DISCLAIMER: This review will contain minor spoilers, as it will compare differences between the two cuts of the movie.
ROCKY VS DRAGO is directed by Sylvester Stallone. The film stars Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, Tony Burton, Burt Young, Michael Pataki, Brigitte Nielsen, and Stu Nahan. The film is a director’s cut of 1985’s ROCKY IV.
In ROCKY III, Rocky lost his championship to vicious competitor Clubber Lang, but got it back with help from his old rival Apollo Creed. This time around, the Soviet Union has decided to enter the world of international boxing, with their champion Ivan Drago coming to the United States for an exhibition bout. When that fight ends in tragedy, Rocky rescinds his boxing championship, traveling to Russia to train for a fight against Drago, preparing to face his most powerful opponent yet.
ROCKY IV has never been the deepest film in the franchise for storytelling. It’s very much a product of its Cold War era, perhaps the cheesiest and most over-the-top film in the series. And despite mixed critical reviews, it became the highest grossing film in the ROCKY series, not to mention one of the highest grossing sports-related films ever made. While not my favorite ROCKY movie, it’s not hard to see why fans of the series have a soft spot for it.
Already I’m seeing ROCKY VS DRAGO reviews that are all across the board, with some fans praising it to the moon as the definitive version of the movie, with others saying it fails to do anything for the overall experience. I’d have to say I’m somewhere in the middle here. While many of the additions (mostly dialogue-driven sequences not in the original 1985 cut) are powerful and serve the purpose of pacing and character development, other decisions are questionable and iffy at best. It’s a solid new take on this fan-favorite story, though not quite definitive.
It’s estimated there’s roughly 40 minutes of new/alternate footage in this version of the movie, though the total running time is barely longer than the original. One of the most questionable changes is the decision to use a wider aspect ratio; in this regard it doesn't match the other ROCKY films, making it stick out like a sore thumb. The worst part of this is it's "fake" widescreen, cropped to look wider and more epic. Elements of shots are clearly cut off and the ratio looks too narrow much of the time. A handful of shots don't look half bad, but overall this was a misguided decision that does more harm than good to the look of the movie, creating inconsistencies with the other entries in the ROCKY franchise.
The first major change is that the flashback to ROCKY III isn’t limited to just the Rocky/Clubber fight at the end. Unfortunately, this just weighs down the pacing and prevents the movie from getting going and finding its footing right away. All other ROCKY movies only flash back to the climactic fight of the previous one; why did we need all this? If I want a flashback that covers ROCKY III, I’ll go watch ROCKY III. This scene didn’t need more of the third film’s events, which anyone viewing this film is already familiar with. I can understand doing this to flesh out Apollo due to his demise in ROCKY IV and wanting to give it more meaning, but again, it’s nothing the fans don’t already know.
Another key change is the removal of the “Rocky Vs Apollo” fight behind closed doors in Mighty Mick’s Boxing, which audiences are never given the outcome of (ROCKY III also ended with this sequence). Cutting this seems strange because it a) shows what good friends Rocky and Apollo have become despite their former rivalry, and b) the fight is directly referenced (and the outcome revealed!) in the first CREED movie from 2015. Put simply, the “flashback” stuff to ROCKY III (both the Clubber fight flashback and the “secret fight” stuff) shouldn’t have been touched. This does more harm than good.
One of the most “talked about” changes is the removal of Sico, the robot Rocky’s family gets Paulie for his birthday. One of the most 80s and out-of-place elements of the movie, I don’t totally blame Mr. Stallone for ditching this sequence and all the subsequent references to it. What’s really missed here is some of the more comedic sequences with Paulie, but the film still has a handful of those so it’s not a great loss. Ultimately, this is one of the better changes made to the film, opening up running time that leads to better character and plot development.
There are many new dialogue-heavy sequences, including those between Apollo and Rocky, as well as Rocky and Adrian. They give a better perspective of the events and help the (sometimes rushed) pacing of the original movie. Shuffling unnecessary sequencing to get rid of some of the unnecessary tertiary stuff like the robot scenes to showing how the events of the movie impact the cast is a major improvement. We even get the "Boxing Commission" sequence restored, part of which was seen in the trailer for the original film despite this sequence not making the final cut back then.
One change I’m still somewhat conflicted on is giving Ivan Drago slightly more in the way of dialogue (I think he only says like three lines in English in the whole original 1985 cut). The silence was the thing that kept Drago unique from prior ROCKY antagonists, like the charismatic Apollo Creed and the brutal loudmouth Clubber Lang, Don’t worry; Drago hasn’t become a chatterbox here or anything. The positive of this is it does somewhat humanize him, showing hints of a side of the character we’d later see in CREED II.
Also recut is Apollo’s funeral sequence, with longer and more emotional speeches. How this version of the scene didn’t make the original cut of the movie is beyond me. It works in the film’s favor, showing audiences how Apollo’s death impacts the characters, rather than just feeling like part of another rushed montage.
Most of the musical sequences/montages are still intact (albeit slightly edited), but this does make the “No Easy Way Out” montage feel somewhat repetitive since some of the scenes we see were also covered in the expanded ROCKY III flashback opening, making that sequence feel somewhat repetitive compared to the original 1985 cut (though this take on the sequences makes the flashbacks monochrome rather than fully in color). You’ll be glad to know James Brown singing “Living in America” in Las Vegas is still intact.
Changes from there on out are more sporadic and smaller, though most of them do help the film. One disappointment is how this cut of the movie basically forgets Rocky’s son exists after our hero leaves for Russia, whereas the original 1985 cut had clips of him watching the fight on TV from home. Considering a major theme of the follow-up ROCKY V was Rocky’s relationship with his son, this is a major disappointment. Some slight changes and cuts are made to Rocky’s speech at the end and reactions to it, but this ultimately helps the film and makes the ending feel slightly more meaningful and, dare I say, realistic.
Sadly the movie doesn’t make any attempt to clear up the plot hole as to how in ROCKY IV, Rocky’s son is a little boy, but in ROCKY V (set immediately after but released five years later), he’s suddenly late tweens/early teens. I’ve had some fan theories which involve Rocky and company being stuck in Russia for legal/diplomatic reasons, but those can be a story for another day since they aren’t really a part of this review.
In the long run, how do I feel about ROCKY VS DRAGO? I’m right on the fence. I think most of the additions to the film are helpful, changing the pacing and making it feel more in line with the dramatic elements of the other films, while still retaining some of the elements that gave it its unique identity. Some decisions, like changing the ROCKY III flashback (namely dragging it out and cutting the “secret fight” sequence) and removing Rocky’s son from the latter half of the film feel like puzzling edits. That said, I think fans should experience this version of the movie at least once and make up their own mind. I’m giving it a modest recommendation, albeit with reservations.