Movie Review: Rocky V (1990)
If “Rocky IV” was one of the most absurdly patriotic movies ever made—the taciturn and teeny American stoically avenging the death of his friend by taking on the huge Russian machine, Ivan Drago, in a boxing match in the U.S.S.R., and winning, and winning over the Russian crowd, including the Politburo—then “Rocky V” is one of the most subtly subversive, anti-patriotic movies ever made.
It begins, as with most “Rocky” movies, with the end of the previous “Rocky” movie: that moment of physical triumph and spiritual diplomacy: You can change, I can change, we can all change. Moments later, in the grimy Soviet shower, Rocky can’t stop his hands from shaking; then he calls Adrian “Mick,” even though Mickey died years earlier. At home, the doctors discover he’s suffering from cavum septum pellucidum. Basically, the Russian drove his brain to a spot where it shouldn’t be—not a bad metaphor for the Cold War, actually—but it means he can never box again.
Then he finds out he’s broke. All that prize money through the years? The mansion? The robot servant? Gone. While in Russia, Paulie gave power of attorney to their accountant, who used the money for his own real estate deals that fell through. Now Rocky has to return to the same old stinkin’ Philly neighborhood he fled after “Rocky II.”
In other words, because he fought for his country, Rocky 1) loses all of his money, and 2) loses his means to make money.
The obvious lesson from Sylvester Stallone? Never fight for your country.
Worst of the Rockys
Here’s how bad “Rocky V” is: Stallone’s son, Sage, who plays Rocky’s son, Robert, is the best thing in it.
In a scathing piece in The New York Times in 1985, Vincent Canby anticipated Stallone’s problems with a “Rocky IV” sequel:
The actor, who refought and won the Vietnam War in “Rambo,” has taken it upon himself to fight and win a war that hasn’t yet been declared—World War III. There’s nothing left for a “Rocky V” except a Miltonian confrontation with Satan.
So Stallone did the opposite. He did with “Rocky” what the Beatles did with “The White Album”: returned to basics. Except the Beatles made music out of it, and Stallone makes crap.
Let’s start with the notion that Rocky couldn’t make money off his name. Yes yes yes, in “Rocky II” he couldn’t act in a TV commercial with a nasty director. So what? Get a better director. Or do print ads. Or just monetize your brand, as they say today. Christ, he’s the two-time heavyweight champion of the world...and he’s white! Every doofus in the world knows you can monetize that shit. Instead, the movie pretends otherwise for the entire movie.
But at least Rocky starts up Mick’s Boxing Gym. That’s not a bad idea. Rock becomes Mick. It’s a livin’, not a waste of life. Then he takes on a brash kid from Oklahoma, absurdly named Tommy Gunn (real-life boxer Tommy Morrison), and then more absurdly nicknamed Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, because the real name isn’t perfect enough already. (It’s like giving a nickname to Coco Crisp.) And Rocky trains Tommy to be champ.
This is the centerpiece of the film. All of the movie’s remaining conflicts arise from this simple fact: Rocky trains Tommy. From that, we get this:
- Rocky ignores his own son, Robert Jr. (Sage), in favor of his adopted son, Tommy, in a way that everyone sees except Rocky.
- In the press, Rocky is given all of the credit for Tommy’s rise, and Tommy becomes resentful in a way that everyone sees except Rocky.
- A Don King-like boxing promoter, George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), steals Tommy away by plying him with something that famous professional athletes never encounter: women willing to sleep with them.
- Duke’s ultimate goal is to get Rocky back into the ring because he’s the only boxer that any boxing fan cares about. Apparently not enough to buy anything with his name on it, mind you, but certainly enough to watch him die in the ring. Because that’s entertainment.
Adrian (Talia Shire), who sees all of this happening, doesn’t say anything until the 11th hour, in an argument outside on Christmas Eve, in which Rocky talks up the smell of the neighborhood and yells, “I see where we are! I don’t want this no more!” within earshot of everyone who actually lives there. Classy, Rocko.
But eventually Rocky sees the light, and makes it up with Adrian, and Robert Jr., and Paulie, and they all go home happy. The end.
Oh right. The fight.
Brain and brain, what is brain?
It’s a “Rocky” movie so there’s gotta be a fight. But in all “Rocky” movies there has to be a reason that prevents the fight so we don’t get it until the end.
In “Rocky II” what prevents the fight is he might go blind if he fights; plus Adrian doesn’t want him to fight. But then he learns to fight right-handed and Adrian says “Win” and off we go.
In “III” he loses the eye of the tiger. But then Apollo Creed makes him live with black people so he gets it back.
In “IV,” I guess nothing really prevents the fight. He’s determined to beat the Russian as soon as Apollo is killed.
And in “V”? What prevents the fight is he might die if he fights. So how does Stallone overcome this dilemma? Well, Rocky just doesn’t die. He fights Tommy in the street because Tommy’s a little shit, and Duke doesn’t make any money off it. Of course, neither does Rocky. But he’s got family. Plus the old neighborhood. Which stinks.
Here’s the real resolution to that dilemma: Apparently Stallone gave Rocky cavum septum pellucidum because he planned to actually kill him off. But then everyone said, “No, you can’t kill him off.” So he didn’t. So Rocky fights with cavum septum pellucidum but his brain is cool with it. He doesn’t die.
But “Rocky” fans did a little bit. “Rocky V” drove our brains to a spot where it shouldn’t be.