I go back and forth on Rocky V. When I first saw it as a kid, I hated it. Then I rewatched it in my late teens and actually found it to be surprisingly complex and emotional, especially in comparison to Rocky IV which is less a progression of the Rocky saga than a purely visual and adrenalin fuelled extravaganza of 80s filmmaking trends.
There’s definitely a sense that Stallone really had a story to tell with this one though. Released almost five years after its predecessor, Rocky V is clearly an attempt to bring things to a conclusion by taking the character back to his roots. Gone are the huge mansions, comic book villains and lavish backdrops of the last few sequels. Instead we’re back on the mean streets of Philadelphia as the Italian Stallion finds himself broke and unable to fight due to a medical issue. This series has always been a character study at its core but it quickly sidelined that focus in favour of excess as the sequels became increasingly bombastic. While all that stuff is undoubtedly entertaining, the soul of the original film was being gradually diminished as a result. So, Stallone’s decision to strip away all the glam and money, courtesy of a pretty silly and contrived Paulie fuck-up, makes sense in theory but is ultimately a bit misjudged in execution.
The director of the original Rocky, John G. Avildsen, returns here to add an extra layer of things coming full circle. Maybe Stallone wanted to focus more on his performance, or maybe he was just too busy being one of the biggest movie stars in the world to direct this too. Who knows? The crux of the film is Rocky’s relationship with his son, which is a nice attempt to broaden the focus from just Rocky and Adrian and take into account the bigger family as well as crystallising the “Fathers and sons” theme which runs throughout the series into something literal. Then of-course there’s the surrogate son of Tommy Gunn, the young boxing upstart who’s trying to be the next Rocky Balboa.
I like the idea of all this stuff; Rocky vs. his bank balance, going back to having nothing, dealing with the embarrassment as well as seeing all the familiar tropes spun on their head (I especially enjoyed seeing a climactic fight where Rocky isn’t taking part but actually watching it at home on a TV – a nice spin on the ending of Rocky II). But somehow it all ends up feeling a bit like an episode of a soap opera past its prime.
Stallone was never the most subtle, nuanced storyteller, instead preferring to tackle his themes and ideas head on rather them burying them under metaphor or facial expressions – an approach well suited to these films and the audience they’re catering for might I add. So here, when things get especially dramatic, they come across as heavy handed and inelegant. The big problem is Tommy Morrison who might have the physical requirements of a sassy boxing prodigy but is rather hammy in the acting department. He’s more memorable for his mullet rather than his character and I never really invest in his relationship with Rocky, therefore meaning a lot of the film’s backbone is broken.
However, much of the stuff Stallone was trying to do here he would later nail sixteen years later in Rocky Balboa. Given the added distance and consideration, there is far more story to tell, especially with a Rocky beyond his physical prime and with added years on his face. Plus, the young boxer/old mentor thing Stallone attempted with Tommy Gunn is handled so much more effectively in Creed: a film written and directed by a filmmaker who shares the same dynamic with Stallone that Adonis does with Balboa, and it heightens everything. The heart of these movies has always been Talia Shire though and her absence in later films, while crucial, is definitely felt. Even here, five films deep she glows in every scene she appears and centres the emotional core where everything else fails.
While my opinion on Rocky V has wavered more into the negative side after this rewatch, I still enjoy spending time with these characters and despite it being mostly a creative misfire, released at a point where the Balboa saga was definitely feeling tired, its shortcomings paved the way for subsequent, better entries that more than make up for it. Without this, we may never have had Rocky Balboa and Creed. Rocky V gave Stallone something to prove, and like all underdogs worthy of a title shot, prove it he did.