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The New Directors Cut of Rocky IV Hardens The Cheese and Forges a Legend

Image courtesy of MGM

Thirty-five years in the making and fostered by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, director and star Sylvester Stallone carved out the time to revisit and remold 1985’s Rocky IV. He sought new editing work to tighten the narrative, improve the sound, and rethink what scenes were included in the movie and what was cut way back then. The end result, Rocky IV: Rocky Versus Drago—The Ultimate Director’s Cut, premiered as a one-night-only special for Fathom Events on November 11, 2021. Pre-sales were through the roof. The nationwide screening event featured a live Q&A with Sylvester Stallone from Philadelphia. The completed project landed on demand for digital platforms on November 12th.

Through a press screener, I had the opportunity to view this new incarnation and everything about it is a marked improvement. Amazingly, this Rocky IV clocks in with the same running time as its original cut, yet the film couldn’t feel more advanced and substantial. Rocky IV: Rocky Versus Drago—The Ultimate Director’s Cut is a must-see experience for fans of the celebrated sports film franchise.

Host Ben Mankiewicz and Sylvester Stallone pose for red carpet picture
Image courtesy of MGM

Given new, taller titles matching the style of its other movies, this new Rocky IV expands on the echoed ending of Rocky III with more little insertions of the influential tutelage of Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed, and his trainer, Tony “Duke” Evers (the late Tony Burton). When the towering Russian titan of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is introduced soon after and baits a match out of a retired Creed, that lead-up is given more heft. Extended scenes and alternate takes of Stallone, Weathers, and Talia Shire’s Adrian duelling with the competitive notion of fighting spirit create a new focus for the first act. What vacated space for that expansion was the removal of the sideshow robot scenes with Burt Young’s ever-present Paulie and Robert Jr. (Rocky Krakoff). While they had their silly 80s charm, they were prime fluff to eliminate.

A shorter box touches gloves with a towering opponent in front of him
Image courtesy of MGM

The second act still builds towards Balboa taking on a non-sanctioned revenge match on Christmas Day in Moscow versus Drago, after the foreign fighter is responsible for killing Apollo in the ring during their disastrous exhibition contest. This is another section of Rocky IV where character work replaces spectacle. Dolph Lundgren, whose career was launched by this blockbuster, is granted more lines, physical body language reactions, and moments of presence and awareness that show more of the man beneath the billed machine. The final fight has new lines in the round intermissions and is paced with some different confrontational chess-like steps more than breakneck adrenaline set to Vince DiCola’s score. All are wonderful additions that Stallone and Lundgren should be proud of, especially upon seeing their return encounter many years later with Creed 2

Two boxers in spotlighted silhouette move in the ring.
Image courtesy of MGM

Larger than the squared circle, Rocky IV symbolically remains a Cold War-rooted firebrand of America pitting itself as a scrappy underdog against its perceived more ferrous nuclear adversary. The friction feels like a pop culture time capsule for the history books now, and rightfully so. Yet it’s true to its era and was a crowd-pleasing patriotic factor that made Rocky IV the highest box office earner of the franchise. Thanks to the different vibe built to that point, the somewhat cringe-inducing ending speech on “change” has become slightly less blunt. 

Stallone, working with editor Dov Samuel (We’re the Millers), spent months embarking on a tireless process to connect unused footage and new angles where scenes were trimmed or modified. From an atmospheric standpoint, alternate audio tracks and improved sound design from Aaron Glascock (Creed II) and Tracie Gallo combine with alternate music edited by Ben Schor to enhance the enveloping noise and energy of the old movie. On the visual side, the film was re-colored by Dolby Vision colorist Grem Hamlin, with new hues for new moods. All of the sound and footage has been remastered to a pristine Dolby ATMOS level for peak clarity.

While it looks great, the feels of it all win the most. That effect couldn’t be more true of a Rocky movie. The 35 years since 1985 have softened the filmmaker’s eyes for more tangible drama and has also hardened the gooey cheese that composed the gaudy excesses. He was a young filmmaker then, and he could now see mistakes and regrets. If anyone deserved a George Lucas or Ridley Scott-like chance to right some wrongs, it’s Sylvester Stallone.

Sylvester Stallone looks on at the assembled crowd from his seat.
Image courtesy of MGM

For this new edition, Stallone wanted to emphasize Rocky’s inner journey, Ivan Drago’s footprint of an arc, and the weight of Apollo Creed’s tragedy. He certainly found it. In total, 42 minutes of new footage is meshed into Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago—The Ultimate Directors Cut, all, once again, without lengthening the movie’s overall running time. The new combination of shortened beats and lingering moments give the film an improved pace. That’s a tremendous and satisfying accomplishment, and the heightened drama reinvigorates the film’s emotional nucleus. What was a huge winner then is forged even better and stronger now.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on 25YL and his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. He is also one of the hosts of the 25YL-backed Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network. As a school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association and the Online Film Critics Society.

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