Rocky IV Director's Cut Review: Say Bye To Paulie's Robot, Say Hello To A (Mostly) Better Movie

"Rocky IV" is the biggest box office hit in the "Rocky" franchise. It's also one of the sillier entries – an '80s-infused, MTV-adjacent film overloaded with montages and featuring a comic relief robot that Rocky's brother-in-law Paulie may or may not be having sex with. When Sylvester Stallone's recent production "Samaritan" had to shut down due to COVID-19, the actor and filmmaker realized he had a lot of time on his hands, and he wanted to keep busy. His solution: recut "Rocky IV" into something better. And the first step would be getting rid of that damn robot.

During a Q&A before the Philadelphia premiere of the "Rocky IV" director's cut – officially given the clunky title "Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago The Ultimate Director's Cut" – Stallone told the crowd that the robot was gone, and the news was met with moans of unhappiness from the crowd. Yes, the people love Paulie's robot. Back in the '80s, Stallone first spotted the robot in a pizza parlor and thought, "I gotta put that in a movie!" Now, with years of hindsight, he realized that the bot — which starts out with a normal, digital robot voice only to later start talking like a sexy dame, suggesting Paulie is in some sort of love affair with this machine — was a mistake. And he's right. As much of a kick as you might get out of a gigantic robot rolling around Rocky's spacious mansion, you have to admit it's very distracting. 

But the robot isn't the only thing gone from this new cut. As Stallone tells it, when he was cutting the original "Rocky IV," he opted for speed. He wanted a fast, punchy (pardon the pun) experience that could appeal to the mid-80s audience. But times, and tastes, have changed. And Stallone has improved as a filmmaker since then. All of this inspired Stallone to go back, comb through all the unused "Rocky IV" footage he had, and create something not just better, but also more in line with today's sensibilities. 

Born Again

"Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago The Ultimate Director's Cut" has the same runtime as the theatrical cut, but it's a significantly different experience. Not a different movie, exactly, but the mood is vastly changed. To be clear: this is still very much a product of the '80s, when the Cold War was still on, and Russia was even more of a boogeyman than it is today. But this new cut is definitely a better movie. It's still not perfect — while Stallone called out the original film's overuse of montage during the Q&A, the montages are still very much here. But this cut feels more earnest; more honest. It restores character moments. It even humanizes gigantic killer Russian boxer Ivan Drago, played so memorably by Dolph Lundgren. 

Most of all, it does a better job of explaining why retired boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is so eager to step into the ring with Drago — a decision that will ultimately cost him his life. Creed was once the champ, but he lost that title to Rocky. At the start of "Rocky IV," after a recap of events from "Rocky III," Rocky and Apollo are good friends now. And Apollo has seemingly everything he needs — he has a wife and kids and lots of money, and he's introduced chilling in his gigantic swimming pool with three adorable dogs swimming around him. But Apollo feels empty. He misses being the champ. He misses being relevant. He misses the fight. When he finally gets into the ring in what will be his final (and fatal) match, he says to himself, "I feel born again." 

That feeling doesn't last long, because Drago pulverizes Apollo. Rocky wants to throw in the towel and end the fight, but Apollo insists the fight cannot be stopped. Which means Rocky has to look on in horror as his friend and mentor dies a bloody mess on the canvas. It's heartbreaking for Rocky, who weeps at Apollo's graveside later and mumbles, "I really loved you, man." 

If I Can Change, and You Can Change, Everybody Can Change

Rocky wants revenge. He agrees to fly off to Russia to fight Drago, but his loving wife Adrian (Talia Shire) doesn't want him to go, fearing that her husband can't defeat the Communist superman. But Rocky has something to prove. And that means he gets to partake in a training montage in snowy Russia (actually Wyoming). While Drago is seen using the most sophisticated, high-tech exercise equipment imaginable, Rocky trains off the land. He carries logs over his shoulders like Christ moving towards Calvary. He runs through the knee-high snow. He climbs craggy mountains. He deadlifts splintery wooden carriages. He screams "DRAGO!!!" a lot. The contrast is stark, and, yes, pretty funny. Drago is the fighter of the future, Rocky is a man of the earth. Who will win?! 

If you're reading all this and thinking, "That sure sounds a lot like the theatrical cut," that's because it is. Again: this is the same movie. And yet ... it's not. By adding back in several quiet character moments, Stallone has created a less goofy, less cartoony film. Adrian has more heart-to-heart talks with Rocky. Tony "Duke" Evers, Apollo's former trainer played memorably by Tony Burton, also has more of a presence here, and it's a welcome one — he's a great actor with a naturalism that you don't see too often. 

And then there's Drago. He's still very much the villain of the piece, but a few clever edits — mostly showing Drago looking bemused, confused, and completely out of his element on several occasions — go a long way toward making the towering fighter seem less cruel. The theatrical cut presents Drago as something inhuman, but here, he looks more like a man being pulled in every direction by his country. As Stallone said during the Q&A, the years have made him realize that Drago wasn't pure evil; he was a propaganda tool, someone being used and abused by the Soviet Union to triumph over the American way of life. This point is hammered home even further in "Creed II," but underlining it here goes a long way toward making "Rocky IV" feel like it's still set in some semblance of the real world. Like Drago himself here, the movie feels more human.

There will be those who miss the fried '80s cheese that's caked into every frame of the original cut (as I said, the crowd at the premiere was very sad to see the robot go). But those who wanted a more soulful "Rocky IV" will find that this director's cut goes the distance. 

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10