To Act or Not to Act (Is That the Question?)

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In recent weeks I’ve been making my way through the Rocky sequels, hoping to finish the series so that I can be totally up-to-date when I watch the new installment in the franchise, Creed. Last night I had the distinct pleasure of watching Rocky IV, the 1985 sequel that shows Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) resolving the Cold War single-handed by (surprise, surprise) beating Soviet-trained killing machine Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). I recognize Rocky IV as being lesser than the previous sequels, but is there not some unmistakable joy in watching these musclebound dudes pummel each other in the ring? Do we need the Italian Stallion to be another Chaplin or Welles (after those two, Stallone was the third man to be nominated in the same year for both acting and screenwriting Oscars), and does Dolph Lundgren need to be the new Swedish Olivier? (By the way, don’t be fooled by the dumb-action-star image; Lundgren has a couple of degrees in chemistry and got into MIT on a Fulbright Scholarship before being derailed by the lure of modeling and acting. Not too shabby.)

I mean, just look at all the fun stuff going on in Rocky IV:

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US vs. USSR: Boxing for the Fate of the World! (This, friends, is how the movie starts.)

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Using 80s computer technology to punch harder!

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Cheesy training montage comparing the two athletes!

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Sly rocks a sweet beard while angry-jump-roping!

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More beard!

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The montage ends with Rocky climbing a Russian mountain!

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Fighting… to end communism!

Truly, there’s a lot to love. (Also, if you’ve never watched a CinemaSins video, a new one about Rocky IV, “Everything Wrong with Rocky IV in Some Minutes,” was posted to YouTube today. It explains everything I didn’t mention.)

Do these actors need to act well, or is it enough to commit to the role with physical strength and aesthetic presence? It seems like it should be enough just to enjoy the fleshy, sweaty sight of these mostly uncomplicated pugilists, linguistic intelligibility or not. After all, I followed my screening of Rocky IV with Red Scorpion (1988), a Dolph Lundgren action movie that New York Times film critic Stephen Holden described thusly: “Dolph Lundgren’s pectorals are the real stars of ‘Red Scorpion,’ an action-adventure movie set in the fictional African country of Mombaka. Filmed from below so that one has the sense of peering up at a massive kinetic sculpture, his glistening torso, which over the course of the film is subjected to assorted tortures, is the movie’s primary visual focus whenever the action slows down. And since Mr. Lundgren remains stone-faced, rarely speaking except to issue commands in a surprisingly hesitant monotone, his heaving chest actually communicates more emotion than his mumbling lips.”

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Yes, but isn’t comprehensible speech overrated sometimes? This critic continues to wonder. And anyway, I’m one to talk; I just borrowed Doris Wishman’s 1961 sort-of-classic Diary of a Nudist from the NYU library. Maybe instead of “good” or “bad” I have developed an everything-taste, and that doesn’t sound too criminal to me.

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