By Matt Fleming. As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching comedies on cable and VHS. My mother would insist that I go outside and enjoy the beautiful weather. I would respond, “but Mom, Back To The Future is on HBO right now.” As an adult, I’m attempting to unpack the films of my yesteryear to see how they have held up, how they have affected my life, and where they stand in the annals of nostalgia.
Rocky V (1990).
Prologue: “Gonna Try Now.”
Film franchises tend to divide audiences in very peculiar ways. Star Wars fans are rabid, and while Return of the Jedi is fairly seen as a weak film, the prequel trilogy is largely derided. Star Trek fans have it worse, with a dozen movies weighing down the popular television series. Even the Indiana Jones franchise is burdened by the disappointing 2008 Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which proves it takes more than good intentions to make a serviceable installment to a beloved series. The Rocky franchise is a rare beast; in six iterations, it only managed to palpably piss fans off once, and that was in the fifth go-round, Rocky V.
I might be underestimating the moviegoing public’s adoration of this series by saying Rocky V is the only entry lacking accolades. Rocky was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1976, and the two subsequent pictures were well regarded in various measure. Rocky IV is everyone’s favorite kitschy Cold War classic, but it deviated from the main character’s mythos in exchange for Superman-level heroism. 2006’s Rocky Balboa saw a return to the slugger’s roots, and provided a much needed closure to the franchise, replaying The Italian Stallion’s “going to the limit” origin. However, it is 1990’s almost-finish Rocky V that receives the series’ most boos. John G. Avildsen, who won the Best Director Oscar for Rocky, returns to the franchise, replacing main man Sylvester Stallone after three films. The unmistakable Bill Conti score returns (after being replaced for one film by the “Eye of the Tiger” champions, Survivor). Could this highly disreputed entry in the ultimate underdog film franchise really be as bad as they say?
I’m sorry, internet. Rocky V is not as bad as you think it is. (Okay, it’s still kinda bad.)
Part One: The Plot, or “I’m Not As Dumb As You Think I Am.”
Rocky V begins in classic fashion, with the iconic side-scrolling of Rocky’s name over archival footage from the previous entry’s climactic Cold War slugfest. As the hyperbolic Soviet grudge match is replayed in short, the viewer is reminded of just how ham-handed the very short Rocky IV was in comparison to the first three films. Ivan Drago, ubermensch, is chopped down by the all guts and heart of Philadelphia, and we take a moment to remember the bloated Eighties. The newest footage begins in earnest, with a fully nude Stallone hitting the showers, and for a moment, the viewer has to wonder if this is going into some early-career Italian Stallion porn territory. Instead, we get a shell-shocked Rocky, trembling from the effects of Drago’s terrifyingly hard hits. Our hero has been revealed to be as human and fragile as everyone else, and we see a glimpse of the real-life aftershocks of pugilism.
Upon their return stateside, the Balboa clan unites at a press conference, where Don King ripoff George Washington Duke (character actor Richard Gant) immediately attempts to goad Rocky into an immediate title defense against Union Cane (names in the Rocky universe are always too cool). Rocky’s stalwart spouse, Adrian (the always delightful Talia Shire), assures the press and the obnoxious promoter that Rocky is contemplating retirement after his bout with the Russian ‘Roid Machine, but Duke will not relent. Things rapidly turn for the worse for the Balboas. Loyal to a fault, Rocky has entrusted his alcoholic brother-in-law Paulie with the family’s massive finances, and he’s predictably ruined by a shady accountant. Back against the wall, Rocky knows his value is highest in the ring, and begs Adrian to let him fight Cane. A visit to the doctor reveals permanent brain damage from the years of head trauma, and Rocky is forced to abdicate his championship and retire. Bankruptcy forces them to sell their mansion and other vast winnings from Rocky’s time at the top, and the Balboas return to the old crummy neighborhood.
While Paulie bitches and moans, Adrian and Rocky begrudgingly return to their humble origins on the bad side of town: Adrian returns to the pet store where Rocky courted her, and Rocky repairs and reopens Mighty Mick’s Boxing Club. Adjustment to this world comes harder for teenaged son Robert (Sly’s real, now deceased son, Sage Stallone), who is subject to bullying and assault by future Entourage member Kevin Connolly. While G.W. Duke continues to pursue Rocky, the Stallion is approached by the young whitebread fighter Tommy Gunn (recently deceased Tommy Morrison). Tommy shows his mean streak in a sparring match at the gym, and Rocky is reluctant to take the young brawler under his tutelage. Rocky is eventually persuaded by Tommy and trains him in his best translation of the wisdom of Mickey Goldberg (Burgess Meredith, appearing in flashbacks, and maybe as a ghost). Driven by the potential to relive his glory vicariously through “The Machine,” Rocky brings Tommy into his home, displacing his continuingly despondent son. Tommy reveals his dark past as an abused child, and his motivations to perpetually beat his old man. Paulie entertains with his drunken humor throughout this point.
Tommy’s professional career begins with a nod to the film series’ origin, in the same hall we first see Rocky slug it out. Tommy is a sloppy copy of the Stallion, but Balboa uses the tried and true technique of inspirational sports lingo to will his protege to victory. In classic Rocky fashion, we witness Tommy Gunn’s ascendance to fighter’s glory in montage, and while Rocky’s pupil climbs the boxing ladder, his son trains toward being less of a pushover, letting resentment grow towards his distracted dad. The film uses contemporary hip-hop and R&B to distinguish itself from the previous two Survivor-driven soundtracks in an effort to seem hyper relevant.
As Tommy succeeds, young Robert gains the strength and confidence to beat up his bully, but Rocky is too consumed to care. Simultaneously, Duke sees an opportunity to exploit Tommy’s success as he is still overshadowed by Rocky’s legacy. Tommy keeps winning but doesn’t see a title shot. Duke begins seducing Tommy with his vast wealth and promises of greatness, and the country bumpkin begins to begrudge his Italian tutor. Robert hits a boiling point with his old man and storms out of the house, and Adrian tells Rocky that he’s losing his family with his obsession over Tommy. When Duke finally lures Tommy away with a fancy car and a redhead, Rocky is devastated, and Tommy is a jerk about it. He wins the championship from an underwhelming Union Cane, and doesn’t pay any thanks to his former mentor, and Rocky is super bummed. Thankfully, this tumult at least allows Balboa to make things right with his kid.
Ultimately, fans and critics do not accept Tommy’s abandonment of his beloved trainer, his lackluster opponents, or his shitty new attitude, so Tommy attempts to resolve this the only way he knows how: with his dumb fists. Duke is still angling to get the two into the ring for a huge payday, but Rocky declares that his ring is outside, on the streets of Philadelphia (pre-Springsteen “Streets of Philadelphia”). After Tommy hits the harmlessly loud-mouthed Paulie, Rocky gets to punchin’. The street fight between the two is a clever departure from the big in-ring climaxes of the first four films, but is still largely an outdoor boxing match. However, John G. Avildsen chooses this scene to channel Spike Lee in shot selection, camera angles, and music. The transition from flat to dynamic in this scene is both refreshing and very jarring. With every headshot from Tommy, we see a flashback to a previous opponent, which may be a stylistic choice from Avildsen/Stallone, or just Rocky’s brain damage. As the two exchange blows, Rocky is visited by the memory of his mentor, Mickey, who tells him to get up, “cause Mickey loves yeh.” (In an alternate edit of the fight, Burgess Meredith shows up as a straight up ghost, which may have seemed endearing, but wound up pretty hokey.)
Of course, Rocky wins, his family is united in victory, and he slugs G.W. Duke for good measure. (The exchange: “Touch me and I’ll sue!” “Sue me for what?” Classic Stallone.) The film ends with father and son running the iconic steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, approaching the statue of Rocky, and finally actually entering the museum. Rocky’s kid is opening his eyes to something new, and the champ is excited. His last line is pretty cool: “I love almost everybody.”
Part Two: The Cast, or “Reunited, and It Feels Just Okay.”
The fact that Stallone was able to convince the principles to get together for this return to the sentimental Rocky-verse is really let down by the fact that, having killed off Apollo Creed in Rocky IV, he couldn’t have two ghosts in this sequel. Any Rocky film without a little Carl Weathers is a little disappointing. That said, this cast is all either overacting, underacting, or Burt Young drinking.
Sylvester Stallone finds himself at a crossroads with his signature creation. In Rocky IV, his dialogue was replaced by a great Survivor jam (“Burning Heart”), wintery training montages, and Dolph Lundgren’s dialogue. That Rocky was so removed from the character we had grown to love, that this Rocky seems more like an amalgam of the rich, suddenly well spoken guy from III/IV and the loveable idiot who couldn’t read for three movies. Rocky is still prideful, but takes his lumps pretty easily. Every time something bad happens to him, he gets upset until he just isn’t upset anymore. He is acting more like Rocky would act, but somehow feels more like Stallone has lost his connection to the character. These exchanges are usually punctuated with some reassurance and smooches to the constantly-freaking-out Adrian.
Speaking of Adrian, Talia Shire makes her final appearance as Rocky’s wife in this film, and I say good riddance. Adrian in Rocky V goes from loving to yelling to just giving up in almost every scene. Her appearance outside of the pet store, where she confronts Duke, just serves to emasculate her dim-witted husband. Although she loves her husband, she spends much of the film deriding him. Shire’s delivery in these scenes is exaggerated and choppy, and she must not want to be there. Adrian seems to go soft on her brother Paulie, who ruined her family, and is notorious for being an abusive drunk. She loves her family above all, but sometimes her voice is as violent as Rocky’s fists.
To contrast, Burt Young’s notoriously abusive drunk, Paulie, is perfect in Rocky V. He finally steps out of the role as Rocky’s sidekick and into the full-fledged role of “druncle.” Outside of Rocky himself, he is the worst person to be put in charge of finances, so if you’re setting up the whole “Rocky’s poor again” angle, he’s your proper catalyst. Rocky loves almost everybody, so his forgiveness toward Paulie is expected, whereas Adrian must have just finally given up on rehabilitating her brother. When Rocky’s son Robert feels neglected, Paulie is there to support him, not by giving the kid booze or taking him to a hooker, but by actually training him to beat up bullies. Young appears to really understand Paulie’s nature, and he brings out the best in the worst member of the family.
Sage Stallone was no great actor, but he is a good fit as his father’s son. While parts of his performance are symptomatic of an untrained child actor, the moments of father-son bonding are more real than they deserve to be, and that narrative is the true high-point of this movie. When Sly and Sage are one on one, even when the dialogue is campy, one could believe that these moments may have been the most real of their real-life relationship. Aside from some bad dubbing in spots, Sage delivers his dialogue with some attitude and angst that likely reflected his true to life feelings. In all, fair for a youngster who didn’t do much acting afterward.
The film’s worst performance is undoubtedly from Tommy Morrison. While his written dialogue is lackluster, his delivery shows how much of an actor he is not. Clearly chosen for his look and his in-ring prowess, Morrison could have stood a few years of acting lessons. His character is never likeable, and after he turns on Rocky he becomes downright unbearable. His hair is really stupid, and seeing him get stage-punched was cathartic. So much of Rocky V would have benefitted by having someone slightly better as Tommy Gunn, but I suspect the boxer was plucked by Sly before he even conceived the character. Morrison left a pretty sketchy legacy in real life, so watching Rocky beat him up is always kind of awesome.
Richard Gant’s parody of Don King is pretty over the top, and I’m legitimately surprised King didn’t sue. However, as a reflection of the state of boxing, the character works, and serves as a very effective villain. His resignation over seeing his new star getting whipped on the street is pretty great, as he delivers the signature “only in America” with a defeated sigh. The underused Gant is perfect in a very corny role.
The rest of the cast consists mostly of real life reporters hired on as extras with lines, and they are pretty bad, although Stallone’s writing doesn’t help. They all seem way too eager to be doing their normal job, but in a movie, so these scenes seem extra fake. Otherwise, the kids who become friends with Robert are just fine, and the remainder of on screen humans just let Rocky know they love him. Unfortunately, Kevin Connolly would go on to star in HBO’s Entourage, a/k/a the only thing I don’t like about Mark Wahlberg.
Part Three: Conclusions, or “Almost The Last Temptation Of Stallone.”
Sylvester Stallone has been open about his disappointment in Rocky V, claiming his greed drove him to make a movie nobody wanted. Truthfully, I believe every Rocky fanatic always wants another Rocky movie, but only if Stallone remembers what that means. He thinks he made a mistake by returning the Stallion to the slums, but that’s one of the best parts of this film. With the third iteration, Rocky had become more of a reflection of Stallone and less of an underdog everyone came to cheer on. In the fourth film, Rocky straight up punches Communism, and while the movie was reflectively bad, it was embraced by jingoism-happy, Reagan-era America. Still, it was not a Rocky movie in the most endearing ways.
Thankfully, Stallone decided not to kill Rocky off in this one. (He planned on finally putting the character away, but he looked into a crystal ball and saw his prospects in the 2000’s, and changed his mind.) Honestly, the 2006 revival Rocky Balboa is the most heartfelt and exciting version of the series since the original, and for a moment in those middle-aughts, it appeared Stallone may have returned to form. Since then, we have three Expendables movies and zero more Rocky. Thankfully.
However, there are glimmers of beauty in Rocky V. There is a palpable attempt at returning to the roots of the character, and Rocky’s difficult relationship with his “kid” reveals more humanity than any other boxing movie could muster. Ultimately, this is a half-movie. While its running time of about 100 minutes outdoes its predecessor by about twenty, much of this movie is empty space, and it feels like very little happens in the middle. Avildsen, who made three movies about a kid who learns “karate,” doesn’t seem to be the same guy who shot the original, and the film seems flat when it isn’t zooming or montage-ing. The biggest culprit of the film’s failure is Stallone’s script, which has potential in story, but some awful dialogue. Had Sly channeled his young, hungry aspiring filmmaker, he may have hit a home run, but Rocky V needed much more time to flesh out, and the script could have used another pass. I am very happy that this is not the ultimate Rocky, because Rocky Balboa clearly benefitted from the years between and some reflection upon his errors. I don’t think this is necessarily the worst Rocky movie; Rocky IV is the cheesiest entry, and regarded as a campy fun time, but it isn’t really good. Rocky V is just okay, much like most of Stallone’s middle career. Best enjoyed in a marathon of the series, right before watching Rocky Balboa, with some friends born in the ‘80s, and a binocular flask of your favorite liquid.