Directed by: John G. Avildsen
Premise: Rocky discovers he has brain damage that prevents him from fighting all the while a crooked accountant has depleted his fortune. The Balboa family returns to the old Philadelphia neighborhood where Rocky begins training hungry young fighter Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison).
What Works: Rocky V is a much maligned film and while there are good reasons for that, it should be said that the first hour of this picture is actually pretty good. After the slick and substance-free Rocky IV, the filmmakers step back and attempt to reconnect with the roots of the series. Sylvester Stallone writes and stars but filmmaker John G. Avildsen, who helmed the original movie, returns to the director’s chair. In the interim between the first and fifth Rocky pictures, Avildsen had directed The Karate Kid trilogy, and he was an experienced hand at this kind of story. Rocky V reconstructs the streetwise tone of the original picture and the filmmakers come up with a mostly credible way of putting Rocky and his family back in the urban setting. In the process, the picture also redirects the values of the series. The first Rocky was about the soul of the American Dream but the saga gradually become more materialistic. The middle films substituted soulfulness for avarice in which success and self-worth were defined by the number of cars in the driveway. That materialism was part of the appeal of the series and Rocky’s financial success was alluring to the core audience. For this installment to take all of that away is a bold creative decision. The change of priorities forms the basis for this storyline which breaks out of the Rocky formula. The fifth film finds the Italian Stallion on the other side of the rope, training prospective boxers instead of fighting himself. It’s a logical direction for the series to go and it allows the movie to present a different kind of story with a new kind of villain. The heavy of Rocky V is George Washington Duke, a Don King-like promoter played with terrific relish by Richard Gant. As Rocky takes a promising fighter under his wing, Duke circles like a vulture, eventually sweeping in and corrupting Rocky’s protégé with the promise of fame and fortune. To that point, Rocky V is a strong entry in the series.
What Doesn’t: The problem with Rocky V is that once all of the simmering conflicts boil over the filmmakers have no idea what to do about them. While he trains Tommy Gunn, Rocky alienates his teenage son (Sage Stallone) and both young men eventually walk out on him. That’s a compelling turn of events but the filmmakers have written themselves into a narrative corner. Rocky’s reconciliation with his son is too easy—it’s like a resolution from a television sitcom—and it negates the whole subplot. The film gets worse as it forces a street fight between Rocky and Tommy that makes no sense and stupidly implies that Rocky is able to overcome brain damage by an act of sheer will. The finale simply doesn’t resolve anything and it leaves the viewer unsatisfied. In its attempt to reconnect with the gritty style of the original Rocky, the filmmakers try too hard. It would be one thing for Rocky to become penniless but the fact that he ends up on the same streets in the same clothes with Adrian working in the same pet shop is all too much. In 1976 Rocky was a character of his time but by 1990 he was an anachronism. The attempt to recapture the tone of the original film also goes wrong in a technical way. The original Rocky was a low budget affair that was gritty and naturalistic. The cinematography of Rocky V is somewhere between that and a slick Hollywood production. The lighting is too bright and the imagery is too polished. The clumsy nostalgia of this movie and its artificial style neutralizes the effort to be organic. Instead the movie comes across disingenuous.
DVD extras: The edition of Rocky V released in “The Heavyweight Collection” has a number of special features but none that are particular to this installment.
Bottom Line: Rocky V is an admirable failure. This film is an attempt to tell a different story and move its characters into a new phase of their lives but it does that by going backwards instead of forwards. It devises a compelling premise and then utterly fouls it up.
Episode: #623 (November 27, 2016)