On November 27th, 1985, audiences flocked to theaters to root for perennial underdog boxer Rocky Balboa yet again in Rocky IV, the third installment in the successful franchise to be both written and directed by its star, Sylvester Stallone. In the film, Rocky faces off against Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), a square-jawed, granite-fisted giant who kills Rocky’s best friend (and former rival) Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) during an ill-fated exhibition match. Stallone clearly drew inspiration for the film from another legendary fight of the 20th century: In 1938, American boxer Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis faced German boxing champ Max Schmeling in a rematch heard around the world, as 70,000 screaming fans at New York’s Yankee Stadium watched Louis redeem an earlier loss to Schmeling and secure a victory not just for himself, but for American democracy. Swap out the Nazi-era Germans for Cold War Russians and add a tragic death for dramatic effect, and that basic outline should sound pretty familiar.Some might argue that Rocky IV s jingoistic leanings and adherence to music-driven montages make it one of the lesser entries in the franchise. But after three films that saw Rocky evolve from a likable, leg-breaking enforcer to a world heavyweight boxing champ, this sequel earns its right to strip back its plot and simply focus on Rocky duking it out with a Russian titan for 15 rounds. Though it failed to strike a chord with critics, Rocky IV was a blockbuster smash that pulled in 2 million at the domestic box office (adjusted for inflation), and it remains a culturally relevant fan favorite 35 years after its release. Here s why it still resonates with fans so much more than any of the other sequels.Apollo Creed s Brutal and Surprising Death Still HurtsThough the MGM accountants tallying the box office totals and home video sales most likely didn t mind, Stallone regrets killing off Apollo Creed to fuel Rocky IV s revenge narrative, and it s not hard to see why. Rocky and Apollo had endured so much punishment by 1985 that audiences had come to accept their skulls were essentially concussion-proof, so Apollo s death at the hands of Ivan Drago was shocking. Sure, even those who didn’t watch the incredibly spoilery movie trailer could have guessed that the overly confident Apollo was going to lose to Drago, thereby setting up a rematch. But it’s hard to believe that any popcorn-munching audience expected to see Rocky cradling a dead Apollo in his arms while a murderous Russian dispassionately quips, If he dies, he dies. Part of what makes the death so cruel is that it was only supposed to be an exhibition match, and Apollo treats it as such. He dances his way through an elaborately staged entrance, complete with James Brown himself singing Living in America. When the fight finally starts, he prances around the ring, cheerful as ever, taunting Drago and throwing ineffectual jabs. Faster than you can say “Yo, Adrian,” Drago retaliates, and the atmosphere changes immediately as he batters Apollo from one corner of the ring to the next. When Apollo realizes what s happening, his pride gets the better of him, and he insists Rocky not stop the fight no matter what what follows still makes us scream at the screen 35 years later.Stallone directed this scene expertly, as the flashy entrance and cocksure antics give way to the shocking visual of Rocky’s white pullover stained red with Apollo s blood. Some argue that using Apollo’s death as Rocky s motivation is lazy, but it’s hard to debate how effective the shock was and how simply it sets up the iconic fight.The Training Montages Are LegendaryWhat makes Rocky IV a unique entry into the franchise is the 29 minutes of montage action, featured in eight separate scenes dispersed throughout the film. Some of them simply catch the viewer up on previous Rocky films, while others showcase the original songs by James Brown, Survivor, and John Caffer that Stallone commissioned for the film. The musical montages in particular were wise business decisions, as the soundtrack sold over a million copies and hit number 10 on the Billboard Top 200 list.The most iconic, perhaps greatest-ever montage happens after Rocky travels to Russia and begins a rustic training regimen that includes carrying logs, chopping down trees, and helping locals when their sleigh overturns in waist-high snow. His back-to-basics training, fueled by Survivor’s “Hearts on Fire,” is in stark contrast to that of Drago, whose routine sees him attached to heart monitors, running in cavernous halls, and pummeling things so hard they make Dwayne Johnson s punches in Hobbs and Shaw seem like love taps. No, really: in Hobbs and Shaw, Johnson s Luke Hobbs “only” punches with a force of 1235 psi (lbs. of pressure per square inch), but in Rocky IV, Drago hits register at 2150 psi (real-world boxers only average 1200-1700 psi). In other words, don t sit in the front row of a Drago fight unless you want to feel the shockwave in your own ribs every time he lands a blow.Most importantly, though, the Rocky vs. Drago montage recalls the original 1976 film, which depicts Stallone punching slabs of meat, downing raw eggs, and jogging up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both are gritty, back-to-basics affairs that serve their purpose with maximum efficiency, and they re awesome to watch.Ivan Drago Is A Villain for the AgesThanks to a spiky flat top and a chiseled, glycerin-soaked 6 5 physique, Dolph Lundgren s Ivan Drago is one of cinema’s most recognizable characters, and for good reason. Lundgren s imposing physical presence would later lead to roles as a bionic supersoldier (Universal Soldier), a Marvel badass (The Punisher), He-Man (Masters of the Universe), and a guy who flips cars like they’re pancakes (Showdown in Little Tokyo). He also happens to be a Fulbright Scholar with a master’s degree in chemical engineering and a black belt in Kyokushin Karate.The one thing the Swedish-born actor realized he didn t possess was the same kind of electric charisma that prior Rocky antagonists played by Carl Weathers, Hulk Hogan, and Mr. T flaunted effortlessly. So Lundgren worked with Stallone to capitalize on his stoic nature and subtle tics, crafting a machine-like uber-villain who might just have a little more lurking below the surface. Some critics like Roger Ebert called him “more of a James Bond villain than a Rocky-style character,” which isn t exactly wrong Richard Kiel s Jaws comes to mind but by focusing on Lundgren’s physical prowess and limiting his dialogue to a few memorable quotes, Stallone managed to get himself a nice little stew going. Believe it or not, Lundgren only delivered nine lines in the entire film, but with winners like I must break you, You will lose, and If he dies, he dies now entrenched in the pop culture vernacular, you d have to admit he made them count.The Final Fight Manages to Feel FreshAfter two epic Apollo Creed fights and two short but thrilling brawls with Clubber Lang that saw Rocky going 2-for-4 and avenging losses to both fighters, audiences probably didn’t want to see the same formula repeated again. In the first two films, Apollo was either too cocky (and still won) or tired himself out chasing a knockout (and lost, though he could have won easily). After destroying Rocky easily in the third film, Clubber lost the second fight because Rocky got into his head, which resulted in a knockout after Rocky hit him so hard it sounded like a jet took off in the arena.What makes the fight between Rocky and Drago unique is the way Rocky makes Drago realize he’s a mortal. Drago has never faced a real challenge; his training partners seem like KO fodder, and Apollo clearly didn’t take him seriously. Sure, Drago’s power is near superhuman, and even when he misses, the air is enough to push Rocky back. But once Rocky opens up a cut on his face, and the crowd starts turning against him, he s caught off guard, seemingly unprepared for any scenario in which he isn t a dominating force. Rocky shatters Drago s confidence and his nerves by standing toe-to-toe with him and forcing him to acknowledge and respect his iron will.The cherry on top is the catharsis of seeing Drago destroyed. In Rocky and Rocky II, Apollo was supremely charismatic, and you weren’t exactly rooting against him. In Rocky III, Clubber Lang is also magnetic and larger than life, and aside from his trash talk, he was just an excellent boxer Rocky had to overcome. Drago, however, killed Apollo, showed no remorse, trained on steroids, and represented America s greatest threat during a tense period of the Cold War. When Rocky finally turns the tide of the fight and unleashes the decisive flurry on Drago, it s thrilling and satisfying in a way that none of the franchise s previous climactic bouts have been.Fun side note: In order to make the action more believable, Stallone and Lundgren actually punched each other during the fight, and at one point, Stallone insisted Lundgren cut loose as hard as you can. Stallone ended up in the ICU for four days.Its Influence Continues TodayWith an average of 89% on the Tomatometer and close to 0 million at the worldwide box office, Creed and Creed 2 reinvigorated the Rocky franchise, focusing on the rise of Adonis (Donnie) Creed (Michael B. Jordan) as a champion boxer under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa. The presence of Ivan Drago can be felt throughout the two films, as Adonis attempts to fight in the sport that killed his father and ultimately faces a Russian showdown of his own. In a clever callback to Rocky IV, Creed 2 specifically focuses on the battles between Donnie and Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan. Their first fight sees Donnie overwhelmed (like his father in Rocky IV), and the second meeting plays out like the Rocky/Ivan fight, as Viktor becomes dismayed that he can’t knock out Donnie and loses when Ivan throws in the towel to save his son from further punishment. The two Creed films owe a lot to the legacy of Rocky IV, introducing a new generation of fans to Ivan Drago.Even outside of the franchise, the wonderful College Humor 30 for 30 parody has racked up millions of views, and the legend of Lundgren sending Stallone to the hospital after a Swedish super punch has mad the rounds. Recently, Stallone announced he was working on a Rocky IV director’s cut; the news started trending on social media and the controversy surrounding the decision to remove the weird robot subplot has gotten a lot of press. People love Rocky IV, and that’s why 35 years later, it still inspires passionate discussion and remains one of the most popular sports films ever made.Rocky IV was released in theaters on November 27, 1985.Thumbnail image by (c)United Artists courtesy Everett CollectionOn an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.
As home to the premieres of Hereditary, The Babadook, and Get Out, Sundance s Midnight program has developed a reputation among genre fans. And this year s lineup – on paper at least – looked set to hold up that legacy. There were a number of second features from directors who d shown scary-good talent with their debuts – including the second film from Under the Shadow s Babak Anvari and the duo behind Goodnight Mommy – and a film that had already been picked up by A24, the distributor that has become a kind of stamp of approval for fans of quality indie chillers. But did Sundance s 2019 horror offering live up to expectations? Will this year s fest gift us with another Hereditary? We checked out the films, and rounded up what the critics were saying, to give you the heads up on which Sundance horror films are most likely to make a splash when they hit screens later in the year.Little Monsters (2019) 79%Release date: TBDThis “Shaun of the Dead Down Under” zombie comedy is (so far) the best-reviewed movie from the festival’s Midnight Program. It’s sitting at 100% on the Tomatometer after early reviews and being declared “a new cult classic” by the likes of Nerdist’s Dan Casey. Time will tell whether that kind of talk is just hype, but this story of a group of Australian kindergarteners trying to survive a zombie attack during a field trip to a petting zoo certainly has its early fans. Most of them are singling out Lupita Nyong’o s performance as ukulele-plucking “kindy” teacher Miss Caroline, who – even as the groaning zombies close in – remains doggedly dedicated to convincing her troop of kids that it’s all just a game, and not at all the beginning of the apocalypse. (This gambit involves Nyong’o singing “Shake It Off” in what will be no doubt become a seminal moment in the zombie genre.)“Little Monsters is a testament to the fact that Nyong’o is a force of a nature who should absolutely be in more comedies,” writes Casey. Even critics who didn’t wholly fall for the movie’s charms sang the actress’s praises: “[Nyong’o] sings, gets laughs, talks tough, wields a shovel and pitchfork, and expertly navigates a big monologue about Neil Diamond,” writes Jason Bailey for The Playlist. “She’s so good, in fact, that the pleasure of her performance makes Little Monsters worth seeing. But just barely.” Meanwhile, Josh Gad gives an “unhinged” and totally un–Olaf-like performance as a foul-mouthed American childrens’ entertainer (and literal motherf—ker) who finds himself mixed up in the gory action.While many critics have noted the film can feel very familiar (you’ve seen this profane take on the undead in Shaun, Zombieland, and New Zealand flick Black Sheep), they also say its bigheartedness helps it stand out from the pack. The charming romance between Miss Caroline and slacker Dave (Alexander England), and Dave’s growing protectiveness of his nephew, are genuinely moving. (We re not going to say we cried, but we re not going to say we didn t either.) Katey Stoetzel at The Young Folks puts it best: “Little Monsters will be one of the best feel good movies of the year.”Sweetheart (2019) 95%Release date: TBDThis lean mean Blumhouse gem – “82 diamond-sharp minutes,” as Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri puts it – was one of the true highlights of the Midnight program. The plot is simple by-the-campfire stuff: a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) washes up on a deserted island and is forced to survive. By day that means gathering wood and food and tending to camp; by night that means steering clear of a mysterious sea creature that comes ashore after sunset with food and terror on its mind. It’s the kind of film that rests on the strength of its central performance and on its director’s ability to build tension then ratchet it up, and early reviews say it succeeds on both fronts.Clemons, who starred in last year’s Certified Fresh Hearts Beat Loud, is a dynamite and ferocious final girl (only girl?); “In mostly a one-woman show, Clemons does a great job being vulnerable and also tough as she faces off against the monster,” writes critic Rachel Wagner. Meanwhile, director J.D. Dillard (whose first film Sleight is Certified Fresh at 77%) constructs what Ebiri calls “an ingenious affair, a no-nonsense monster movie that uses its limitations effectively and tells its story cinematically.” Critics are split on the creature design, though – “cheesy” says Wagner; “well-designed” says the Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore – but we can confirm the movie does feature one of the best monster reveals we’ve seen in years.The Hole in the Ground (2019) 83%(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute )Release date: March 1 (limited)When a horror flick comes to us via A24, expectations are high – this is, after all, the distributor that in recent years has assaulted audiences with Hereditary, The Witch, and It Comes At Night. For some, “A24 horror” has become its own genre: unconventional and elusive family terror that digs right under the skin. On paper, The Hole in the Ground, which A24 acquired along with DirecTV before Sundance, mostly fits that bill.Director and co-writer Lee Cronin’s film focuses on a broken family – a mom and her young son living in remote Ireland – their dank and shadowy home, and the mysterious forest it backs onto (which contains the foreboding crater of the film’s title). The scares kick off when young Chris (James Quinn Markey, giving off serious young Haley Joel Osment vibes) starts acting differently and mom Sarah (Seána Kerslake) begins to question if he really is her son – and if that mysterious hole has something to do with it? Cue creepy kid antics and lots of menacingly innocent “Mommy, are you OK?” inquiries.If that all sounds familiar, it’s because it is: there is little in Cronin’s movie that you haven’t seen before – particularly if you’ve watched The Babadook, The Shining, or The Descent any time recently. For some, it s all a bit unexpectedly conventional for an A24 acquisition. “The Hole In the Ground is less subversive than we’ve come to expect from the indie distributor’s genre fare,” Variety’s Guy Lodge wrote in his review. “Compared to Ari Aster’s penetrating family nightmare Hereditary, which likewise debuted in a buzzy Midnight slot at Sundance last year, Cronin’s film is more of a straight-up spookhouse ride: jolting in the moment, but less likely to linger in the bones long after viewing.” Similarly, Nick Allen at rogerebert.com writes: “This is a story that errs toward the familiar instead of embracing strangeness, its freaky kid becoming the distraction when you just want more time with the hole in the ground.”Nearly all early reviews have noted that however familiar the story is, Cronin does do wonders with mood and delivers some effectively chilling scars (arachnophobics be warned: this one is not for you). The movie s excellent craft explains its current 91% Tomatometer. Writing for Digital Spy, Ian Sandwell went so far as to declare Hole the “first great horror of 2019,” and writes: “For the most part, Cronin avoids jump scares – although a couple of vivid nightmare sequences do go for the quick shock – and crafts an atmosphere of pure dread, combined with astonishing and immersive sound design.”The Lodge (2019) 74%(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thimios Bakatakis. )Release date: TBDDirectors Veronica Franz and Severin Fiala continue to mine mommy issues for scares with The Lodge, their English-language follow-up to Certified Fresh genre slow-burn, Goodnight Mommy. There are parallels to that film in The Lodge – an impenetrable and potentially dangerous mother, for starters – but critics have been pointing to another film when considering the pair’s latest work. “The film frequently recalls the atmospheric, strings-heavy A24 horror house-style,” A. A. Dowd writes in the AV Club. “In fact, its foreboding establishing shots, deliberate pacing, and dollhouse imagery specifically bring to mind Hereditary.” Emily Yoshida at Vulture similarly writes that “the eerie rhythms of the universe that gave us Deep Impact and Armageddon, Antz and A Bug’s Life, and Fyre and Fyre Fraud have conspired to make The Lodge exist in Hereditary’s shadow, but while some tonal and iconographic similarities exist, the two films jump off their shared diving board into very different corners of the psycho-mom pool.”The “psycho-mom” in question here is actually a stepmom and the lone survivor of a cult suicide; when circumstances put her alone with her two stepchildren in the titular lodge, the scares and psycho-mom freakouts begin. Critics have been unanimous in praising Riley Keough in the lead role, with The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney writing that the actress “goes all in with fanatical-evangelical whack-job fervor” and Yoshida writing that “Keough’s performance walks a tricky line skillfully.” It’s not quite enough to put the film at the level of Goodnight Mommy, nor Hereditary, but it delivers on scares – particularly in its opening moments. As Rooney writes, The opening 15 minutes alone is must-see stuff.”Wounds (2019) 47%Release date: March 29, 2019Armie Hammer had been leaving plastic cockroaches all over Park City in the lead-up to the midnight premiere of Wounds, a brutal little Cronenbergian body-horror piece from Under the Shadow director Babak Anvari. (Your RT correspondent got a rude shock when he sat down at the Library screening room and stepped on one.) See the film and you’ll get the gag: This is one roach-filled movie. And a scare-filled one. And a very Armie Hammer-filled one (he’s essentially in every scene). In Wounds, the actor plays a New Orleans bartender who unlocks a cellphone left behind by a group of kids, discovering some disturbing videos and images stored in the camera roll; things get worse for him when the texts start coming. It all has to do with “wounds,” and portals, and yes, roaches.Most critics agree that Wounds is probably the most surprising of Sundance’s horror offerings: Mashable’s Angie Han wrote in her review, “What this movie is about, what it’s trying to do, I couldn’t tell you. But it is never boring.” And many are praising Hammer for a big, Nic Cage-esque performance as the bartender increasingly on the verge of some kind of breakdown. For Film Threat, Norman Gidney writes, “Hammer’s performance is unhinged, insane, and totally relatable,” while David Rooney at The Hollywood Reporter writes that Hammer “gamely loses himself in the sweaty panic of the role, subverting his golden matinee-idol persona to explore the gnawing sense of inadequacy eating away at Will and steadily filling him with overwhelming rage.”Is the movie scary? At times it s plain terrifying; one late-night kitchen sequence was the freakiest thing we saw at the fest. But as many critics are noting, Wounds doesn’t quite live up to Anvari’s Certified Fresh first feature, which sits at 99% on the Tomatometer. As Rooney concludes: “There s nothing here that comes close to the fascinating cultural specificity, the sobering political perspective or the elevating personal connection of Anvari s first feature, set in the Tehran of his childhood, near the end of the protracted Iran-Iraq War. But the director nonetheless remains a skilled craftsman, subtly tapping into the flavorful history of New Orleans as a hub of dark magic, while wrapping the entire action in a soupy soundscape of ambient dread.”Corporate Animals (2019) 25%(Photo by Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)Release date: TBDCorporate Animals arrived at Sundance with big horror-comedy pedigree: writer Sam Bain was a co-creator of beloved British TV comedy Peep Show and director Patrick Bice gave us Netflix’s acclaimed low-budget chillers Creep and Creep 2. Plus, Animals features Demi Moore in a rare comedic role, playing the head of a company whose employees get trapped in a cave during a corporate retreat and resort to cannibalism – as you do.Still, in early reviews, many critics aren’t feeling it. The Hollywood Reporter’s DeFore writes that “Bain’s script is about as fresh as the air in a cave nine people without toothbrushes have shared for a week,” while Screen International’s Anthony Kaufman wondered whether the horror-comedy elements were working together as seamlessly as they should: “On an episode of Parks and Recreation, there might be instances of office politics, insults lobbed at the quirky intern, and general backstabbing, but it’s not remotely credible coming from a group of people who are trapped, starving, and dying of thirst.” Others, however, were digging Animals’ absurdist vibe and Moore’s comedic turn: The cast is full of comedians who deliver but they all orbit around Moore,” writes Fred Topel at Monsters and Critics. “She has never been this funny. I hope Corporate Animals is the beginning of a Demi Moore comedy renaissance.”The Sundance Film Festival runs January 24-February 3, 2019.