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What Ivan Drago can teach us about the border crisis
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What Ivan Drago can teach us about the border crisis

Dolph Lundgren’s embrace of US citizenship represents a dying notion of immigration.

Last week, Ivan Drago became an American citizen. At 66, Dolph Lundgren is still well preserved enough to bring to mind his most famous role, which he reprised in 2018’s "Creed II." But the image of the former communist menace holding a tiny American flag in front of a Homeland Security emblem would have had much more symbolic weight had he done it 40 years ago.

Today the fearsome Drago mainly summons fond memories of a simpler time, when it was easy to tell who our enemies were.

He's also a nostalgic reminder of Hollywood blockbuster moviemaking at its peak. Compared to the 1976 original, a downbeat labor of love that earns its sentimental, crowd-pleasing finale, "Rocky IV" is bloated and steroidal, pumped up and smoothed out with MTV artifice.

And we loved it. Released in 1985, two years after Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech and four years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Rocky IV” was the third-highest-grossing movie of the year and remains the highest-grossing installment of the franchise.

It shamelessly stages the Cold War as a cartoonish face-off between scientifically engineered Soviet übermensch Drago and big-hearted everyman Rocky Balboa. Whether the movie’s success presages the inevitable triumph of American-style freedom or springs from the era’s dangerous jingoism depends on who you ask.

Either extreme requires ignoring certain subtleties in director-star Sylvester Stallone’s storytelling. Yes, Rocky needs to avenge Apollo Creed’s death, but it’s Creed who needlessly picks the fight with Drago in the first place. It’s Creed who enters the arena in a gaudy, self-aggrandizing display of empty patriotism, and it’s Creed who refuses to stop the fight even after it’s apparent how badly outmatched he is.

Nothing about America’s current immigration policy suggests citizenship has any value at all.

“If he dies, he dies,” Drago shrugs shortly before Creed does just that. One of cinema’s great villain lines, yes, but it’s also a simple statement of fact. It’s not that we weren’t warned. "Whatever he hits, he destroys," his handler tells us. As we say today, FAFO.

It's unlikely "Rocky IV" would have worked so well without Lundgren. Credit Stallone for that. His original conception for the character was a "giant Neanderthal," but meeting the charismatic, six-foot, five-inch Fulbright Scholar turned model gave him the idea for a worthier adversary. Rocky's foe would be "the future … perfect, intelligent, flawless."

Drago is a believable threat. His punches land. Advised by Stallone not to hold back, the inexperienced Lundgren ended up putting him in intensive care for more than a week. Lundgren’s manhandling of Carl Weathers so incensed the late actor that he stormed off the set, halting production for days.

As Drago, Lundgren is not exactly likeable, but he commands enough respect to make us wonder, at least a little bit, if we aren’t stuck in the past. Maybe the Soviet state’s ruthless pursuit of excellence by any means necessary is the way forward, whether we like it or not.

Of course, this doubt is fleeting. Rocky prevails, demonstrating that no amount of cutting-edge performance enhancers and high-tech training equipment can beat one American's grit and determination. In fact, Rocky so impresses the crowd with his can-do spirit that even Mikhail Gorbachev gives him a standing ovation.

It’s kitschy, but it hurts a little too. Whatever we are now, we’re no longer confident, united, or optimistic. And the way Lundgren announced his recent news only highlights what we’ve lost.

“Finally did it!” he wrote on Instagram. “I’ve been in this country on and off for 40 years now. First as a student then as a fighter and an actor. America has given me some wonderful opportunities and an amazing life. I’m proud to become a U.S. citizen and officially make this my home.”

The gratitude, humility, and pride on display here are terribly old-fashioned, as is the assumption that citizenship offers anything so rarified as a “home.” In fact, nothing about America’s current immigration policy suggests citizenship has any value at all.

And why should it, if the future belongs to globalization? The current free-for-all on the southern border is good for the economy, stupid. If you can’t accept this, you’re clinging to an antiquated vision of America out of racism or resentment. You deserve to lose.

Then again, winning isn’t everything. Nobody watching “Rocky” for the first time is disappointed when our hero loses his fight with Apollo Creed. Beating Creed would have been a little too unrealistic, an easy ending that would have devalued Rocky’s inner battle.

Rocky fought for something far more meaningful than a title or some money, which is what made people care. And that’s what’s kept people coming back for almost 50 years and nine movies.

It’s hard to sustain a franchise for that long. The relative staying power of “Rocky” looks all the more impressive when you compare it to the steep decline of “Star Wars,” which is only one year younger.

America today more resembles "Star Wars": a singular, at times frustratingly idiosyncratic enterprise stripped for parts by efficiency experts. A vocal minority of disgruntled fans may offer some resistance, but they simply don’t understand progress. At any rate, they’ll eventually tire of complaining and move on. When they do, we may discover that they were the only ones keeping the whole thing together.

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Matt Himes

Matt Himes

Managing Editor, Align

Matt Himes is the managing editor for Align. He has been a copywriter and marketing consultant for the entertainment industry for 20 years. A native of Allentown, Pennsylvania, he lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three children.
@matthimes →