Two years before President Reagan’s famous challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” our country was at odds with Russia and the tension was palpable. In 1985, talks of nuclear attacks were fairly common despite the fact that the Cold War seemed to be coming to an end. Being just 13 years old, it’s surprising how conscious I was of world events, I mean it must have been friggin’ scary for the grownups of the time. If Fox News existed back then we would all have been hiding in our converted bomb shelters, hugging our knees and praying for our salvation!
Anyway, the point is that Russia was not our friend, and everyone knew it. Hollywood certainly knew it, and did its best to profit from the rivalry with movies like Red Dawn and Rambo. Then along comes the latest movie in the Rocky franchise, Rocky IV. Being the fourth movie in the series, it was obviously a big deal, but the really BIG deal was that Rocky wasn’t taking on a local chump like Clubber Lang, oh no, this time he was going for the throat of Mother Russia herself.
I must have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of movies as a teenager, and have forgotten just about all of them. But one Saturday afternoon in late November, I climbed into the car with four of my friends and my mom drove us to Fair City Mall’s movie theater in downtown Fairfax, Virginia. These were the days before the megaplexes, and this theater would be tiny by today’s standards. The theater was (and still is) attached to a small shopping center with maybe a dozen stores like Kemp Mill Records and the Pants Corral. If you’ve ever seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High you’ll know what an 80’s mall movie theater was all about — big hair, freaks and geeks, sunglasses at night, and doors propped open for your friends.
We were pumped to see the matinee showing of Rocky IV. Luckily, we got there early, because the theater was already nearly full, and more kids were streaming in from the lobby (and the propped open doors). We saw some kids from our school that we knew, and some that we didn’t. Of course, the only way to get their attention was with a well aimed Mike and Ike. Obviously, we also had to hit the backs of the heads of the cute, big-haired valley girls, and act like it was the jerks behind us. (Seriously, cleaning up after a matinee had to have been the worst job in the world.) More and more people filed in, and since there were no more seats the aisles started filling up with kids — not a parent in sight — until the theater managers finally decided that they might as well start the show, fire hazards be damned.
The theater was loud, and not a line of dialogue would go by without some hoser making a rude noise or stupid joke. It was great! Oh look, here comes Apollo Creed making a mockery of the boxing match devised to promote goodwill between our country and thosee Russkies. Booo! Ivan Drago!
Man that guy (who I much later learned was James Brown) can sing and dance — of course there was singing and dancing in the theater as well — Living in America! Wooohooo!
What is happening here? Stop! Stop the fight! No!
All our acne-covered jaws dropped and tears were shed. No one was releasing armpit farts now. We were pissed.
The whole mood of the place shifted on such a dynamic scale, it felt like Drago’s steroid-induced 2,200-psi punch had hit each and every one of us squarely in the gut. The theater turned angry, and when the final bout between Rocky and Drago finally arrived on the screen, we were bloodthirsty. Ivan was going down. We were on our feet, many of us even standing on the seats, slinging fists in sync with every punch Rocky threw, and when the big Russian hit the canvas, the place erupted. Hugs and high fives all around. USA! USA! USA! Yo Adrien!
This is what it was like to go the movies before the internet went and spoiled everything. We had no idea what was coming, and when it did, it was a force to be reckoned with.
We made new friends with the girl sitting behind us and went out for pizza afterwards, talking about world events, politics, and the latest episode of G.I. Joe. I had to borrow a quarter to call my mom and tell her the movie was over. Phone numbers were written on sweaty palms with sincere promises to meet at a party next weekend, good-natured jabs were hurled at one another, and slap fights were held to impress our new friends until I saw my mom’s Dodge Caravan pull up to the curb. Awkward hugs were exchanged and I’m sure we never saw those girls again — but you can bet I’ve seen the Italian Stallion dozens of times since that day.
If you ask most people what their most memorable movie going experience was, you’ll hear a lot of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the like, but for me, it will always be Rocky IV.
Cool story, bro.