Rocky V was not, to put it mildly, well-received. I came to this series late, and after hearing so many bad things about this movie in advance, I was expecting the worst. What I found is that I actually really enjoy this installment. It is definitely one of the weaker entries to the series, but for all its flaws it is still a good film. In fact, with the exception of Rocky Balboa, Rocky V is the most faithful and ambitious of the sequels.
Everyone loves an underdog story, but it’s difficult to keep a character on that side of things after winning the fight at the end of four consecutive movies. Rocky V makes the sensible decision to return our hero to a similar position to how we found him in the original. It’s a course correction to make a fifth entry not feel stale, as we suddenly discover that Paulie had signed power of attorney over to their accountant, who in turn had squandered all of their money. This would feel rushed if it wasn’t for the previous characterisations of Paulie as a reckless man, and Rocky as the most trusting person in the universe. It’s a return of sorts, as Rocky feels more like he should – a sincere, dumb, and passive man who loves his fellow man but is often ignorant of his surroundings. It’s heart-warming to see his jokes and incessant talking return, something that was mostly absent in the last two entries. Paulie is toned down a little too, and feels more three-dimensional rather than simply comic relief. Some of his exchanges with Rocky are wonderful returns to the characters of the original (“Cojones is Latin for Spanish nuts”).
The movie is a return to the roots of the series in other ways too – bringing John G. Avildsen back as director; respect and dignity being the prize, any particular championship being unimportant in itself. We are given the charm and humour in certain scenes, but it is still a story about repercussions, and we see our hero at his worst physical state in the opening scenes, reeling from a fight that he never should have been in. There is also a focus on Rocky and his attempts to repair the relationship with his son, and come to terms with where he is in life. This isn’t just a re-tread of the same story beats of the first film, but a new story with a particularly inventive structure. At first, the expectation is that Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) will be his successor, and Rocky will help him win the title in the same way he did. Instead, Rocky is dropped as a trainer in favour of George Washington Duke (Richard Grant), and Tommy wins the Heavyweight title without Rocky.
While Tommy makes the gradual transformation from nobody, to fighter, to antagonist, Rocky’s relationship with his son Robert (Stallone’s son, Sage) comes under duress. Robert is not a brawler, and their different worlds and personalities clash. Robert apes his father’s behaviour by fighting at school, but eventually ends up rejecting this approach and deviating from his father’s path. Rocky acting as a surrogate father of sorts to Tommy comes at an already difficult transitional time for the family, and its Rocky’s aforementioned ignorance that allows his son to stray. This focus on family dynamics grounds the series in emotion once again, something that had waned slightly as the series went on. Rocky watching Tommy’s title fight on the television has more emotional weight and complexity to it than anything in the series’ previous entry, as he strikes his punching bag in time with the blows, almost involuntarily. He can’t help but connect to a man who has rejected him, while unbeknownst to him, his son sits next to him craving the same attention. Adrian does notice, however, and the script makes use of this new situation to find new avenues of their marriage to explore. After being short-changed a little in the last few films, Talia Shire gets to shine again; not just as the silent wife at the side-lines, but the crux of the entire series.
Tommy Gunn’s first fight is introduced to us beginning with a pullback from a mural of Jesus over the boxing ring, mirroring the first shot of Rocky. We are told right away that he is the new underdog, the new incarnation of Rocky – but as the film continues we see that despite the fact they have similar beginnings, they are not the same person at all. Tommy is a well-written character, an explosion of rage in the ring coming from a place of childhood abuse. It’s an interesting notions to show that with a few wrong decisions and a lack of heart, Rocky could have gone down this same road – a winner but not a good man. Through Tommy’s transition into a villain, we are reminded why Rocky is the hero of the story, why we are still watching him five entries in. While the writing is mostly there, it is unfortunately not always executed very well. Morrison doesn’t have the charisma of other opponents like Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang, and so a lot of major opportunities are missed.
For all that it does well, Rocky V is a deeply flawed movie. The return of composer Bill Conti after his absence in Rocky IV is a welcome one, but some of the new hip-hop-infused compositions are a little cringe-worthy, while MC Hammer’s tracks feel completely out of place. It’s an attempt to cement the film’s place in the 90s that just doesn’t work. Amidst the realism there are splashes of absurd moments that aren’t fun in the same way that Rocky III was, but instead confusing for and alienating towards the audience. The press conferences seem to take place on another planet, with basic rules of interaction going out the window to fast-track the drama. Speaking of the ridiculous, George Washington Duke is introduced as a villainous and money-driven manager competing for the affection of Tommy. He isn’t believable as a person, and even his heightened, cartoonish personality doesn’t add any excitement to the proceedings. He quickly becomes grating, and is a clear indicator of the film’s poor pacing. Duke’s attempts to recruit Rocky at first are dragged out over several long scenes, which diminishes Rocky’s arc and distracts from the other interesting ideas at play.
One of the most disappointing aspects surrounding the movie is that Sylvester Stallone himself has disowned Rocky V, claiming he made it out of greed. But, had he made it simply out of greed, Rocky V would have been another re-hash of the story told in Rocky IV, where the hero has no arc and there is no ambition or change. The general negative reaction that Rocky V received from critics and fans baffles me, though there are some possible explanations. In fandom, there tends to be a conflict between what we superficially want versus what we need in a narrative. Rocky V resisted most of the iconography of the series, shook off its familiar structure, and refused to let Rocky win the championship once again. It’s a sharp turn away from what audiences expected, and so it needed to be pulled off with a greater degree of success for it to be given a chance. Sixteen years later, Stallone would follow up this film with Rocky Balboa, an excellent movie that that plays with similar ideas. In the end it’s something that hurts its predecessor, as most of what works in V is done better in Balboa.
Still, Rocky V is an important entry into the series, and a valiant attempt at maturing the story. Had this been the final Rocky movie, it would have had a fitting end. The last fight is full of emotion; seeing the usually passive and calm hero transforming his feelings of betrayal and defeat into rage is gripping. At this point he’s literally fighting on the streets, for the people and for his own self-respect. Ultimately, his win means something again. And afterwards, when Rocky and his son reconcile, not forcing change on one another but attempting to share their different worlds; Robert takes his father to the Philadelphia Museum of Art that sits on top of those famous steps. We are then given one of the most beautiful, funny, and pure Rocky conversations of the series:
Rocky: I been runnin’ up and down these steps for years. And I never knew there was valuable pictures in this building.
Robert: You’re never too old to learn somethin’ new. You’re gonna love Picasso.
Rocky: Oh, yeah. Well, I love almost everybody.