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Franz Lidz
November 12, 1990
As the bell sounds for Round 5 of the Rock opera, Sylvester Stallone dreams of a box-office knockout
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November 12, 1990

Rocky The Article

As the bell sounds for Round 5 of the Rock opera, Sylvester Stallone dreams of a box-office knockout

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Women weaken legs.
—MICKEY in Rocky

By the time Rocky IV is released in 1985, Stallone's muscles have become as taut and ballooned as Popeye's in a Thanksgiving Day parade. He has enlarged his pecs and his box-office receipts in two Rambo of the Jungle films. Instead of making modestly ambitious duds between Rockys, he now makes tortured Vietnam vetsploitation films. Rambo is Rocky in combat boots, with bazooka replacing palooka. He's a superpatriot fighting for his idea of America's honor when the country has become too wimpy to stand up to the Commies. In Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Stallone has to battle American politicians and bureaucrats before he can settle down to slaughtering Asians as he frees POWs still held by Vietnam.

Rambo's ideological fervor rubs off on Rocky. "He's no longer just a fighter," Stallone says. "He's a political missile."

In Rocky IV the merely superhuman Rocky has to face giant, soulless, biochemically engineered Ivan Drago, a Soviet cyborg so evil he wears a black mouthpiece. Rocky agrees to fight Ivan the Terrible in Moscow on Christmas Day after the Red monster kills Creed in the ring. Stallone conceived of the film as a Cold War update of the 1938 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight, with Russki robotics supplanting Nazi tyranny. And, interestingly enough, Stallone playing Louis.

Rocky won in III by becoming more black than a black; in IV he becomes more Russian than the Soviet. Wearing a Christlike beard, he trains in the frozen waste of Siberia, communing with the primitive forces of nature. He chops wood, hitches himself to a sled and lugs a log around like the True Cross. Intercut with Rocky's all-natural, unadulterated training routine is Ivan's ultra-high tech molding by supcrscientists. He's injected with suspicious fluids and wired to more electronic ganglia than Frankenstein.

But technology is no match for pure American soul and free enterprise. Despite punches that thunder into his head like amplified mortars, Rocky drubs Drago and wins over the anti-American crowd. By the end of the film even Soviet soldiers at ringside chant, Roc-KEE! Roc-KEE! Draping himself in an American flag, Rocky seizes the moment to make a plea for peace: "In here, there were two guys killin' each other, but I guess that's better'n 20 million." Mikhail Gorbachev and the Politburo stand and applaud him. Rocky IV made glasnost possible, although Stallone is far, far too tactful to assert it.

On the home front, Stallone was as isolated as Rocky in the steppes. He divorced Sasha. "Because of my background, I'm not cut out to be a stationary object," he more or less explains. "I'm motivated by outside stimulus, and at the same time require long periods of being alone."

When stationary, Stallone relied more and more on his bodyguards, not only for protection but for male companionship. Outside stimulus was provided by Brigitte Nielsen, whose icicle-eyed Viking blond-ness eerily echoed Drago's. (She played Drago's wife in IV.) "My marriage to her rates with the riddle of the Sphinx," Stallone says, sighing heavily. "I fell madly in love with an ideal of physical perfection." He may have believed it was the mating of equals. The clinch broke after 18 months in a split decision. Nielsen's take was at least $2 million.

"It was devastating," he says bitterly. "What I thought was perfection turned into some rolling carnival of horrors put out on public display to be mocked. It had catastrophic effects on me in the area of bonding of the souls. I've lost the ability to be totally subservient to my heart. If this had happened to anyone else, it would be called a tragedy. When it happens to me, it's entertainment."

Nobody owes nobody nothing. You owe yourself.
—ROCKY in Rocky III

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