Stallone Month: Rocky V

If Rocky IV is peak Rocky, then Rocky V is the story’s nadir. Whereas Rocky II was but pale imitation of the first film, Rocky V is caricature, its characters in many ways reduced to cartoon versions of those with which we have grown familiar. Mostly this is down to Sylvester Stallone. He was the one who ditched Rocky’s lovable lunkhead persona in the previous two films. But now he’s back, and poor.

Rocky V was released in 1990, and was meant to be the last film in the series. It plays like a coda, a supposed return to what made the original movie so good to begin with. For one, John G. Avildsen returns to direct, after Sly handled directing duties in the previous three Rocky films. Sly, of course, still penned the screenplay.

The film picks up immediately following the fight with Ivan Drago. Rocky suffered neurological damage from the fight, and is forced to retire from boxing. In addition, he was conned into giving his accountant power of attorney. The accountant then lost all of Rocky’s dough while Rocky was overseas getting ready for the Drago fight. The house, the cars, and all the trappings of wealth are gone. Rocky is broke and forced to take his family back to the neighborhood in North Philly where they grew up.

Rocky’s wife Adrian and brother-in-law Paulie (Talia Shire and Burt Young) handle the transition well, but the change is tough on Rocky’s son, Robert (Sage Stallone), who was too young to remember life before Rocky was a champion.

Rocky settles into his new/old life, spending his day jabbering bits of life advice just like he did in the first film, and operating Mickey’s old boxing gym. It’s there that he meets a potential protégé by the name of Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison). Tommy is fresh off the bus from Oklahoma. He put all his meager savings into a desperate attempt to meet Rocky and get him to be his trainer.

As things tend to go in films like this, initial doubt gives way to a partnership. Rocky trains and manages Tommy, and Tommy begins to move up the heavyweight ranks.

Meanwhile, there is a bad guy in this flick. He is George Washington Duke (Richard Gant). Unlike the previous antagonists in Rocky films, Duke isn’t a fighter. He’s a promoter, and he seems unreasonably pissed off that Rocky retired and denied him a payday, so he undermines Rocky’s relationship with Tommy, maneuvering the two into the film’s final fight.

Also meanwhile, Rocky is neglecting his son, who is getting beat up at school on a regular basis. Robert desperately wants his father’s love. He emulates him wherever he can, eventually training in Mickey’s gym so he can dish out a little hurt to his bullies. Rocky is blind to how badly he is neglecting his relationship with his son, and he’s faced with the dual prospect of losing both his fighter and his family…on Christmas!

Wow, what a plot. That certainly wasn’t what was the matter with this film. Sly took the character in the right direction. There really wasn’t any way to top winning the Cold War. Other boxers just couldn’t represent enough adversity anymore. Taking all the material stuff away from Rocky and sending him crawling back to the old neighborhood was exactly what this movie needed. And for the old established characters of Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie, that all works pretty well. The players are comfortable in their characters’ skins, and know exactly what’s needed to play them well. Sly goes too far in resurrecting simpleminded Rocky, but there is a scene in the street where he blows his top and Adrian gives him the business, and that is good stuff. It’s a bright light in a movie that struggles at times to hold a viewer’s attention.

Sage Stallone and Tommy Morrison both had substantial roles in this film, and unfortunately they were a bit of a drag on it. Robert’s travails at school are uninteresting, and Tommy was a boxer, not an actor. Gant was a pro, but most of the time his character was too much. An evil bad guy tends to play better than a slimy one, and that makes the scenes with Gant hard to endure.

As for the boxing, having a real fighter helped out the realism substantially. There were even instances where punches actually landed. As the series went on, the distance between boxing glove and face continued to be reduced. Rocky may have been a great film, but the fights were basically long tableaus of Sonny Corleone phantom punches. No more.

Rocky V is not a bad movie. But it is mediocre. It takes the characters in satisfying directions, but there’s something about it that keeps it from engaging audience members like the earlier films. Maybe it’s the ridiculous, Don King-esque Duke. Maybe it’s Tommy Morrison reaching into the future and channeling Danny McBride. Maybe there just wasn’t a way to pull back effectively from Rocky IV. How does one follow up a fireworks show with a sparkler?

Whatever the reason, the people involved in making this film did all the right things, except make a good movie. This is the Rocky movie one watches because they’ve decided to watch all the Rocky movies and it doesn’t feel right to skip one.

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