Some films are obviously Christmas movies, like Klaus and Spirited. But that designation is not so clear cut for others. They may be set during the holiday season, and they may even touch upon Christmas themes, but does that mean they truly qualify in the traditional sense? To find out we’re putting those movies on trial and laying out all the evidence for and against them by answering some pertinent questions, just as we did with Die Hard, Gremlins, Edward Scissorhands, Iron Man 3, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And the latest movie to take the stand in our great Christmas movie debate is doing so in Mother Russia. That’s right, it’s time to ring the holiday bell on Rocky IV.
Members of the jury, ask yourself…
How much of Rocky IV takes place at Christmastime?
The last third of the 91-minute movie, so a pretty significant chunk. However, that’s easy to forget. Following the death of Apollo Creed on August 31, 1985, Rocky agrees to fight Drago on Christmas Day in Moscow. All of his pre-fight training also takes place in Russia, which appears to start shortly after Thanksgiving. The only way we know that general start time is because soon after Rocky and his team arrive in their isolated cabin in the snow, Paulie roasts marshmallows by the fire while listening to “ The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” It’s the only Christmas song in the whole movie.
The only other elements of Christmas found anywhere in the film are decorations at the Balboa home in the US. And we only see them briefly when the film shows Rocky’s son watching the fight. It’s Christmastime, but no one seems to care about that. Especially the parents who both went to another country, leaving their 10-year-old alone for the holiday so he could possibly watch his dad die on live television.
Would Rocky IV be fundamentally different if it were set at any other time of the year?
Not even a little bit. The only thing the Christmas Day fight does is add to the overall absurdity of the movie. Everything Rocky does following the death of Apollo is bonkers. He abdicates his heavyweight title to fight Drago in an unsanctioned bout, a match he doesn’t even tell his wife about. Rocky also agrees to have it take place on Drago’s home turf on a day chosen by the Russians, then trains under the watchful eye of the KGB. The Russians picking Christmas is just the ridiculous icing on this Siberian Cake of silliness. I love it so much.
If you want to give the movie way more credit than it deserves you can say there’s real meaning in the Soviet Union picking Christmas for the bout. They expected Drago to win easily, and what better time to stick it to the greedy capitalists than on their favorite commercialism-loving holiday? Only, Rocky pulls off a miracle and chops the Russian down… so, uh, it’s like the spirit of mankind or something? I don’t know. We’ve already given Rocky IV a lot more depth than it probably even wants.
Do any of the film’s major themes apply to Christmas?
Revenge, “nature vs science,” “East against West,” “man against man,” and perseverance make for a wildly entertaining Cold War boxing movie, but they are definitely not Christmas themes.
The closest the film comes to a holiday idea comes at the end of the film. During the fight the hostile Russian crowd comes to not only respect the American, some begin rooting for him. It’s amazing. And that’s before Rocky caps the whole thing by telling the thousands in attendance (most of them soldiers!), “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!”
That’s basically Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol boiled down to 11 words. It’s just Rocky’s way of saying, “Goodwill towards men,” and, “God bless us everyone!” IT COUNTS!
Does watching Rocky IV at Christmastime enhance the experience?
Look, I love this film. I love it like a child loves Santa Claus. But if you watch Rocky IV on Christmas Day you’re as ridiculous as the movie. I mean, who wants to spend the holiday watching Apollo Creed die because his friend couldn’t throw in the damn towel!
Fortunately the other 364 days of the year are perfect times to put it on. Yes, that includes Christmas Eve, but only after the kids go to sleep. You can also listen to the soundtrack, which should have won the 1986 Grammy for Album of the Year, any damn time you please.
Has this film been accepted as a Christmas movie tradition?
It’s more likely the Soviet Union will actually reform, start a second Cold War, pit a giant Russian boxer full of steroids against a beloved Italian-American champion on Christmas, and then have its own soldiers start cheering for the foreigner in Moscow before Rocky IV becomes a Christmas movie tradition.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Rocky IV is mostly a collection of montages interspersed with an absurd plot and lots of punching. It stars an all-time great movie villain and a classic Sylvester Stallone hero at his over-the-top best. It’s one of the most wonderful gifts in the history of cinema. But it’s not a Christmas present. It has to settle for simply being a sports movie that ended the Cold War.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.