Locked-down during the pandemic with nothing else to do, Sylvester Stallone set about crafting a new version of the most popular and financially successful film in the franchise Rocky IV: Rocky VS Drago The Ultimate Director’s Cut. With 40-minutes of new footage, this new cut changes much of the opening act crafting a more character-driven and emotionally-centered film from an older filmmaker looking back at his work with more mature eyes. Whether or not it’s a “better” cut will be left up to the fans, it might not change your opinion of the film but it’s definitely an interesting new take on an old favorite. Highly Recommended
Rocky VI: Rocky vs Drago The Ultimate Director’s Cut is in theaters one night only on November 11th, before appearing on streaming and VOD services on November 12th. Currently, there are no announced plans for a physical media release. Amazon, iTunes, and VUDU all offer this new cut for rent or purchase in 4K UHD with HDR. Amazon seems to only offer HDR10 with VUDU and iTunes offers Dolby Vision HDR.
The story of Rocky IV is well known by now so there’s little reason to recap it here. There’s nothing fundamentally different about Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago The Ultimate Director’s Cut that changes anything about the plot or the story. The biggest differences fans will experience are a change in tone, pace, and a more emotionally mature take on the material. Rather than opening the film with Rocky and Apollo’s famous “Third Fight", it opens with an abbreviated but more dramatic recap of the events of Rocky III. Before this footage was very Rocky-focused, but now this new cut largely focuses on Apollo.
After the opening, the film fades into Apollo in his pool playing with his dogs witnessing the first Russian propaganda press conference about the superiority of the genetically perfect Drago. Next, we see Rocky and Apollo discussing whether or not Rocky will take the fight - but throughout the focus is all on Apollo Creed and his need to get back into the ring and fight the Russian. In fact, for much of the first quarter of this new Director’s Cut, Rocky is actually a secondary character in his own film. Events are quickened, scenes are cut altogether, but more character beats with Apollo, Adrian, Drago, and Duke are slipped in. While we may lose Paulie’s Robot and a view into Rocky's home life, we gain a more character-driven story in the exchange.
This is also now a subtler film. Rocky IV was filmed in 1985 and it feels like a time capsule perfectly preserving every aspect of American 80s excess and its politics. In 2021 Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago is working against that material to make it a little more timeless. The edits that are the most jarring come by way of Stallone trying to limit the number of shots with that infamous star filter, or cutting Rocky Jr’s obsession with the video camera, tamping back some of the jingoist rhetoric, and again no more Paulie’s Robot. The simplified opening title card sans exploding boxing gloves sets the stage for this more somber take.
Whether or not this is a benefit, that’ll be for the fans to decide. Watching this new cut in a packed theater was quite interesting. People still reacted to their favorite scenes with excitement and glee. When John Cafferty’s Hearts on Fire started up everyone knew they were in for one of the best training montages of any sports drama ever. "Is this new?" was a frequent whisper throughout the auditorium I was in. Everyone there was a fan of Rocky IV and we were all eager to see what a new cut could bring to one of our favorite films.
The original theatrical cut heavily relied on montage edits to quicken the pace and remove a lot of the dialog leaving the supporting cast with mere glimpses and emotional reactions to work with. Now, these characters actually get to share some of their thoughts and it shows that at the time Stallone the Writer had a very different idea of what the film could be versus Stallone the Movie Star and Director. And again this comes by way of a filmmaker clearly 35 years removed from the material. This is the edit of an older and wiser man nearly twice the age of the younger and more impatient man that originally made the film.
Director’s Cuts in general are always a tricky prospect. Sometimes a few scene changes are all it takes to craft a better and more satisfying film. And sometimes those changes can actually ruin the show or be so irrelevant that a “Director’s Cut” almost feels pointless. This new cut strikes a middle cord. While it could be argued we didn't need a Director's Cut of Rocky IV - we're no worse for having one either. We've had one cut for 35 years and now we get a new one to debate over. And in actuality, the fact we get to now debate the merits of either cut is the real benefit. Critics roasted the film when it first hit theaters but people ate it up. It was a bullet-proof popcorn flick that you either loved or hated. It used to be the ridiculous over-the-top cheesy fantasy. Now it gets to be something a little different and maybe something a little more meaningful.
With nearly 40-minutes of new footage - Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago The Ultimate Director’s Cut is a different version of the same film. The most dramatic changes happen early and those fans most familiar with the film will instantly notice those differences. It may be a bit awkward and jarring at first. But by the time Apollo enters the ring in Vegas, this new cut has found its rhythm, and the changes are more organic with the new dramatic tone becoming more appreciable. In key areas, it’s much less cornball and can feel like a more earnest film. In terms of an emotionally cohesive franchise experience, Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago is now more in line with the tone and pacing of Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, and Rocky Balboa. As always Rocky V is better left forgotten. I don’t think any amount of re-editing could salvage that film.
I am personally stuck as to whether or not to call this a “better” cut of the film. “A very good different version” feels like the more appropriate description. Rocky IV was the first Rocky film I ever saw as a kid when it premiered on television so I have a big soft spot for it. But as a huge fan, I’m not blind to its flaws either. I just love the movie despite those flaws. Rocky IV: Rocky vs Drago The Ultimate Director's Cut offers some more dramatic nuance and subtlety with the same heart and I very much enjoyed it. The theater audience I shared the experience with all seemed to have a blast with folks cheering in all the right places. It’s still Rocky IV, just a new way to experience an old fan favorite.
Rocky VI: Rocky vs Drago The Ultimate Director’s Cut is in theaters one night only on November 11th, before appearing on streaming and VOD services on November 12th. Currently, there are no announced plans for a physical media release.