The year is 1985. Rocky Balboa challenges Russian boxer Ivan Drago to a fight, in order to avenge the death of Apollo Creed, whom Drago has just killed in the ring. The fight is to take place in the U.S.S.R., on Christmas Day. Into the belly of the beast.
The midfilm Drago/Balboa training montage is revealing. Two ways of training, two superpowers, two ideologies.
Drago trains in a windowless facility, surrounded by doctors and trainers with clipboards, using machines, running on a treadmill while wired up to monitors. Rocky trains in the woods and in a barn, often alone, lifting rocks, pulling a sleigh through snow, chopping wood, and climbing a mountain. Where Drago pummels lightweights in a ring for practice, Rocky, humanely, shadowboxes. In one key shot, the camera flashes from Drago toppling some nameless unfortunate to the mat, to Rocky felling an enormous tree in an alpine forest. In an ironically un-communist twist, Drago struggles against others, whereas Rocky struggles against nature, and more deeply, within himself.
Drago is a product of scientific specialists and political authoritarians, an instrument crafted for the accomplishment of a singlemineded goal: the defeat of the best American boxer. Note that in the film’s most famous line, Drago says not ‘I want to break you,’ or ‘I will break you,’ but “I must break you.” Drago fights by mandate, by government edict. He is cold and inhuman, trained with mechanics and technical knowledge, and a few shots portray him as being trapped within the training apparatus, an animal in a cage. He shows no remorse when his punches lead to the death of Apollo Creed; this is simply his ideology’s logical conclusion, the elimination of the disorderly human element from a closed loop of order. Inasmuch as a totalitarian system (though it may be initiated with the goal of the collective’s benefit) forces its individual members to behave like machines, it is the antithesis of man and his erratic desires and emotions, and in the long run, man himself turns out to be its true enemy.
Rocky is an expression of sheer individual will and a very human desire to avenge a fallen friend and comrade-at-arms. Training outdoors by rustic, antiquated means, he is the pioneer, the kind of intrepid frontiersman that won the West, with his monklike determination and lone-wolf mission that even Adrian cannot understand, though she does eventually come to support him. Running along the snowcapped peaks, Balboa cuts a romantic figure, reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” He is the underdog in a strange land, dwarfed by his competitor and the enormity of nature that he pits himself against. He is an American. Towards the end of the montage, Russian agents in a black sedan follow him down a path, and he foils them by running into the woods. As opposed to Drago’s caged animal, Rocky is the wild animal, as Springsteen put it, “Born to Run.” Reaching the peak, Rocky shouts “Drago!” and his voice rings through the mountain range.
Grounding the possibility of both triumph and loss are acts of freedom. Rocky knows both sides of this coin, for his choice to not step in and end an earlier match, instead honoring the wounded Apollo Creed’s wish to continue to the bitter end against Drago, led to Creed’s death. An authoritarian would have stepped in and insisted on throwing in the towel “for Creed’s own good,” but Rocky, the ever-consistent libertarian, allowed his friend to make his own choices. The looming, unmatched battle, which no one believes Balboa can win, is a both a consequence of those earlier choices and a new choice by Balboa. There is a chain of cause and effect, but at each stage, Rocky acknowledges no outside forces and takes no refuge in ‘musts,’ as Drago does, accepting his fate as his own doing. Rocky retains the power to save or damn himself, and inasmuch as his fight is a proxy for a war between freedom and its antithesis, he has the power to save or damn the world.