While most of America was anticipating the historic showdown of Hillary vs. Donald, on Friday night in Austin, it all came down to Dolph Lundgren. At Fantastic Fest’s famous “Fantastic Feuds” event, a heated conversation about whether or not “Rocky IV” was the best boxing movie of all time was abruptly resolved when no less than the beefy action star himself — aka Russian villain Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” — walked through a curtain of smoke to set the record straight for good.
The crowd shrieked and hollered as an American flag waved in the ring. No, this wasn’t some ill-advised sketch comedy set envisioning a rally of redneck cinephiles supporting Arthouse Trump, but rather the essence of the silly-serious approach to movie fandom that Fantastic Fest uniquely conjures up.
The Alamo Drafthouse-hosted genre festival showcases edgy storytelling from around the world, but it also brings that sensibility to the ring. Each year, exuberant movie lovers, filmmakers and others from this close-knit Fantastic Fest community gather in a boxing ring to engage in the kind of elaborate geeky movie debates one might normally relegate to a college dorm room, with one exception: These arguments actually come to blows.
In previous editions, everyone from Michelle Rodriguez to Elijah Wood have put on boxing gloves after trading heated barbs on ridiculous subjects. This time around, Lundgren himself didn’t throw any punches himself, instead simply offering up his appearance to help bolster the passionate case presented by Drafthouse employee Greg MacLennan.
Rumors suggested that Lundgren, who canceled a scheduled press conference moments before the match started, wasn’t feeling well. But it’s probably for the best that he didn’t compete in the match himself, as it’s hard to imagine any of the movie fans in the Fantastic Fest scene standing a chance on the other side of the muscleman’s fists. Certainly not Drafthouse manager Michael Wilchester, who was tasked with putting “Rocky IV” down. “What happened to his abs?” a grinning Lundgren taunted from the side of the ring as the decidedly non-muscular Wilchester suited up. Drafthouse’s Tim League, who has subjected himself to the punishment of the ring in more than one previous debate session, bounced around in the background to offer moral support for both sides.
The actual fight didn’t last long: The two men threw each other into a violent series of exchanges that ended with a bloodied MacLennan declaring victory. It was resolved: “‘Rocky IV’ is the best boxing movie of all time.”
Not that Wilchester made the most compelling case beforehand. “‘Rocky IV’ is such a good film it would make Leni Riefenstahl blush,” he said, making a peculiar reference to the German propaganda director that presumably was meant to equate the two films’ celebrations of strong-willed caucasians. Then he dovetailed into a passionate defense of the much-maligned robot butler in the film, which Stallone put in the movie to popularize a machine designed to help autistic children like his own. “It revolutionized the use of robots to help autistic children, you sick sadistic fuck,” MacLennon spat at his leering competitor. “Why don’t you go back and watch ‘Raging Bull,’ a movie about a violent fucking alcoholic mysoginist?”
For his argument, Wilchester (who was appropriately clad in an American flag wife-beater) just stated the obvious, with a few questionable examples. ‘Rocky’ is by far superior,” he said. “‘Rocky II’ is even better. ‘Rocky III’ starts to dip down and ‘Rocky V’ is fucking remake of ‘Rocky III.’ The best boxing film ever is ‘Raging Bull.'” He didn’t stop there, even as the crowd roared: “I could go on: ‘Fighter.’ ‘Creed.’ ‘Southpaw.’ Fuck, ‘Snatch’ is a better boxing movie than fucking ‘Rocky IV,’ and it’s a goddamn heist movie.”
He also acknowledged the movie’s biggest tragedy. “Creed dies humping the fucking mat,” Wilchester said. “That’s bullshit. He should’ve died a better death. His head should’ve exploded.”
But Wilchester ultimately became Ivan Drago’s latest victim when Lundgren, who entered the arena to the surprise of many in attendance, approached the mic to offer up the movie’s best-known line. “If he dies,” Lundgren said, “he dies.”
There was something oddly fascinating about watching an eighties action star as he milked the enthusiasm for one of his better-known roles. During his brief appearance, he looked amused and a little confounded by his surroundings. Lundgren, of course, didn’t just jet into Austin for one bizarre cameo. He stars in a new movie, the supernatural action-comedy “Don’t Kill It,” from “Big Ass Spider” director Mike Mendez, which premieres over the weekend at the festival. The movie’s best shot at gaining serious momentum was among this scene of eager genre buffs. Was his appearance in the ring an act of desperation by actor past his prime or savvy marketing as he prepares for his comeback? For a brief moment, that question didn’t really matter, because everyone was in on the joke.
As the first battle ended and the ringmaster guided the proceedings to the next match, the audience began chanting “USA! USA!” And then… the smoke alarm went off, unleashing a painful high-pitched wail that lasted for several minutes. The evening continued as planned, with arguments about the “Tremors” franchise, the cinematic merit of Zack Snyder’s career and superhero movies. But a lot of the scene migrated to the parking lot to take a breather, and in some cases, plot out the screening schedule for the next day. The boxing ring had its charms, but there were new movies worth debating, as well.
Watch the entire Fantastic Fest debates below: