THE BLOG

The Gospel According to Sly

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

It's 1985, and after five years of doing everything I wanted, my parents decide it's their turn to go to a movie they want to see, and they want to see Rocky IV. And I have to go with them. I am five years old, which means that Rocky IV sounds pretty damn grown-up to me. I do not want to see a stupid grown-up movie. I want Go-Bots. But my parental units refuse to negotiate; there will be no quid pro quo. I smell a rat. Having had my collective bargaining rights stripped from me, I resort to the only tactic I have left: whining. Sure, I can see that I'm being a prick, but I'm young enough not to give a crap. They try to buy me off with candy, but it's going to take more than a box of Milk Duds to regain my trust. As the lights fade out, I fold my arms and put on my best childish scowl, completely unaware that my life is about to change forever.

Rocky IV changed my life. I'm not ashamed to say it. I'll go one further and say that Sylvester Stallone's films are better and more artistic than anyone is willing to admit. Stallone had something to say, and he chose to say it in a form that would reach the broadest audience. I used to think Sly was my guilty pleasure, but there is nothing guilty about it at all.

This was the perfect time for me to fall in love with Sylvester Stallone, because the mid-80s were the salad days for Sly, where he churned out hit after hit, each film extending the mystique of Sly, transforming him into a superhero with the ability to alter the geopolitical landscape with a single punch. Rocky may have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but Rocky IV is the best in the series (come on, Academy, it was at least better than that Out of Africa crap). Sly drapes himself in the flag -- literally -- and delivers us a totally excessive piece of Cold War Americana, a propaganda film of Riefenstahlian proportions, and perhaps the best antidote to Anti-Americanism ever invented. Think about it: one screening for al-Qaeda and our problems would be over before James Brown would finish singing "Living in America." If we could only get them into a theater.

From the opening images of the film, it's clear that this film is meant to be the Cold War battle to end all Cold War battles. Two boxing gloves rise into frame. One bears the Stars and Stripes, the other the hammer and sickle. They rotate until they're poised to strike, and they collide in a massive explosion. This is the war of East and West, the battle between Good and Evil and the Most Important Movie of the Decade.

This contrast is best illustrated during the nine-minute training montage that leads up to the final bout, a montage so long that TBS goes to commercial in the middle of it. The Russians believe that technology and science will win the battle for them, so they hook uber-Russian Ivan Drago up to machines that push each bulging muscle to its ultimate Freedom-killing potential. America, through Rocky, does it old school in a Siberian cabin. It's ragtag, but it's real. It's got heart and passion, and it's clear what Stallone is saying: all the hi-tech resources in the world are no match for the heart of one man. Nothing, not even Communism, can resist the American Character.

The boxing match mirrors every big fight in a Rocky movie, only this one comes packed with a huge helping of metaphor. Make no mistake: this is America invading Russia. At first, as would be expected, Russia's largeness, embodied by the towering Drago, threatens to bash scrappy America into oblivion. Take another look at this fight: it's freaking savage, the Rocky Chainsaw Massacre, an out-and-out scourging that would arouse Mel Gibson. But no matter how hard Rocky gets hammered, like the American Spirit, he will not break. He takes it all, round after round, confounding Drago with his refusal to give up. "He is not human. He is made of iron," Drago says, and the Russian crowd abandons Drago and begins to cheer for Rocky. The moment this happens, the Cold War is over. Burt Young might as well have said "Tear down this wall, Rock" and the ghost of Karl Marx could have thrown in the towel for Drago.

With this scene, Stallone claims that once the people of Russia are exposed to American Values, they will abandon Communism on the spot. In his rousing post-fight speech, Rocky explains that they didn't used to like each other, but during the fight, they all changed. He proved that "if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change," and if everyone can change, then there's no longer any need for a Cold War. Rocky says that two men fought this war so that twenty million wouldn't have to. His suffering is so redemptive that even the Russians in the audience are saved from Communism and converted to Americanism. In other words, Rocky's suffering saves not only those who believe in him, but the world entire, kind of like the way Jesus saved us all from sin and death, only Rocky didn't have to die, and he got the girl at the end (other than that, they're exactly the same).

With Rocky IV, Stallone creates an escapist fantasy in which he miraculously redeems us from the fear of World War III while simultaneously emboldening us with his love of American values, leaving us with no doubt that America will prevail peacefully. It may have taken another six years after Rocky IV for Communism to fall, but it fell the way Stallone said it would: not with a bang, but a whimper.

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