ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review


ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review






Introduction

In the pantheon of Rocky movies, Rocky V (1990) is the unwanted stepchild. Even its writer/star Sylvester Stallone isn’t a fan of the way it closed the franchise (at that time). He laments that he should’ve (at least) ended the movie with a fight in the ring. For most, Rocky V is just too different. It strays from the franchise’s formula. Yet it’s those differences that are the film’s strengths, and the reason it deserves appreciation. Before looking at Rocky V in greater depth, though, let’s recap each movie.

The Other Movies

Rocky (1976) remains an unparalleled classic. It’s the story of an underdog who gets a one-in-a-million shot and pushes the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed, the distance. It’s not just the best Rocky movie, but also one of the best sporting movies there is.
Rocky
Sylvester Stallone is the lovable underdog Rocky Balboa in a scene from “Rocky” (1976).
Everything in Rocky works. Stallone as Rocky. Talia Shire, as the shy love interest, Adrian. Burt Young as the boorish friend Paulie. Carl Weathers as the charismatic undisputed heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Burgess Meredith as the irascible trainer Mickey Goldmill, and, of course, the fabulous and timeless score.
Rocky II (1979) is the inevitable sequel that marches to a predetermined conclusion. However, Stallone is smart enough to install enough twists that we remain engaged. By the time the title fight comes around, Rocky’s stakes have become so magnified that they humanize him to us. He’s married. He has a baby boy, and he has absolutely no other skills to make something of himself in this world. It’s a far cry from his life as a loan shark.
Rocky
Sylvester Stallone in a scene from “Rocky II” (1979).
Rocky III (1982) is a well-intentioned film. It’s the story of how a fighter copes once he’s gotten to the top, and has lost some of the hunger that made him a champ. The film is effectively one music video after another.
We get a recap of the Rocky II title fight. A montage of Rocky’s title defenses. A montage of Clubber Lang’s fights as he marches up the rankings. A boxer vs wrestler exhibition match against the wrestler Thunderlips (Hulk Hogan). Some training montages. A fight against Clubber. Some more training montages, and yet another fight against Clubber. Interspersed throughout is some dialogue that was probably written on a matchbook cover.
Rocky
Sylvester Stallone in a promotional shot for “Rocky III” (1982).
One of my other complaints about Rocky III is that given Rocky loses to Clubber Lang halfway through the movie, it’s hardly a surprise how the rematch will turn out. I always thought it would’ve worked better had Rocky withdrawn from the first title fight, vacated the title after Mickey’s death, and then decided to reclaim it as part of a spiritual journey in taking ownership of his life.
Rocky IV (1985) is the worst of the movies from a narrative standpoint. All the other movies tell a story about Rocky’s growth as a boxer, a husband, a father, and a person. However, Rocky IV is pure 1980s schlock. A film primarily focused on revenge. You can just imagine how the trailer could’ve been cut: “They killed his best friend …”
Rocky
An iconic shot from “Rocky IV” (1985).
Coming fifteen years after the release of Rocky V, Rocky Balboa aka Rocky VI  (2006) seems to be a superfluous entry. Although, apparently, the film is also something of Stallone’s apology for putting out Rocky V.
Widowed, and running a middle-class restaurant, Rocky struggles with where he fits in the world, and typically he can only find meaning in the ring. The champion, Dixon “The Line” Mason, is apparently so unbeatable that there are no legitimate challengers remaining. Well, until a computer boxing simulation that sees Rocky beat him dents his pride.
Rocky
Rocky, following the climactic fight in a scene from “Rocky Balboa” (2006).
All the movies are beautifully made. At the very least, they’re all enjoyable on a purely visceral level. All but Rocky IV try to say something about how we fit in the world, while both Rocky III and Rocky IV are more about the fight sequences than the story. They’re bubblegum action movies typical of 1980s fodder – enjoyable, but lacking the meat of the other movies.
Throughout the series, Stallone is brilliant at creating an (and one-upping the) antagonist. Who could possibly succeed Carl Weathers as the boisterous Apollo Creed? Enter Mr. T as the angry wrecking machine Clubber Lang. How could you possibly better Lang? Here comes Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago, a seven-foot Russian who’s the product of science and chemical engineering.
Rocky
Carl Weathers in a scene from “Rocky IV” (1985).
By the time Rocky Balboa comes around, larger-than-life opponents aren’t needed given Rocky’s age is the biggest challenger. Real-life light-heavyweight champion Antoni Tarver is given the job of playing the champ, Mason Dixon, a boxer who’s grown disenfranchised because he’s too good for the competition. He doesn’t need to be loud or oversized. He can just be, given Rocky has enough adversity to overcome.

The Bad about Rocky V

The premise of Rocky V is that Rocky loses all his money and assets due to a crooked accountant. Rocky has to move back to the old neighborhood, where he takes over Mickey’s gym, while Adrian goes back to her job at the pet store. When a young prospect, Tommy Gunn, entreats Rocky’s help, Rocky tries to step into the role of mentor and trainer, although the time and energy spent with his charge alienate him from his son.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Paulie (Burt Young) explains he signed a Power of Attorney over to Rocky’s crooked accountant.
The biggest problem here is Rocky’s bankruptcy. Stallone gives Rocky brain damage from the Drago fight, which prohibits him from exploring further boxing as a financial solution. But surely somebody with Rocky’s profile, somebody as beloved as Rocky, could get some cushy sponsorship gigs, some cushy commercials, some cushy commentary gigs, some cushy anything. He’s so beloved he’d probably get donations from his fans.
The story fleetingly references why he can’t go back into making commercials – apparently, it has something to do with his history in loansharking. Even back in the 1990s, surely that would’ve hardly excluded Rocky from making a living – especially since it hadn’t in Rocky II.
Rocky
Rocky attempts to make a commercial in a scene from “Rocky II” (1979).
Funnily, the story doesn’t actually need Rocky to be bankrupt to function, although it’s understandable that Rocky’s impoverishment increases the stakes and further justifies why he’d explore becoming a manager and a trainer, and why he does it at the sacrifice of the relationship with his own son.
But it could’ve been just as interesting had Rocky remained wealthy but out of touch with his roots, and his relationship with Tommy was a way of rediscovering what’s important to him. It could’ve been a commentary on how wealth doesn’t buy happiness.

Stallone’s Genius

All the other movies follow the same pattern: Rocky is pitted in a battle against a better-rated opponent. Stallone’s a genius in this regard – even when Rocky’s champion in Rocky III and Rocky IV, he still has to face opponents who are better fighters (Apollo twice, and the second time super focused), stronger (Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago), or both (Mason Dixon), delegating Rocky into his prize role of underdog.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Mr. T as Clubber Lang in a promotional shot for “Rocky III” (1982).
This is when sporting stories work: our protagonist has to be the underdog facing a seemingly unconquerable (and usually villainous) champion. That’s what makes the story compelling. That’s why we live vicariously through these characters – their pursuit of the impossible. If we flip the dynamic, where’s the tension? Nobody wants to see a champion defeating an inferior challenger.
It’s one thing that always bemused me in regard to another boxing movie in Southpaw (2015). Jake Gyllenhaal plays the undefeated champion, Billy Hope. When his wife is killed, his life unravels. After a series of mishaps, his daughter is then taken away from him, and Billy Hope must find a way to get back in the ring and win, securing his financial future, and proving that he is a fit to be a father and have his daughter returned to him.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Jake Gyllenhaal as Billy Hope in “Southpaw” (2015).
Outside of Billy Hope needing to rediscover his focus, why shouldn’t we believe he’ll win back the title? Prior to his wife’s death, he was the undefeated champion. He’s not some untrained talent like Rocky is in Rocky. He’s not seemingly too old, like Rocky is in Rocky III, or overmatched, like in Rocky IV. Billy Hope is the best in the freaking world!
Sports movies need to be David vs Goliath stories because as audiences seeking escapism through storytelling, we want and need to believe in something greater than everything we know. And that includes winning against all the odds.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago in a scene from “Rocky IV” (1985).

The Good about Rocky V

After John Avildsen directed the original Rocky, Stallone took over as director for the next three sequels. Avildsen returned for Rocky V, and immediately infused the movie with grit that the glamorous Rocky III and Rocky IV are lacking.
Rocky V also does something completely different from all the other movies – it’s no longer about Rocky the boxer. It’s about Rocky moving into a new phase of his life as a manager/trainer, learning how to handle this difficult personality in Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) while navigating boxing’s politics, and finding a way to reconnect with his estranged son.
Rocky
Director John Avildsen gives instructions to Sylvester Stallone on the set of “Rocky” (1976).
The main story is the classic master and apprentice story – it’s a well-used trope where the apprentice feels they’ve outgrown the master. Then you know they’re going to clash, and who will people side with? The brash young challenger? Or the lovable old master?
Tommy Morrison was a legitimate heavyweight who, until his life went awry, was actually rated up there with Mike Tyson as a boxing prospect. Morrison’s acting is earnest, a prototype of Mark Wahlberg, and his incarnation of Tommy Gunn comes across as callow, but it fits the character. You know he’ll get seduced by the riches boxing offers, and that he’ll inevitably face Rocky.
Rocky
Rocky training his young charge, Tommy Gunn, in a scene from “Rocky V” (1990).
It’s arguably the most novel and original storyline since the first movie and shows Rocky dealing with life post-boxing, and struggling to find how and where he fits. Ultimately, he realizes it’s not about wealth as long as he has what’s always been most important to him: family.

Yo, Adrian!

Something that is also worth mentioning is Talia Shire as Adrian. The character is often dismissed as little more than an accouterment to Rocky, whereas Creed’s partner, Bianca, in the Creed franchise is lauded for having her own career, etc. However, Adrian plays a vital role throughout the franchise.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Rocky and his son, Rocky Jr. (Stallone’s real-life son, Sage) in a scene from “Rocky V” (1990).
She is the heart of the Balboa family, the voice of reason, and always the person who is able to pick Rocky up and reorient him. While that might not sound important, she is pivotal in his success as a boxer and as a person. Without her, Rocky would end up a bum or a criminal. Her importance should not be downplayed.
In Rocky V, she gives her most heartfelt speech, pointing out to Rocky that while he sees himself in Tommy, while Rocky himself thought he could be like Mickey, what Tommy lacks is Rocky’s heart, and what’s of paramount importance is Rocky’s relationship with his rebellious son.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Adrian (Talia Shire) implores Rocky to reconnect with his son.

The Climactic Fight

Stallone laments the lack of a climactic fight in the boxing ring, but I love the street fight. Given that the story’s about roots and being true to oneself, it’s fitting that Rocky and Tommy Gunn settle their differences on the street.
This is the only fight in the Rocky franchise where Rocky doesn’t enter it as an underdog. Tommy is recognized as a paper champion, the beneficiary of a fix and Rocky’s retirement. Rocky is exalted as the real champion. It’s a nice narrative flourish we haven’t seen before. But the equalizer is Rocky battling with his brain damage.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Tommy faces Rocky in their climactic fight in a scene from “Rocky V” (1990).
When they initially fight on the street, Rocky pummels Tommy and accounts for him easily. Tommy’s comebacks always come when Rocky’s back is turned, showing him as underhanded and willing to do anything to win. He even figuratively (but perhaps also literally, too) stabs a former mentor in the back.
We get an inspiring flashback speech from Mickey that resurrects Rocky from the brink of defeat and then, given it’s a street fight, some genuine street-fighting moves from Rocky that finish Tommy. Rocky even gets to triumph over the evil boxing promoter.
Rocky
The iconic Burgess Meredith portrayed “Mickey” in the Rocky franchise.

The End That Wasn’t

One of the other issues with Rocky V that robs the narrative of its dramatic impetus (to an extent) is that it was originally meant to end with Rocky dying. The whole story is built to deliver that climax: we have the brain damage, the flashbacks that momentarily incapacitate Rocky, and the free-for-all on the street. Rocky was meant to die and put an end to the franchise, but the studio and Stallone grew worried about that as a narrative decision.
Stallone felt that the character was meant to be about “perseverance” and “redemption” so killing him in a brawl on the street would be counter-intuitive. Here’s our heroic character dying ignobly. But maybe there’s a message in that also – that we have to embrace change in our life rather than fight it, and stay true to what’s most important to us. You can only wonder how the story would be considered had that ending remained.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
Rocky defies death.

Conclusion

The means of bankrupting Rocky and keeping him impoverished is terrible. I’m sure wealthy people lose their fortunes in similar circumstances all the time. However, given Rocky’s profile, you’d think it would be a relatively easy fix without requiring him to reenter the boxing ring. But the rest of the story about an aging boxer whose health issues have retired him trying to find purpose through a student is a captivating one.
Also, Rocky never seems quite himself in Rocky III and Rocky IV. It’s as if his wealth has intellectualized and cultivated him, thus distancing him from the character we’ve grown to know and love. That’s not to say people don’t change. Yet, it does become a tale of two Rocky Balboas, with Rocky V presenting an incarnation that’s truer to the original movie.
ROCKY V (1990): A Retrospective Review
The statue tribute to Rocky Balboa in Philidelphia, PA.
The other movies also never really deal with the politics outside the ring – about as close as we get is Apollo Creed trying to find a stopgap opponent for the original title fight. That’s it. In Rocky V, we see a powerful and conniving promoter, George W. Duke (an awesomely charismatic and slimy Richard Gant, playing an obvious rip of boxing promoter Don King) manipulating the sport to try to finagle a big Rocky Balboa payoff.
Rocky V isn’t a perfect movie, but in the pantheon of Rocky movies, it deserves a lot more love than it gets. Even from Sylvester Stallone. And I’m prepared to challenge him to a street fight to get him to change his mind.

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