one of the side effects of living with a film freak is that you occasionally end up getting sucked into things and then wondering what the heck you're doing. earlier today, i was suddenly shocked to find that i'd been sitting and watching a rocky weekend marathon while drinking my morning coffee and enjoying my bagel with cream cheese. a rocky marathon. what's worse, i was watching the end of rocky 3 (with mr. t channeling george foreman, years before they both ended up flogging cookware on the channels that don't have rocky marathons on the weekend). if they were going to follow the series, there was only one thing that could follow. i got up and showered.
however, when i returned from cleansing myself, there it was, waiting for me. rocky iv, in all its abominable glory.
i really shouldn't have to say that rocky iv is a bad movie. in fact, i shouldn't say that, because bad doesn't really do it justice. it's a terrible movie, whether taken as a whole or as the sum of its parts. that's kind of miraculous, really. not only is the end product wretched, but nearly every single element that goes into making it- acting, cinematography, script, soundtrack- is equally disagreeable. i saw this film when i was in my early teens (back when it came out in 1985) and even then, i realised that this was a special sort of bad, catering to a special sort of very limited mentality. the fact that it's funny doesn't redeem it. no one meant for the film to be funny, which is really the most inadvertently hilarious thing about it.
but what's truly incredible is that watching it, or as much of it as i could stand, may have improved my waning faith in humanity. let me explain, starting with what passes for a plot.
a bunch of soviets, including a kruschev-like trainer and bitchy amazon brigitte nielsen back when she was hot, parade something called "ivan drago" (with that kind of name, you know he's bad to the bone) across the ocean for a show match against former champion apollo creed. creed enlists the help of his friend rocky balboa, the mumble-mouthed italian stallion who's already fought his way through three increasingly weak films. despite the fact that drago is the olympic champion (which would have been an accomplishment, considering that the soviet block boycotted the 1984 olympics), the americans know nothing about him or his fighting style. balboa, like any good coach or friend, tells creed that he's going to lose.
on fight night, creed arrives in a show so over-the-top, even las vegas would blush. all flash and american bravado, it feels like getting punched repeatedly by a prizefighter with the word "hubris" tattooed on his hands. drago, who arrives looking kind of like a prisoner coming out of solitary confinement, obliges this clumsy bit of foreshadowing by beating creed to death in the ring as rocky waffles on whether or not to throw in the towel.
to show that he is not just an overzealous young fighter who got carried away, bringing his a-game to what was supposed to be an exhibition, drago shrugs and tells reporters on the scene "if he dies, he dies". understand that meat-slab dolph lundgren, who had the misfortune of being cast as drago, says about a dozen words in the entire film (normally, kruschev and the amazon do his talking), so this line is exceptionally important in the audience's perception of his inner motivation.
off goes rocky to russia, to fight the murderous drago there, on christmas day, but first to train. i guess we're supposed to understand that the united states has such woefully inadequate training facilities that rocky is better off moving to a shed in what looks like siberia, jogging through snowbanks and chopping wood through several montages, before magically emerging with a beard.
of course, the film is always about the fight in the rocky series, which is why plot and character development apparently got left on the drawing board. instead of the cold war match being about adversaries who learn to take pride in themselves and have respect for their opponent regardless of the outcome (as it was with rocky and the late all-american apollo creed), we see that the soviet fighter is an unrepentant, unfeeling killing machine. we are reminded, in case we missed the subtleties of the message, that drago has an unbeatable technique, whereas rocky has only heart, being older and less technically adept at this point in the saga. the soviet is a fighting machine, the american is all too human.
in the end, of course, the soviet crowd turns on drago and is won over by rocky's resilience and individualism. even drago gives his trainer a smack-down and affirms his own belief that he fights only for himself. and in the end, having won the hearts of the people and the fight, rocky speaks to the crowd, who are apparently all fluent in english, and tells them that they can all change. and that's ultimately what we all want, right? for the soviets to change?
it is hard to explain to anyone who has not seen this film, or other similar ones from the era, exactly how insanely polarised things are in the world of rocky iv. this was the desperate black hour of the cold war, just before mikhail gorbachev opened the door a crack and revealed the dawn. those who were invested in the rhetoric of right versus left, of us versus them, really did explain the world in these terms. "we" were good. "they" were bad. "they" were heartless monsters, made less than human through years of abuse and repression and the only hope was to have their latent humanity beaten to wakefulness by determined american fists.
and people took this crap seriously. rocky iv earned more money at the box office than any other film in the franchise. it is still the highest-grossing sports film of all time. how i wish i were making that up. whereas other films show rocky as a fighter who must deal with his own demons and face an opponent, this film is purely rocky as hyper-obvious metaphor, winning the cold war rather than ending it. and the film worked on the public because that was how a lot of people at the time actually thought.
now imagine, if you will, a new sort of sports movie, where the hero is an american battler and his opponent is a remorseless killing machine from iran. picture the reaction of critics and audiences as they watched the hero pummel the villain into submission (and then, to follow through on our parallel, convert him to christianity). i think that such a film would get a similar reaction to "birth of a nation" and be consigned to the trash heap of history as an embarrassing monument to xenophobia and racism. and that's where the hope comes in.
seen 25 years on, rocky iv seems more naive than anything else, because we've all forgotten that when it first came out, being informed was a serious challenge. after all, if you couldn't get unbiased information from the major media, you pretty much had to scrounge in fringe magazines (assuming they were even available in your area) and community radio to find out stories that were often years old. it's not that those people didn't exist, but it was pretty easy to shout over them.
with huge and increasing portions of the world connected to the avalanche of information that is the internet, the challenge is being able to filter and determined what sounds the most credible. when george w. bush announced "you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists", he had a large group of supporters who cheered, but he also had an even larger group worldwide who rolled their eyes and continued to share data detailing why they believed he was an idiot and a liar. the delays in accessing information are gone. the barriers to accessing information are depleting. and while that may mean that the tide of misinformation grows ever worse, it means that gradually, every year, the sophistication of the audience is growing.
it may seem ridiculous to assert the sophistication of an audience that regularly tunes in to dancing with the stars (or whatever vapid hit you might want to mention), but the fact is that more people are more suspicious, more critical of what they hear, than ever before (note, i say more people, not all people or even a majority of people). that means when someone says something, you are going to have a lot more people scrambling to their computers to verify either the information itself or the trustworthiness of its source than you did in 1985.
that's it. i didn't say that it was enough to turn me into an optimist, but it's something. at the very least, it should be enough to protect me from the political simplifications of rocky for a little while.