The Rocky sequels have ceased to be movies in the usual sense of the word. They are now rituals, Low Masses celebrating what their star-creator assumes to be, on the basis of his past successes, the values of the least common denominator. Narrative linkage in any but the crudest form is dispensed with, and dialogue and characterizations are stripped to minimal levels. Any audience could chant the lines along with the archetypal figures on the screen, as if it were participating in a responsive reading. In any event, the point of the exercise is the traditional one: to bring a crowd to its feet shouting "Amen," or at the very least, "Praise the Sly."
The scheme of Rocky IV is numbingly familiar. Our hero is discovered at his ease, enjoying the sweet rewards of his pugilistic toil, no clouds on his scar tissue. There then lumbers into sight a giant threat not just to his well-being but to all that he--we--holds dear. Yes, literally a giant. Replacing Mr. T in this thankless role is a humongous Soviet called Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Behind this wild bull of the steppes, a totalitarian state has mobilized all its technological wizardry (including, it is hinted, steroids) in order to claim not merely a world championship but the superiority of its system over that of the decadent West. Apolitical Rocky does not care. But his friend and sometime opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) does, and in an exhibition match (staged--plug, plug--at MGM's Las Vegas Grand), he is sadistically beaten to death by the Soviet. That, of course, gets the Italian Stallion up on his hind legs, pawing the air.
It also leads to the obligatory scene in which his wife (Talia Shire), representing quietism, doubts the necessity of vengeance, so that Rocky can inform her that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Arduousness follows, an endless subverbal sequence in which the hero trains in the vast primitive fastness of the Soviet wilderness, with only his own fighting spirit to sustain him as he chops wood, lifts rocks and runs up the highest mountain for a socko finish. Crosscut with this lonely ordeal are shots of Drago, who has an entire collective of helpers and all the latest electronic and chemical gizmos working on his muscle tone.
At last it's on to the geopohtically squared circle: a screaming crowd (except for the Politburo in its box, deadly quiet), pounding music, blows that resound as if someone were holding batting practice with watermelons. Can Rocky weather the terrible punishment of the early rounds? Will he get in some good licks for poor beleaguered capitalism? Will the assembled proletariat discern the greatness of his spirit and, setting aside all propaganda (and KGB) considerations, start cheering for a democratic working man? Will Rocky get the opportunity to make, of all things, a plea for détente? Only if you have been living in deepest Siberia since 1976 need you ask.