Three years ago, I subjected myself to a marathon of Sylvester Stallone films, attempting to understand how his body had evolved alongside his body of work. Of course, I omitted some films that upset cinéaste acquaintances — one went so far as to unfollow me on Twitter because I neglected to mention the 1975 cult classic Death Race 2000, in which Stallone hammed it up as “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo opposite David Carradine. But I also missed something even more important that was hammered home to me while watching the newly-released director’s cut of Rocky IV and accompanying (and simply unmissable, at least for Stallone completists) The Making of ROCKY vs. DRAGO documentary.
It seems glaringly obvious in retrospect: Stallone, having battled since birth against partial facial paralysis and since middle age to maintain his steroid-sharpened physique, has never stopped doing the work. He turns up for all his movies having memorized everyone else’s lines. He wrote the original Rocky — which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay, only the third person to accomplish that feat after Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles — in three and a half days. When asked by the New York Times to explain his creative process, Stallone remarked that he was “astounded by people who take 18 years to write something.” “That’s how long it took that guy to write Madame Bovary,” he added. “And was that ever on a best-seller list? No. It was a lousy book and it made a lousy movie.”
Mind you, the 75-year-old Stallone isn’t quite at the level of 91-year-old Clint Eastwood, who directs quality movies such as 2004’s Million Dollar Baby and 2019’s Richard Jewell more easily than men half his age play a round of golf. But he’s close, having appeared in nearly 90 films, written more than 30 and directed nine, most notably 2006’s excellent Rocky Balboa, the aforementioned Rocky IV from 1985 and the criminally underrated 1978 wrestling movie Paradise Alley.
What you learn in The Making of… documentary from an unusually candid Stallone regarding the original cut of Rocky IV is that he was rushing to complete production — he starred in seven big-budget movies between 1985 and 1989, including another 1985 blockbuster, Rambo: First Blood Part II — and made a lot of hasty editing decisions he now regrets. Some were simple continuity errors, such as leaving in a sequence in which Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) appears to be wearing a boxing glove in one shot, yet not in another. Others involved issues regarding sound editing, such as post-production audio he didn’t realize had been added, as well as camera framing he understands better in old age, such as the proper ways to angle shots to show continuous movement across a boxing sequence. Then there was the color saturation: He came to deplore the fact that Drago’s training sequence and the final Rocky-Drago clash in Moscow had such a dark red tint — redolent of the MTV music videos of the era, but now quite dated and making every ostensibly pale Russian look as if he or she had a rich tan.
Most importantly, though, he went back to the drawing board in matters of characterization. Creed, the world-beating antagonist of the first two Rocky films, deserved more offense against Drago, both to showcase his own skill in the ring as well as highlight Drago’s vulnerabilities, which Stallone now addresses. He also shouldn’t have been beaten to death, Stallone admits, because that was a cheap bid for pathos. Instead, he should have been badly injured and then thrust into a role as Rocky’s trainer in all the subsequent films. It might have altered the course of the Creed spinoffs, but perhaps Weathers could have appeared in those, too. “Sorry, Carl,” Stallone says with regard to Weathers’ lost earning capacity.
In addition to allowing Creed to meet his demise with dignity intact, the villainous Drago had to be humanized, as he came across as too robotic in the original cut. Stallone, who has worked frequently with Dolph Lundgren in the past decade on The Expendables films, seems to hold the 6-foot-5 Swede — a credentialed chemical engineer and European karate champion — in higher regard than ever, describing how he reshaped a previously “neanderthal-like” bad guy to more closely resemble the “New Soviet Man” he recognized in Lundgren. As such, Stallone reworked some of Lundgren’s scenes, making him look somewhat beatable early in the bouts with both Creed and Rocky, as well as hesitant when speaking out of turn around his handlers.
“This is a morass of self-discovery, kind of like a swamp,” Stallone says of the process of preparing the director’s cut. “The deeper you get into it, it becomes cinematic quicksand, and if someone doesn’t pull you out, you’re a goner. And pulling you out usually means they cut off the money, so that’s the rope they send down.”
In Stallone’s case, the rope was that the COVID-19 restrictions of early 2020 were eased, and he resumed filming the superhero film Samaritan, in which he plays a legendary hero thought to have gone missing decades earlier. Samaritan aside, his current pace of work remains punishing, not quite at his 1980s peak but close, having worked on 10 major projects since 2018. The documentary touches on this tension between always finding himself compelled to do the work, one commercial project after another, after having cut his teeth as a serious dramatic actor at the University of Miami, starring in productions of plays by great playwrights such as Eugene Ionesco and Eugene O’Neill.
Because you’re always hurrying after success when you’re younger, Stallone says, “you don’t think about pacing. Everything seems to be ‘let’s just cut to the chase.’ I had literally forgotten about all this stuff that was done originally here, which I write off to the folly of youth. I didn’t believe in myself as a filmmaker the way I do now that I have wisdom and experience. Now I realize what is really valuable is much more than just the patina, the shine — it’s what’s underneath the shine that gives it its value.”
The result of all this re-cutting exceeded my expectations. The advertising for the Rocky IV director’s cut referenced 40 minutes of previously unseen footage, so I expected to settle in for a bloated, three-hour viewing experience akin to Peter Jackson’s director’s cuts of the already interminable Lord of the Rings films. However, Stallone’s new cut checks in around 100 minutes, roughly the same length as the original 90-minute version — a brisk “nine reels,” to use the parlance of old Hollywood, and already a breath of fresh air when compared to self-important Marvel and DC films that frequently clock in at 140 minutes or more. Or better put, Stallone actually cut the picture, rather than adding loads of filler, deleted scenes and other ephemera.
The best cut was the decision to jettison Paulie’s remote-controlled robot, which dates the movie to the mid-1980s in much the same way that R.O.B. dates Nintendo Entertainment Systems sold prior to the company hinging its fortunes on the exploits of Mario and Luigi. Most of the other big changes were to the fight sequences, which Stallone believes he finally mastered 15 years ago in Rocky Balboa. As he explains in the documentary, his goal was to remove boxing exchanges that showed too many consecutive punches without either Drago or Rocky returning fire or too many punches that visibly failed to connect, while also decreasing the exaggerated sound effect that each landed punch made. What remains — or has been added — is now much more impactful, fully capturing the sort of heavy punishment that sent Stallone to the hospital when the much larger and better-trained Lundgren hit him too hard in the chest.
“I really think we nailed it, we delivered the knockout blow,” Stallone says at the conclusion of the doc. “I finally said what I should have said 35 years ago.”
In other words, even as Stallone’s action-star body continues to shrink with age, his body of work — or at least one critical piece of it — is now in its best and final form.