Rocky V (1990) / Drama-Action

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and language
Running Time: 104 min.

Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Tommy Morrison, Sage Stallone, Burt Young, Richard Gant, Burgess Meredith, Tony Burton, James Gambina, Delia Sheppard, Michael Williams
Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone
Review published December 23, 2006

What kind of fairy tale would it be if the Prince divorced Cinderella and she lived the rest of her life in servitude of her stepfamily again?  Probably not a story anyone wants to hear.

Most fans of Rocky III and Rocky IV disown Rocky V, and while there is a noticeable downgrade in quality that is evident, I do believe that it is overly maligned by many series fans.  It's clear that Stallone (Over the Top, Rambo II) wasn't quite happy with where the series stood after the most commercially successful (in terms of gross anyway) of the four previous films, Rocky IV, and wanted to end the Rocky saga going back to where it all started.  To do so, he hired original Rocky director John G. Avildsen (The Karate Kid, WW and the Dixie Dancekings), took away Rocky's wealth, and returned him to the exact same south Philly neighborhood we found him in when we first met him.

I guess the biggest problem with this idea comes from fan expectation.  Seeing Rocky go from complete loser to the top of the world was a heartwarming story, showing that inner strength and determination can yield great results, even when the world seems bleak and uncaring.  Even if the series had gone astray from the themes and characterizations of the first film somewhat, we could still identify with Rocky, knowing that he was once a nobody like us.  Despite the fact that he is always threatened with losing it all, we don't want to see him do so, unless he's going to gain it all back again. 

In this entry we find Rocky Balboa shivering in the locker room after his decisive victory against Ivan Drago, apparently suffering from some sort of brain damage incurred from the beating he took during the fight.  He returns to the United States victorious, but an unscrupulous boxing promoter named George Washington Duke (Gant, obviously patterned after real-life boxing promoter Don King) wants his fighter, Union Cane (Williams), to have a crack at a championship bout.  Unfortunately, Rocky's doctors sternly warn him that he could be permanently disabled if his brain condition gets worse, and with his wife Adrian's (Shire, The Godfather Part II) insistence, Balboa is forced to retire.  Sadly, it seems that Rocky and his family won't be retiring in style, as a sleazy accountant has made unethical dealings with his money, leaving Rocky virtually bankrupt.  He could take Duke up on his offer and make millions, but can't risk losing his health and his family in the process.

Enter Tommy Gunn (Morrison), a hungry fighter from Oklahoma that reminds Rocky of who he once was.  Rocky sees a chance to stay in the boxing world as Tommy's manager, but the time he spends in training has made his son, Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone, Sly's real-life son) feel betrayed, especially during a time of great change and tumult.  Once again trying to balance his career and his family life forces Rocky into a crisis, further compounded by problems arising from Duke's continued pressure to get him back in the ring for a title fight.

Using boxing terms, I would call judge Rocky V as a split decision, but not quite in its favor.  Being such a schizophrenic experience, I feel the need to separate what I like vs. what I didn't in terms of my overall review.

The good

I admire the chance taking involved with this entry in the series, especially since there must have been a great deal of pressure to continue the formula of Rocky fighting progressively more dangerous opponents.  Clubber Lang was a bit larger than life (although after Mike Tyson's emergence later, he doesn't seem so far off the mark) but Ivan Drago was just short of Rocky facing The Terminator.  It would be preposterous to imagine Rocky being challenged by someone more formidable, and at the same time, anything less would probably be anticlimactic.  Given the returns on the film, a sequel was inevitable, and the fact that Stallone wanted to recapture some of the innocence and heart of the original film is admirable.

Despite the fact that few fans really ever wanted to see Rocky lose it all, Stallone's grasp of the character is very much in line with what he wrote in the first film.  Somewhere in the last couple of films, Rocky had turned from a daft but loveable lug into a hard-headed but successful champion.  He seemed to get smarter and more observant as the series progressed, despite taking a tremendous beating to the head in every bout.  If nothing else, the old Rocky is back in Rocky V, and even if he is penniless, it's nice to see that Stallone remembers what it was about the character that we all liked.

While the main plot of the film is certainly contrived, it is still competently handled, with good casting in nearly every prominent role.  Real-life boxer Tommy Morrison gives a commendable debut performance (his only speaking role in a feature film), and Richard Gant (Nutty Professor II, The Freshman) steals many of the scenes he is in, giving a nearly pitch perfect imitation of Don King.  As a commentary on the state of boxing and how it is controlled by shady deals and avaricious promoters, this is a more inside look into the business of sports than previous entries, and though pessimistic, it feels right on target.

The bad

Stallone probably watched the original Rocky and Rocky II numerous times in trying to remember where the film series started, and he tried to recapture the essence of just who Rocky Balboa truly is.  Unfortunately, after the last two Rocky sequels featured a sharper and more macho Rocky, it's just too jarring to see a reboot of his character to his original state again, even if you can dismiss the inconsistency as a condition of his brain damage.  Given that fans of the series probably rewatch Rocky III and IV the most in their collection, and many watch IV right before watching V, it's hard to resolve how much of a doofus he is by comparison in this sequel. 

If Stallone went back to watch the original Rocky for inspiration for this film, it doesn't seem like John G. Avildsen did the same.  Although it is clear that Rocky V didn't have a large budget to work with, neither did Rocky and it still felt like a big movie.  The film texture, the sets, the press conferences and bouts all feel like they come from a made-for-TV production, very unlike the original film. 

Stallone's son Sage is OK as Rocky Jr., although it is difficult to resolve that he has aged considerably from the previous film, despite the movie supposedly taking place directly after the events of Rocky IV.  While I don't have a problem with his average performance, the silly dangling earring he adopts when in "rebellious" mode is laughable.  In fact, I would have done away with most of the scenes involving Rocky Jr. altogether, as they tend to bog down the momentum of the overall action film into the realm of standard family drama.

Not a huge factor, but it merits mentioning: the soundtrack, with its concerted new jack swing/MC Hammer hipness factor, is very hard on today's ears.

The final decision

Rocky V is mostly ignored by series fans precisely because it virtually wipes away all of the fairy tale glory that made us feel so good about his story.  I suppose that's why Stallone chose to revisit the series yet again in 2006 with Rocky Balboa, in an effort to not leave the series with a sour taste in everyone's mouths.  (We want a happy ending, dammit!)

While it's good to have the Rocky of old back into the series, it comes at too high a cost, such that it has became the least favorite film among most of those that have seen all five.  Perhaps knowing that Rocky Balboa corrects the would-be fatal error on Stallone's part will finally restore interest in this film once again, as it really isn't nearly as bad as its reputation, despite being a far cry from the inspirational, beautiful story that we were all enchanted by in the Rocky debut of 1976.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo