Sylvester Stallone staggered backwards, threatening to hit the canvas like a $28m sack of potatoes. It was spring 1985 and, in a boxing ring erected inside the 5,000-capacity Vancouver Agrodome, the world’s most bankable movie star had just suffered a body blow to the rib-cage that sent shockwaves directly towards his heart. Within a few hours, he would be on his way to A&E.
“I felt a burning in my chest, but ignored it,” Stallone recalled in 2015 to Ain’t It Cool. “Later that night I couldn’t breathe very well, and they took me to the emergency room.”
The punch had been delivered by a one-time Massachusetts Institute of Technology Fulbright scholar from Stockholm who had become famous for his relationship with singer Grace Jones. At 6ft 5in, Dolph Lundgren was also the most intimidating opponent 5ft 10in Stallone had faced off against in the course of his career as Rocky Balboa.
Rocky IV had not been going particularly well by the time Lundgren, playing Soviet Ubermensch Ivan Drago, delivered his fateful – and potentially fatal – blow to Stallone’s chest. The heavy strike had been the idea of Stallone, who wrote and directed the $28m production, which had its premiere 35 years ago today (21 November).
“In the first round, I thought these two characters should hate each other so much that they should just attack each other like pit dogs…professionalism be damned,” he revealed to Ain’t It Cool.
“He struck me so hard in the chest that my heart slammed against my breastbone and began to swell, so the beating became laboured, and without medical attention the heart would’ve continued to swell until it stopped,” Stallone continued. “Many people that have car accidents die like this when the steering wheel slams into their chest. So in a sense I was hit by ‘a streetcar named Drago’.”
As he was rushed to the emergency room, he must have wondered if Rocky IV had itself suffered one concussion too many. Stallone had already spent months searching, in increasing desperation, for an actor who could credibly challenge the by-then iconic Rocky Balboa. Lundgren had, in the end, been discovered by Stallone through a miraculous series of coincidences, after the Swede was initially rejected as “too tall”.
Later, shooting in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Carl Weathers, playing Rocky’s best friend, Apollo Creed, would threaten to quit over what he regarded as Lundgren’s over-aggression in the ring. And then Stallone was unsuccessfully sued over claims that the story was based on a previous script treatment.
Rocky IV, in other words, had the potential to be a typically jaded and hackneyed fourth entry in a franchise – a cash cow milked one time too many. And yet when it arrived in cinemas in November 1985 it struck an instant chord and, the case can be made, became the most beloved Rocky of them all.
It is certainly the silliest. The first big set-piece has Apollo Creed dressed as a Star-Spangled Uncle Sam dancing to James Brown’s “Living In America” (Brown is standing across from him belting out the song).
That’s before Drago beats Creed to death at their US v Soviet Union exhibition fight. As Rocky, who is volunteering as Creed’s coach, throws in the towel (too late), Lundgren delivers one of the character’s several immortal lines: “If he dies, he dies” (see also: “you will lose” and “I must break you”).
The film goes on to squeeze in three lengthy montages – two training sequences and a scene in which Stallone drives and obsesses over Apollo’s death. He then goes to the Soviet Union to beef up and fight Drago in Moscow (in reality the Vancouver Agrodome). We should also mention 22-year-old Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s wife and mentor; hers is the iffiest Russian accent in Hollywood’s long history of iffy Russian accents. And Rocky IV famously culminates with an actor depicting Mikhail Gorbachev giving the victorious Rocky a standing ovation.
This is followed by Balboa ending the Cold War by telling Gorbachev, “I guess what I'm trying to say, is that if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” Four years later the Berlin Wall fell. I’m not suggesting Rocky IV brought to a close decades of US-Soviet rivalry. But can anyone prove conclusively that it didn’t?
“Personally, I love Rocky IV – it may well be the best of the series. Drago is probably as well known as Rocky himself among boxing folk,” says Andrew Newton, co-founder of the British Boxing Blog.
Rocky IV became the most financially successful of the Balboa blockbusters, earning $300m (compared to the 1976 original’s $225m). Alas, critics were predictably snooty about a popcorn flick that largely consists of men smeared in baby oil thumping each other to the strains of a zinging soft-rock soundtrack (featuring Survivor, Kenny Loggins and the aforementioned James Brown).
“An epic about Sylvester Stallone's penchant for self-abuse,” tutted The Washington Post. “Grim and witless,” said the LA Times. “Mawkish montages accompanied by blaring music are no substitute for plot,” agreed the Radio Times. What film were they watching?!
Stallone was 39 at the time and Rocky IV went a considerable way towards burnishing his reputation as the great action hero of the era. He would eventually arguably be eclipsed by Arnold Schwarzenegger – but not yet.
Lundgren, though, did less well out of Rocky. Drago was regarded as a star-making burn by the 27-year-old. In fact, it typecast him for the rest of a career that would eventually descend into straight-to-DVD obscurity.
The irony is that he’d had to go above and beyond to win the part in the first place. A martial arts champion and academic high-achiever, Lundgren was studying at MIT working weekends in New York as a bouncer when he had attended an open casting call for an unnamed Hollywood project.
“The girl asked me how tall I was? ‘Six five? Too tall’,” he said in a TV interview years later, “Next, I saw the Rocky poster behind her. ‘Oh s**t… I gotta go for this.”
Lundgren went back to his apartment, posed in boxing gear and had a friend send the photographs to another friend and onto a third party who allegedly knew Stallone. Six months later, while visiting his parents in Sweden, he received a panicked call from a production assistant in LA. The images had reached Stallone who wanted Lundgren to do a screen-test. “They were getting fairly desperate when they found me,” said Lundgren.
In LA, Stallone, who was sporting his Rambo II mullet, advised Lundgren to bulk up and study boxing technique. The Swede ended up one of three actors in contention for the part. At his final audition he had to deliver the monologue that would feature in the trailer: “My name is Drago. I’m a fighter from the Soviet Union… Soon the whole world will know my name.”
The two other hopefuls hammed it up. Lundgren, though, played it low-key. In doing so, he demonstrated that he understood Drago to his core. This was a man of few words and of many, many punches.
Lundgren was at the time verging on C-list celebrity status by dint of his relationship with Grace Jones. But once preparation for Rocky IV began, their high-profile romance began to cause issues. Jones, a fast-living pop star, would roll into the couple’s LA apartment at 4am with an entourage in tow. And Lundgren had to be up at 5am. Stallone noticed the circles around his eyes.
“I ended up staying at his house for a while to get some sleep. Grace didn't appreciate that,” Lundgren told the Hollywood Reporter in 2018. “I was a 27-year-old Swedish kid who was stuck between Sylvester Stallone and Grace Jones. It's not that easy. Sly would basically fire me if I was in bad shape, and Grace was going to kill me or worse.”
Rocky IV turned Lundgren into a star. However, he struggled to escape the shadow of Drago; his final role of significance was playing a psychopathic street preacher opposite Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic in 1995 (he was arguably the best thing in it). After that, it was a steep drop off to dross such as Sharknado 5 and Kindergarten Cop II. Drago had dragged him down.
Ironically, his redemption would come from the role that had typecast him to begin with. In the second of Ryan Cogler’s Rocky sequels/reboots, Creed II , he portrays an older Drago, now mentor to his boxer son, Viktor. In a pivotal scene he and Rocky meet.
“Everything changed that night,” he tells Rocky of his defeat in Moscow (at which the Russian crowd had turned on Drago and cheered the American). “It’s like yesterday to me.”
Lundgren is riveting as a wounded warhorse. And he’s clearly doing more than acting in getting beneath the skin of a character whose life had fallen apart after facing off with Balboa in the ring.
“He's a guy who has lost everything and suffered a lot,” Lundgren would say of the Drago we meet in Creed II, in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “And I've suffered a lot in my life.”
Cogler’s Creed movies, which chronicle the boxing career of Apollo Creed’s secret son from an affair, are a self-consciously grounded rebooting of Rocky. Rocky IV comes from an entirely different universe. The production’s make-up artist Leonard Engelman recalls the crew using the term “pump and lube” for the manner in which Stallone’s body would be buffed to a glistening finish on set. The star pumped his muscles off camera and then the artists dashed out to “lube his body”.
“Pump and lube” perfectly describes the film itself, which begins with Carl Weathers dressed as Uncle Sam – and then goes thermonuclear in its absurdity. That is exemplified by a side-plot in which Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) receives a gift from Rocky and Rocky's wife Adrian (Talia Shire) of a robot-butler named Sico.
Paulie is initially spooked by the robot (“I wanted a sports car – not no walking trash can!”). However, he soon develops a bond with it. “That’s my girl,” he says to Rocky. “She loves me.”
Sico was created, controlled and voiced by Robert Doornick, the founder of US company International Robotics. And it had a more impressive CV than most of the cast. Sico had already starred in soap opera Days of Our Lives, toured with James Brown (it danced as he sang) and appeared in the video to Carly Simon’s “My New Boyfriend”.
The attraction for Stallone was Doornick’s belief the robot could help autistic children communicate. Stallone’s son Seargeoh is autistic, so the star’s interest was understandably piqued.
“We got a call from the Stallone family,” Doornick told Triviahappy.com. “They were very interested in how the robot could work with his son. One thing led to another and Stallone completely became enamoured with Sico, that particular character.”
Thirty-five years on, the robot is regarded as the movie’s biggest pitfall. That is a view to which Stallone himself has seemingly come around. A forthcoming 35th anniversary director’s cut of Rocky IV would, he revealed, feature extra Drago dialogue – and no Sico the robot (it is expected the cut will be released on Blu-ray though this has yet unconfirmed).
“The robot is going to the junkyard forever,” said Stallone. “No more robot.”
“I was in my office when I found out,” Doornick told Empire of the plans for a Sico-free Rocky IV. “I was deluged with messages: ‘How can Stallone do that?’ But I know why he’s doing it, because I know he loves the robot. By causing turmoil among the fans of Sico, it generates more publicity.
“And by removing the robot from the movie, it saves money in royalty fees, because he is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. Sico receives cheques all the time – and of course he sends them over to me.”
Still, among Rocky fans an absent droid is unlikely to be hugely controversial. They will be eager to see more of what they loved in the film. More Drago death-glares, more scenes of Rocky sweating and bleeding. More boxing.
“Within the boxing community, the entire Rocky franchise is beloved,” says journalist, writer and amateur boxer Sarah Deming (her YA novel Gravity tells the story of a Jewish Dominican teenage girl who becomes a boxer).
“Kids who box nowadays still watch all the movies. And whenever an American boxer has to fight a big, muscular fighter from a former Soviet republic, there's a good chance someone will namecheck Drago. It always gets a laugh.”
“The main thing that draws people to it is that it feels unlike any other Rocky movie,” says Craig Cohen, host of the Sylvester Stallone podcast, The SlyCast.
“It's got a modern score by Vince DiCola that was much different than the wonderful, more traditional sounding score that Bill Conti provided in the earlier films. And those montages! Sly really perfected the montage in Rocky IV, which allowed him to tell a tight story in a very short amount of time. I think that's the main thing that makes it work.
“Dolph Lundgren's Ivan Drago is a big part of its success,” he continues. “For the first time we had an opponent that we couldn't see Rocky beating. I'm not taking anything away from Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang [Mr T’s Rocky III villain] by saying that but Drago was just another level of physicality we hadn't seen before. He was a cold machine, kind of like The Terminator.”
“While the Rocky franchise is quite cheesy, it has a huge popularity within the boxing world,” agrees the British Boxing Blog’s Andrew Newton.
“Several pro boxers we have spoken to have told about the influence Stallone's character had on them and their intro to the sport. I think the most glaring inaccuracy from a boxing standpoint is that most of his fights would’ve been waved off after about 30 seconds. No ref worth his salt would allow Rocky to take the beatings he does!”