Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Rocky Balboa Single-Handedly Ended the Cold War

*You really need to watch Rocky IV to understand any of this, so SPOILERS for Rocky IV throughout*

Remember Rocky IV? It's one of my favorite movies of all time. I'm not being sarcastic or anything. I remember watching this when I was a kid and loving every minute of it. Because of fond memories and my ability to laugh at what are now very cheesy things, I still consider this as one of my favorite movies. The overlong Apollo Creed intro featuring James Brown? Hilarious. That pointless robot (an 80's staple) for Paulie's birthday that gets its own introduction? I still laugh when I hear it say, "happybirthdaypaulie." But this isn't all about my love for Rocky IV, it's about how Rocky won over the entire Soviet Union with his fists and convinced them that anyone can change as long as that change is from communism to capitalism, although it might not be as simple as that if you stop and think about it.

First, I want to cover all of the setup for this clash between cultures. The most obvious example is that of the opposing boxing gloves at the beginning of the film, one American, the other Soviet. They clash and explode. No one ever claimed that the Rocky films were subtle. There is a bit of foreshadowing right before they blow up, though. Either from faulty pyrotechnics or deliberate foreshadowing, the Soviet glove clearly breaks apart before the full explosion. The attentive viewer now knows what is going to happen (as if anyone has ever went into a Rocky sequel wondering how it would end).

"Will you protect me from the Commies,
obligatory '80s movie robot?"
One more example of obvious foreshadowing is the Survivor song, "Burning Heart." Rocky movies have always had a reputation for inspirational songs featured during montages and this film is no exception. But that Survivor song, obviously written specifically for the film, pretty much lays out the entire plot. Here's a sample of some of the lyrics: "two worlds collide...rival nations...so much at stake...freedom's up against the ropes...does the crowd understand...is it east versus west or man against man...can any nation stand alone?" So if there was any question as to whether this movie was really about the Cold War, Survivor just answered it.

Apollo's entrance is further evidence of the clash. Maybe it was just an excuse to have James Brown in the movie and play up Apollo's vanity. I like to think that it was meant as an example of how decadent American life is. James Brown does sing, "Living in America" for the extravagant entrance. It was basically a show intended only for the Russians. Check this out, you commies! We're livin' it up over here! Rocky doesn't seem to be having as much fun with it as Apollo, though. He looks very uncomfortable with it all. It might be because he's embarrassed for Apollo or he thinks Apollo isn't taking the fight seriously. Or it might be because Rocky is as sickened by the decadence as much as the communists are.

Rocky's all about the decadence of capitalism early in the film. He drives an expensive car. He buys Paulie a mostly worthless robot. His kid has what looks to be a top of the line 1985 video camera. Does he need all of this crap? This would be a stretch of an idea if all we got to back that up was an uncomfortable look during a James Brown song. It becomes a completely valid theory when Rocky decides to fight Ivan Drago in Russia...on Christmas, the apex of capitalist holidays.

"Yo, I don't need no steroids...well, I do, but my my character don't!"
This is where Drago enters into the mix and creates a strange inverse to Rocky. While in Russia, Rocky goes all natural. He runs up mountains, lifts rocks and wagons, chops firewood, jumps rope, grows a beard, etc. What is that communist Drago up to all this time? He's in a state of the art training facility with a team of doctors and trainers watching his every move. He uses sophisticated computer technology and wacky treadmills that incline to what looks like a complete vertical angle. Oh, and he's juicing. So who's the American/capitalist anyway? (Click here for the video of the montage.)

It starts to look like Rocky is the real hero of the proletariat even more as the fight gets underway. He arrives to no entrance music with a determined look etched onto his face. Drago, on the other hand, gets a giant painting of himself unveiled during the national anthem (or Communist Party anthem, whatever that song is, I'm not sure). During the fight, the crowd loves Drago and hates Rocky. But that scrappy American works his magic on the crowd and by the end, the communist crowd is chanting the name of an American hero. Rocky only became that hero by experiencing a communist lifestyle, though. So it's not a clear victory for capitalism, but it's certainly not a win for communism, either. Like the Survivor song asks, "can any nation stand alone?" It appears that they cannot and Rocky proved that point with his fists.
"Listen to my brain-damaged words, Soviet Union! Base your foreign policy on my post-fight ramblings!"

The answer isn't that simple, though. Rocky sends some major mixed signals with his final speech and the movie itself complicates things during the fight by cutting back to Rocky's kid here and there. First off, Rocky gives the speech near the end (to this day I wonder if that Russian translator converted Rocky's broken English verbatim) in which he talks about how he changed and everyone can change. The speech even brings the representatives of the Communist Party in attendance to their feet in applause; way to go, Rock! The message is quite clear: let's work together and end the Cold War before it gets serious. But Rocky says all this while draped with the American flag, knowing full well that he's about to head back to his mansion. Did he really learn anything while training in Russia? Or did he simply learn that living in the miserable cold with no wise-cracking robot is no damn fun at all? Maybe it's the latter. Stallone as the director hammers home the capitalist idea earlier on, though. Whenever he cuts to Rocky's son watching the fight on TV, we see the robot again...dressed up as Santa Claus. I know it's not an official symbol or anything, but what says capitalism more than a robot dressed as Santa?

There's the final answer from Rocky IV: tear down that wall "youse guys are behind" and put a McDonald's up over there. But we'll work together to build it, east and west, hand in hand. Rocky IV may not be as black and white as once believed when dealing with the Cold War, but one thing is certain: Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended it...on film, at least.


  1. Excellent retro-review. I've always loved Rocky IV above the others in the saga (although Rocky Balboa was a damn fine movie).

    I always wanted to see a movie (or this movie) retelled from the eyes of Ivan Drago...

  2. Rocky Balboa was a terrible movie..

  3. I loved Rocky IV and we should also remember that it ended the cold war singlehandedly.

    1. No, Rocky 4 did not end the Cold War. What the hell are you talking about?

  4. During that speech, wasn't Rocky just a few minutes away from suffering a major seizure? Can we really say that Rocky was in his right mind when saying all of that?

    Or was Rocky V just a figment of my imagination?