unconscious Creed, Drago says his famous line to an interviewer, “If he dies, he dies,” which Creed eventually does in tragic fashion. This is where the film starts to lose me. He didn’t necessarily have to die in the film and the writers could’ve just left him in the hospital, but that’s not as heartbreaking or meaningful.

Motivated by a combination of guilt, revenge and delusion, Rocky challenges Drago and agrees to a Christmas bout in Moscow. Why Christmas, he’s asked at the press conference. Rocky doesn’t answer. My theory is that he hates the hubbub of Christmas and thinks getting knocked unconscious is a great way to escape it.

Here’s where the movie spins out of control. First, Paulie is sitting up there next to Rocky at the press conference and proceeds to get into a bizarre, rambling argument with Drago’s promoter. Why is he there? For comic relief? Then Rocky decides to go to Russia to train and there’s no legitimate reason to do so. There’s plenty of quality gyms here in the United States, but like a car manufacturing company, Rocky takes his business overseas.

While Drago trains in a state-of-the-art facility and gets shot up with what is presumably steroids, Rocky prepares in a remote mountain with Creed’s old trainer, his wife, Adrian, and sigh … Paulie. While Drago lifts weights, Rocky lifts rocks and huge logs and drags a sleigh with Paulie on top through the snow. That’s the perfect symbol for Paulie, dead weight. Again, why is he training this way? He could be doing what Drago is doing, minus the drugs, in a gym in Philly or anywhere in the U.S., but I guess lifting natural things somehow makes you stronger. Think that’s weird? They cap off the training montage with Rocky sprinting up the side of a mountain. The song “Hearts on Fire” is playing the whole time and if Rocky were to run at the pace he was moving at up the mountain, his heart would not only be on fire, but it’d probably explode like the Soviet glove at the start of the film.

The night of the fight comes and Rocky makes the smart decision not to dance his way to the ring like Creed did as he not only would waste energy, but would probably have things thrown at him from the extremely hostile crowd. He gets pounded in the first round as Drago doesn’t show mercy. However, Rocky fights his way back and somehow manages to get the crowd to root for him, which defies all logic and that’s where the film completely goes off the rails and into the ditch. A frustrated Drago later grabs his promoter by the throat and throws him out off the ring and eventually, Rocky knocks Drago to the canvas, winning by knockout.

This is followed by Rocky giving a rambling victory speech where he attempts to end the Cold War by saying “If I can change and you can change, then everybody can change,” as the crowd applauds.

After watching the film again, I understand why people like it so much. It draws you in and even though, it doesn’t make sense at times, it makes you want to pull for Rocky again. I’ll admit that even I used to love it, but now, I realize that compared to the original and even the Mr. T version, it’s pretty bad. Not Rocky V bad, but bad enough that you can’t believe that this series kept going after two movies.

Creed, on the other hand, has gotten great reviews and its much-talked about sequel is already garnering praise as Apollo’s son Adonis tries to avenge his father by facing Drago’s own son, Viktor. I’ve been intrigued since I saw the first trailer and it’s all because of the fun memories I had as a kid watching Rocky IV.

Sure, it’s over the top and the acting is awful. However, Rocky IV has somehow stood the test of time.

So in its own weird way, it is a classic sports film and deserves a spot among the greats.

I just hope Creed II can live up to it.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.