Rocky V is nobody’s favorite Rocky movie. Even Sylvester Stallone regrets it, telling The Sun (via Express) “it was a mistake.’ Stallone redeemed his trademark franchise 16 years later with Rocky Balboa, but its predecessor is better than its reputation.
[Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for Rocky V.]
The 30th anniversary of Rocky V’s release on Nov. 16, 1990 seems like a good opportunity to defend the film. It may be compromised, but what it’s trying to do is worthwhile enough to appreciate the effort. Because if its reputation, Rocky V is now the ultimate underdog of the underdog series.
Sylvester Stallone has his heart in the right place in ‘Rocky V’
Picking up right after his fight with Ivan Drago, Rocky Balboa (Stallone) has now suffered enough brain damage from his boxing career that one more fight could kill him. At the same time, the Balboas lose all their money. Paulie (Burt Young) signed Power of Attorney before leaving for Russia, and the accountaint made some bad real estate investments with the Balboas’ money (very prescient of the 2008 financial crisis and housing market, so it retroactively gives this film more relevance.)
Rocky can’t make back his fortune fighting, so he moves his family back to Philadelphia. He reopens Mickey (Burgess Meredith)’s gym and starts training a promising new fighter, Tommy Gunn (real boxer Tommy Morrison). Perhaps four years after the bombastic ’80s glory of Rocky IV, fans no longer wanted to see a down on his luck palooka. Maybe you just can’t go home again, or maybe Stallone was just trying too hard to return to the franchise’s Oscar-winning roots.
The Philadelphia setting is lovely, especially around the holidays. Adrian (Talia Shire) going back to work at J&M Tropical Fish seems a bit of a stretch. Returning to the scrappy roots of the character and the series doesn’t mean resetting everything back to the way it was. Adrian’s old glasses even make an appearance. At least he doesn’t take her ice skating again, and he doesn’t teach Tommy to punch meat or chase chickens. He does put his old jacket and hat back on, which he’d keep through the Creed movies.
‘Rocky V’ still has universal life lessons
Training Tommy seems to give Rocky life and energy. He teaches Tommy to fight and Tommy earns his way up the boxing ranks. It helps his profile that his manager is legendary fighter Rocky Balboa, and that stirs up a little resentment in Tommy. It’s twofold. Yes, Tommy is putting in the work, but nobody does anything alone. His ultimate betrayal speaks to a greater truth.
Tommy eventually signs with a Don King-like agent George W. Duke (Richard Gant), using all of Rocky’s lessons to make more money. Rocky can’t comprehend it. He asks how could this happen when he taught Tommy everything he knows? Adrian puts it in perspective, “He doesn’t have your heart.”
That is a relevant theme. You can teach someone how to succeed, but you can’t give them your ethics. Nobody can mold another Rocky. You have to be born with it. It’s a tough lesson for any mentor to learn, let alone one with as genuine a heart as Rocky Balboa. He would find another young fighter who did have the right spirit to benefit from his training in Creed which also retroactively makes this better. Not all trainees are Tommy Gunn.
A love letter to Sylvester Stallone’s son
By 1990, Sage Stallone was old enough to play Rocky Jr. It seems like Stallone is so happy to have his real son in the movie, it permeates the film. From the moment he greets his son at the airport to the end when he says, “Thank you for being born,” it just seems like the real Sly talking to the real Sage.
The story is that Rocky neglects his son while training Tommy, but even when Rocky is oblivious, Sly seems to exude joy at having Sage on the set with him. Even when they’re not in scenes together, the fact that Sage has his own subplot with the kids of Philadelphia feels like Sly letting his son shine.
The Rocky movies paralleled Stallone’s career trajectory too. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to see Rocky V as a bit of an apology to Sage from Sly for maybe being so focused on his career in the ’80s. Rocky has to learn to focus on his son, but that might be Sly focusing on Sage after a decade of globe trotting, Hollywood success. Rocky reconnects with his son in the movie and they’re making a movie together in real life. And if it’s not autobiographical, it’s still a relevant theme for a Rocky movie.
Time was not kind to the music
The most jarring part of Rocky V is the 1990s rap music. The ’80s music of parts III and IV remains timeless but Stallone really misjudged what would endure in the ’90s. The rap soundtrack interrupts the Bill Conti score. A leaked work print that uses only Conti’s music shows that it would’ve resonated more.
But training Tommy to “Go For It” by Joey B. Ellis and Tynetta Hare doesn’t inspire the way “Eye of the Tiger” or “Burning Heart” did, let alone “Gonna Fly Now.” Stallone was correct that music was moving towards hip-hop, but calling the music they selected a nice try would be generous at best. A rap mix of Frank Stallone’s “Take You Back” may be the most misguided way to update a song from the original.
The film does end with an excellent song, Elton John singing “Measure of a Man,” written by Alan Menken. It is a proud anthem to Rocky stepping up to be the father his son needs. Unfortunately, the negative impression of the film, not to mention the overbearing rap songs filling the rest of the soundtrack, overshadowed John and Menken’s song. Whatever your feelings about part five, give “Measure of a Man” a listen. It’s only $.99 on iTunes.
‘Rocky V’ could have been worse
The original plan for was for Rocky to die in his fight with Tommy. Fortunately, the studio stepped in and said, “Rocky can’t die.” Stallone and director John G. Avildsen may have felt that gave the movie a Hollywood ending, but this time the studio was right. Avildsen told Mandatory the sentiment would be that Rocky’s spirit would live on in people believing in themselves.
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Rocky doesn’t always have to win. Often the point is just giving it your best shot and going the distance. However, Rocky is always inspirational. If he dies, that’s too much of a downer no matter how you spin it. Plus, it lacks creativity. After five movies the only way you can think to end is death? If Rocky V had been irreversible, then it really would have been the worst one. Plus, the ending with Sly and Sage is more touching.
That leaked work print does have a slightly more satisfying resolution to Rocky and Tommy. They shake hands after their street fight, which is more in the spirit of Rocky not holding grudges, but maybe the studio demanded a full comeuppance for Tommy too.
Stallone may have been correct about returning the series to Philly, but he got it right in Rocky Balboa. In Rocky V, he was observant about the influence of Don Kings on the sport and the perils of mentorship. Hopefully those persist despite the negativity felt towards Rocky V even by its creator.
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