By David Litton
January 6, 2004
Okay, so it’s not as good as the first four films, but Rocky V makes some pretty good leaps and bounds over the hollow cave that was Rocky IV. In that typical fashion, this fifth outing begins with clips from the previous movie’s climactic duel between Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and Soviet Ivan Drago, who went down hard, but not before leaving Rocky with permanent damage to his head that we soon learn will prevent him from entering the ring ever again. Returning to what they think will be a pleasant retirement, Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire) arrive home to find that their assets have been fraudulently signed over to a swindling financial advisor; they soon find themselves living in the old neighborhood, with Rocky working the old gym. Through this he meets Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), an aspiring boxer in whom he takes a more-than-professional interest, much to the dismay of his own son (Sage Stallone). But Tommy is soon set upon by the hungrier business managers that make up much of the industry, and before you can say “Touch me and I’ll sue,” it’s an all-out street fight.
Believe it or not, there are far more returns for one’s investment of time and money than you might expect from the fifth entry into a franchise that almost hit the coffin with its fourth chapter. In essence, Rocky V is like a greatest hits collection of all the elements of the best of the Rocky films: director John G. Avildsen, who first brought the characters to the screen in 1976, comes back for this match, and not only returns the film to its roots in terms of setting, but also in regards to the characters. Now that Rocky has a grown son, he must contend with the bitterness held against him by his offspring, who is jealous of the time he spends with his apprentice. No, it doesn’t have the same appeal as watching the once-great boxer duke it out with his own personal demons, but it does have its perks, and that final battle between teacher and student is grimy, dirty, and just plain kick-ass, however cheap it may be. If this is the end of the Rocky films, then this isn’t the worst way to go out.
By Ron Schnell
November 25, 1990
Rocky V (Sylvester Stallone, writer, Michael S. Glick, Executive Producer) has gotten a lot of press as the “last” of the Rocky movies. It is certainly one of the best. After Rocky (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, 1976 Academy Awards), none of the sequels really had the same kind of “feel” about them. After seeing Rocky V the reason becomes clear. Rocky V is directed by John G. Avildsen, who has not directed another Rocky since Rocky. Mr. Avildsen has the ability to direct people so gently, and to direct action so forcefully, that the effect on the audience is quite stirring. Mr. Stallone’s new found love for comedy is also evident in this film.
Rocky V starts where Rocky IV left off, which has been the case in all of the Rocky films. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) has just finished knocking out the Russian boxer/killer and flies home to meet the press and face his next challenge. The first thing one notices hearing Rocky talk is that dumb-sounding, slurring voice that we have all come to know. Only this time it is noticeably dumber-sounding, as are the things Rocky says. What we eventually find out is that Rocky has sustained damage to his brain, which will prevent him from ever being licensed to fight again (in the United States). This is a similar problem to one found in Rocky II, in which doctors tell Rocky that he will never be able to fight again without risking blindness. Somehow though, director Avildsen really makes us believe that this will be the end of Rocky as a boxer. To make matters worse, a crooked accountant has lost all of Rocky’s money and house and leaves him destitute. If not for the pleading and crying of Rocky’s wife Adrian (Talia Shire), he would have immediately gone back in to the ring, probably risking his life. Rocky must retire and dedicate himself to figuring out a way to support his wife and son Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone). Rocky Jr. is now of grade-school age and will have to move back to the projects of Philadelphia. Eventually, Rocky meets up with a young fighter from Oklahoma named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison), who wants Rocky to train him to be a heavyweight contender. This movie is about the conflicts between all of these characters, a Don King-type fight promoter named George W. Duke (Richard Gant), and Rocky’s strong desire to get back in to the ring so that he can give his family the life they deserve.
Rocky V marks the serious acting debut of both Sage Stallone, and Tommy Morrison. Sage is one of two of Sylvester Stallone’s sons by ex-wife Sasha Stallone. After seeing his performance in this film, there is no question that we will be seeing him again. His natural talent for acting could be described as better than his father’s. Perhaps it is due to the fact that he is playing a character who has many similarities to himself. Tommy Morrison was chosen to play the part of Tommy Gunn, solely based on his ability as a boxer, not as an actor. After seeing the film, I do not think that this was a good risk. His acting could not be described as much better than poor, and it is tough not to laugh when he speaks. For those of you who do not like rap music, be prepared to sit through a couple of long raps during action scenes. It’s a lot different from the “Rocky Theme,” or “Frank Stallone Jr.,” or “Survivor” (all music from previous Rockys). A closing credits song by Elton John is sure to get a lot of airplay from this movie. Background music is still done by Bill Conti. Burt Young returns to play his role of Paulie. He seems right at home returning to the slums, and pulls no punches in trying to bring Rocky to reality.
I found myself really feeling for Rocky for the entire movie. His situation is both believable and moving. As in all sequels, I walked in thinking, “This had better be the last one.” But as in all Rocky sequels (except maybe Rocky IV which I viewed as terrible), I walked out thinking, “Another one wouldn’t be that bad.”
By Mark O’Hara
Just like the three sequels before it, Rocky V opens with a rehash of the last chapter. We see the robotic Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) beating up on Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), before Rocky finally gathers the mental fortitude to snap back and floor the perfectly-conditioned giant. The sequence is extremely contrived, of course, the chronology of the fight tinkered with so that all of Rocky’s comeback punches seem to come in an awesome few seconds.
This is one of the pluses that the underrated Rocky V brings to fans of the series. Director John G. Avildsen – who collected an Oscar for directing the very first installment – along with script writer Stallone, borrow liberally from the foundation built by the four other outings. We get to see everyone and everything again – manager Mickey Goldmill, opponent-turned-friend Apollo Creed, even the black hat and duds worn by Rocky during his days working for a loan shark on the Philadelphia docks. We see Rocky’s staunch supporters peopling the streets of the Italian market, as well as the statue (from Rocky III) atop the steps of the temple-like Philadelphia Museum of Art. It’s not necessary to have watched numbers one through four in order to understand this closing chapter, but it makes for more enjoyment.
Here’s the story: Rocky is injured in the battle with the rock-faced Russian Drago, invoking late manager Mick’s memory that something is “broken inside.” Mysteriously, Rocky never seeks a doctor’s help. (In fact, there is always a scarcity of promoters and press and especially medical personnel around Rocky’s fights, considering they are supposed to be huge spectacles.) Not until wife Adrian (Talia Shire) coaxes Rocky into a CAT scan does he discover the brain injury that could end his life. Meanwhile, Don King-like promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) attracts loads of attention with his mouth and his challenge for Rocky: give a title shot to my contender, Union Cane. Rocky is sorely tempted, but Adrian keeps him from committing to any further matches. What’s especially hard, though, is Rocky’s financial condition, a key component in the plot. It seems Paulie inadvertently had Rocky sign a paper giving power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant. You guessed it – the guy invests the champ’s millions and quickly loses them.
Predictability aside, Rocky’s monetary ruin opens the story to compelling originality. His estate auctioned off, Rocky moves his family into the South Philly rowhouse that he and Adrian bought as newlyweds. We see some charming scenes with son Robert and Rocky kidding around, the boy showing great intelligence to Rocky’s punchy and slangy style. But Rocky is a good father, warning Robert about ways to act in the public school he must attend in the new neighborhood of “urban blight.”
At least Rocky is a good father until a new young fighter comes all the way from Oklahoma to ask Rocky’s guidance. At first reluctant, Rocky grows to like the chance at still being in the ring, at least vicariously, through Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). The retired champ is flattered that he might establish a father-son relationship like the one Rocky had with Mick. And they are successful together, much of Rocky’s gut-punching greatness rubbing off on the young blonde pugilist. The main question we want answered is how long can Tommy stand being called Rocky’s boy? How long will it be before the honey-tongued Duke lures Tommy over into his own slick side of the boxing game?
Humor contributes a lot to Rocky V. We still have Burt Young as Rocky’s brother-in-law, a rummy hanger-on, a clichéd bumbling but lovable uncle to Rocky and Adrian’s son Robert (Stallone’s real-life son Sage Stallone). And there’s the wonderful exaggerated tone created by characters like George Washington Duke, the biggest ham since Apollo, and some over-the-top fight scenes that create as much laughter as fascination.
One of the most engaging parts of any Rocky film is the montage. “V” uses the technique well to tell a number of stories within the subplots. We watch Rocky with protégé Tommy Gunn, training and coaching and mentoring, while Rocky’s son Robert seeks attention but is shunned. Because we’ve seen how close father and son really are, this drifting apart forms a serious threat to Rocky’s success story: it’s clear that his family, such as it is, has always been more important to Rock than anything concerning the square circle. Yes, it is overkill when Adrian says, “You’re losing your family,” but sometimes the big palooka needs a message to hit him square in the face. My favorite sequence happens during a street fight. Rocky is down and apparently out, flashes of memory adding to his trauma: Ivan Drago’s glare, his mouthpiece looking like steel teeth; Mick’s gravelly voice belting out words of inspiration; a grainy shot of Rocky, eyes swollen shut, bright red blood poured suddenly over his face. Avildsen has added some artful and gritty images here to explore Rocky’s plight. Even though Rocky’s most dangerous weapon has always been his heart, how will he overcome the twinges of fear – and more directly, the brain damage – inflicted during combat with the Russian in the climax of Rocky IV?
A brilliant stroke brings back Rocky’s deceased manager Mickey; Burgess Meredith does a memorable cameo that ends up being one of the strongest scenes in the piece. Bankrupt and disheartened, Rocky returns to the old gym where Mick first tutored him. Mick willed it to Robert years before, and now Rock stands in the great dusty room and goes back into his memory to conjure Mick during a private moment just before Rocky fought Creed in the fluke title bout. One can tell Meredith is 14 years older than he was in the 1976 Rocky, but his veteran skills save the scene from being too sentimental, and help to provide Rocky with the incentive he needs to enter the other end of boxing.
Even though this final installment of Rocky is ten years old, its themes strike home as very relevant. Many of my students are inspired not only by Rocky’s attitude and gutsy styles of training, but also by Bill Conti’s music, an essential part of each film. There’s something mythical about the whole thing, the main plot lines involving glamorous rises and heart-breaking falls, underdogs overcoming high odds, father-son relations that are fatal or benevolent. For fans of the Rocky franchise, Rocky V should be viewed carefully and not discounted as one of the best.