Rocky V (1990)

Back To Where It All Began

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Few motion pictures seem to inspire as much intense dislike as Rocky V, even to the point of Sylvester Stallone himself giving the film a score of “O” on a British talk show – yes, 0/10. Come on man, can you really say Rocky V has absolutely no merit what so ever? Even the sitcom The Vicar of Dibley bashes Rocky V in its pilot episode; “Four’s not bad is it? There were four gospels, four horsemen of the Apocalypse, four Rocky movies until they made Rocky V, very bad movie”. As a huge fan of the Rocky movies I’ll just come out and say it, I love Rocky V. Oh yeah, deal with it! Part V was designed the return the series back to its roots, not only by bringing Rocky back to his humble beginning on the streets of Philadelphia but also by being directed by John G. Avildsen, the director the first Rocky. In my eyes, the film succeeds.

Continuing the series tradition of recapping the fight from the previous film, Rocky V presents a recap of the Rocky- Drago fight scored with the traditional Rocky music by Bill Conti rather than the Vince DiCola score from Rocky IV, which is a nice touch. The opening title with the faces of Rocky and Drago in the lettering is also my favourite opening title in the series.

The one big grip I do have with Rocky V is how it messes up the Rocky continuity. Just to give a brief recap of Rocky continuity from Rocky III onwards: it isn’t made clear the date of which Rocky III ends, but we are told the date of Mickey’s death as taking place in 1981 so we can assume Rocky’s second fight with Clubber Lang took place in 1981/82. Rocky IV picks up where III left off, but no dates are mentioned in the movie nor is it made clear on the passing of time. It seems most likely the events of Rocky IV take place somewhere from 1982 to 1985, the year in which the movie was released. Rocky V picks up where Rocky IV left off, and once Rocky returns to America from Russia and gets off the plane, he is greeted by his teenage son; however, at the end of Rocky IV he was still a child. There should have been a passing of time and then introduce the teenage son. But on top of this, considering the early 90’s aesthetic of Rocky V, due in part of its soundtrack, it seems like Rocky really did travel through time when flying that plane from the 80’s world of Rocky IV. Perhaps some crazy fan theory explanation could solve the mystery such as Rocky staying in Russia for several years after his fight with Drago. While this plot hole does bother me a bit, does it really interfere with my enjoyment of the overall movie? No, not really.

Once Rocky travels through time and is back in America, the family go home to a different mansion than that seen in Rocky III and IV, but I can accept perhaps they owned more than one. Regardless, due to an issue involving taxes, the Balboa family lose their fortune and are forced to return to return to Paulie’s old place in Philadelphia. What was the tax issue? To quote IMDB’s FAQ section for Rocky V:

When Rocky was in Russia during Rocky IV, Paulie gave the power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant, because the accountant told Paulie he needed to authorize a tax extension. Given free access to Rocky’s accounts, the accountant used Rocky’s savings to finance a real estate investment, planning on having the money back in the account by the time Rocky returned from Russia. However, the real estate deal went bad and the money was never returned. Additionally, Rocky discovers that he has debt payments, mortgage payments ($400,000) and that the accountant hasn’t filed any of Rocky’s tax returns for over 6 years.

Ok, I’m not an expert on taxes, but the movie makes it sound convincing, so I’ll buy it.

Rocky’s return to his old stomping ground gives the film a welcome nostalgia factor, from Rocky wearing his clothes from the first movie to Adrian being dowdy once again and working in the pet shop; to the return of locations from the first movie such as the Atomic Hoagie Shop. At one point in the film, they even repeat the very first shot of the original Rocky. Also, the streets of Philly appear to be more graffiti and trash-laden than they had been in 1975/76. Rocky V also features Burgess Meredith’s final appearance as Mickey (even if he does look older than his last appearance in Rocky III), in a newly filmed flashback scene in which he gives one of the most powerful monologues in the series. This is ranks as one of my favourite scenes of the entire franchise, and I fail to see how anyone could deny its emotional impact.

Due to Rocky’s newly discovered brain damage, he can’t return to the boxing ring and instead trains a new upcoming boxer Tommy Gunn (portrayed by real-life boxer Tommy Morrison); a predecessor to the plot of 2015’s Creed. Tommy Gunn is nowhere near as iconic or memorable as Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang or Ivan Drago, but I still enjoy his character and find him more interesting than Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon in Rocky Balboa. He’s an enthusiastic go-getter who eventually turns on his mentor and becomes seduced by the dark side of the boxing business. So yeah, it’s a better version of Star Wars Episode III with Rocky as Obi-Wan, Tommy as Anakin and the boxing promoter George Washington Duke as Palatine. George Washington Duke is the main villain of the movie; a Don King-like boxing promoter. I love this guy; he’s such a stereotypical loud-mouthed salesman, continuing the tradition of over the top Rocky Villains.

However, the real heart of Rocky V lies with its father-son story with its themes of neglect and abandonment between Rocky and his son Robert, played by Stallone’s real-life son, Sage Stallone; making the interactions between them feel more real and genuine. Not to mention the character of Robert has a frightening predicament of going from a sheltered life to living in a tough neighbourhood. It’s weird to think that both Sage Stallone and Tommy Morrison are now both dead; two young stars from a movie which is only 26 years old. Stallone already hates Rocky V as it is, but having the movie star his deceased son I’d imagine makes the movie even more unwatchable for him. In regards to the subplot involving Robert and the school bullies, I actually find this aspect of the story to be interesting itself. I feel it showcases how in order to make peace with the bullies he had to fight them back and win the battle, and that Adrian’s suggestion that she who would rather he solve his problems verbally would be a futile gesture. After he fights the bullies he then immediately makes peace with one of them and they become friends. Could this be a war parable, or am I just over-analysing?

Despite V being the black sheep of the franchise, Rocky V still ends on a fight, not in the ring but on the street. Having Rocky take part in a barbaric street fight makes for great entertainment, due in part to the fun of seeing Rocky engage in a fight in which there are no rules. I also love all the over the top crowd reactions (“Come on dad, he took my room!”, “You’re losing everything!”). The film’s final pay off is immensely satisfying in which Rocky punches George Washington Duke right into the air and onto a car; what comeuppance!

Rocky V reintroduces Bill Conti’s music after being absent from Rocky IV. However, the soundtrack of Rocky V is mainly comprised of hip-hop and RnB. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, but I do like the songs included in the film. With Go For It I get the impression they were trying to create a new Eye of the Tiger; a song which is named after a phrase which is repeated throughout the film which is central to the plot. It could never be as iconic as Eye of the Tiger, but it still gets me jamming. I also love the new version of Take You Back which gives the song an early 90’s spin. All the films in the series reflect the periods in which they were made, and for Rocky V it’s the early 90’s.

I’ve heard reviewers complain Rocky V is a depressing ending to the series. It becomes clear at the end of the film that Rocky learns he doesn’t need wealth to be happy providing he’s still got his family and his health; and eventually he chooses his family over his career, pride, and ego. This is a theme which ties in with the end credits song The Measure of a Man sung by Elton John:

“You’ve come full circle, now you’re home, without the gold, without the chrome. And this is where you’ve always been, you had to lose so you could win. And rise above your troubles while you can.”

I did not find Rocky V in any way to undermine to optimistic nature of the series. Initially, it was scripted for Rocky to die at the end, and there is even a deleted scene which shows the character of Marie from the first movie continued to hang out with the wrong crowd. These elements would make an interesting alternative version, but for my Rocky canon, I prefer the direction they took. Plus the reintroduction of Marie in Rocky Balboa was a better path for the character, more in tune with the series’ optimistic nature.

The end credits of Rocky V give a retrospective of the entire series which couldn’t be more perfect, plus I love the song The Measure of a Man. I don’t often talk about how great the end credits of a film are, yet with all the Rocky sequels I watch the credits in their entirety. Rocky V is the black sheep of the series in terms of plot structure. We already have four movies which end with Rocky fighting an opponent in the ring, it would have been tiresome to do that a fifth time. Instead, Stallone wrote a sequel which took a chance. So yes, I love Rocky V. Got a problem with that, then my ring’s outside!

Advertisements

Rocky (1976)

The Philadelphia Story

I may sound like a bit of a fanboy when I talk about the Rocky franchise but I just legitimately love all these movies so much. This is a series which always inspires me and has aided me during my darkest days. Rocky was one of the first movies to have such a profound impact on me, making me appreciate cinema on a deeper level. I first saw Rocky on TV and week after week came back to watch the sequels; such joy I had and memories I never forget.

I don’t think there is a fictional character whom I’ve been more emotionally invested in than Rocky Balboa. Could there be a character who is more honest or down to Earth? A man who has next to nothing yet has such a positive outlook on life (“Naw I ain’t got no phone, I had to pull it you know because people calling me all the time, and who needs the aggravation, right?” – such profound wisdom). The character is also a mystery and an enigma; who are his parents and what about his early years? Apart from a few brief snippets of information, it’s up to the viewer’s imagination instead of giving us a pointless origin story which Hollywood is so keen on nowadays. The character is biographical of his creator Sylvester Stallone throughout the whole series; his fictional alter ego. Just like Rocky, Stallone had next to nothing before making it as a star. Just like how the character rises to the challenge against impossible odds, the movie also beat impossible odds by becoming one of the biggest sleeper hits of all time. Likewise what movie or character is more identified with a city or has such reverence for the location it was filmed.

All the films in the series reflect the periods in which they were made. It’s 1976, America’s Bicentennial year. Perhaps the country didn’t know it needed an injection of optimism after years of cynical and pessimistic film as well as political upheaval. Don’t get me wrong, there will always be a place for cynicism in movies but with such movies dominating the mainstream at the time it was clear that enough was enough. It seems like happy endings where against the law in the first half of the 70’s, but Rocky brought them back for better or worse, and film snobs will look down on it for that. But yes, I do blubber away at this ending and Adrian’s uttering of “I love you!” is the greatest “I love you!” in cinema history. The ending has that same feeling of joy and happiness as seen in the ending of many Frank Capra movies. Speaking of Capra, Rocky’s response to being asked if he wants to fight Apollo Creed for the world heavyweight championship is like Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town when he is told of the vast sum of money he has inherited.

As the filmmakers didn’t get permission to shot for many of the on locations, guerilla filmmaking techniques where employed in the making of Rocky; capturing the streets of Philadelphia in all their glory with that distinctive that gritty look of 70’s films while aided with the use of the then-new technology in the form of the steady cam. You’d be hard pressed to find a movie which is more naturalistic and unmanufactured as Rocky.

It’s astounding that such a low budget film could have had such a great soundtrack and score. Bill Conti’s score to Rocky always makes me feel melancholic; the Rocky soundtracks have given me hours upon hours of listening pleasure. I even watch the end credits of all the films for the music (well except the first one as the end credit music here is quite dreary). The Rocky movies are also responsible for my love of montages. I’ll never forget the feeling of exuberance I felt watching the film’s training montage for the first time and hearing Gonna Fly Now; we’re talking the goosiest of goosebumps.

Roger Ebert compared Stallone to Marlon Brando in his original review, and in 1976 no one could have seen this man being a future action movie star, but I maintain the man is more intelligent than people make him out to be. He’s made a respectable career out of what he is capable of doing. How many people can claim to have been able to write installments in a film series which has lasted four decades and still manage to keep the long-running story interesting? During the filming of Rocky, he had to do script rewrites on the spot such as upon discovering the ice rink for Rocky and Adrian’s was completely empty or the shorts on the giant poster of Rocky in the stadium where the wrong colour.

When I watched this film at a younger age, I never fully appreciated the romantic angle, yet watching it from a more mature perspective. Rocky and Adrian are like two misfits who don’t fully fit in with the rest of society. There is a goddess with Adrian, and only Rocky can see it. The scene in which Rocky invites Adrian to his apartment after their first date took my breath away like few other love scenes have ever done. The sexuality on display is immense with Stallone in a vest and the gradual build-up to their first kiss, and I’m sure they did it.

The world of Rocky is populated with such unforgettable characters. Rocky’s trainer Mickey Goldmill is one of the greatest mentors in film history (either him or Obi-Wan Kenobi in my book) with his grouchy and curmudgeon manner. I feel Burgess Meredith is an actor who got better with age, so no surprise his most famous role came to him at the age of 68. Paulie (Burt Young) is one pathetic hateful loser, abuses his sister, is violent and yet you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) on the other hand, dam! What a showman with his charisma, confidence, cockiness, and ego; the archetype of a leading man from a blacksploitation film. Yet despite being a black man, he is surely one of the most patriotic characters ever put on screen who shuns any left wing mentality of victimhood; sounds like a dam monster movie!

One more recent viewings of Rocky I’ve also come to appreciate Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell) more as a character. A charismatic loan shark who employs Rocky and has a real liking for him, giving him money for his date, attends his fight with Apollo and doesn’t try to take over his boxing career whereas many other mobsters would. Yet Rocky’s lenient collecting style by refusing to break the thumbs of clients who don’t pay up causes problems for Gazzo yet he treats Rocky almost like a brother. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that in the original script for the film, Rocky and Gazzo where brothers.

When Rocky visits the empty arena before the fight you can feel the pressure and weight that bestows him. By the time the final fight comes around I’m so emotionally invested in this character that I’m rooting for him like it’s a real fight. During the fight itself, the punches look real and there’s no sped up footage like boxing films of the past; while Bill Conti’s score ups the intensity and suspense for some serious emotional impact.