When it’s on: Thursday, 30 August (11.15 pm)
On paper, Rocky V sounds like a very good idea. After four films in which our hero’s fortunes steadily escalate, the (correct at the time) last instalment brings him right back down. Suffering brain damage following the pummelling he takes from Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, and losing his fortune earned through boxing, the story quickly casts him down on his luck and back where it all began on the mean streets of Philadelphia. Sylvester Stallone, who’d written the entire series and directed the three previous chapters, turned to John Avildsen as helmsman in a further effort to revive the grimy quality of the original and by some distance the best of the franchise.
Great on paper. Executed terribly. Real life tales of boxers falling from grace are one of the sport’s more difficult but undoubtedly fascinating aspects. Yet Rocky Balboa’s story, essentially that of life’s loser refusing to accept his lot and achieving greatness, relied on the eternal myth of triumph against the odds. As the series progressed, Rocky’s opponents grew increasingly bigger and more impossible until there was nowhere left for it to go. Whilst it can be argued that he once again does the business in Rocky V, the film’s a gloomy one with Balboa’s climactic street fight just one part of an endless struggle to survive that seems to provide few answers. Usually that’s fine, but not here, where the concept of taking Rocky’s family back into poverty just seems like a cruel novelty from someone all out of ideas.
Stallone’s script requires his circumstances to slip into adversity as quickly as possible. Rocky’s cranial problems, whilst suggesting a raft of cruel jokes about a character who was never altogether ‘there’, are credible enough, but the poverty element feels like it’s been rushed through. By all accounts (excuse the pun), Rocky’s awful slob of a brother in law, Paulie (Burt Young) gave power of attorney to an unscrupulous financier, who subsequently pissed away the entire Balboa fortune. Hmmm, okay. Why Rocky would let the permanently sozzled Paulie near a sum larger than the price of a pint of bourbon is anyone’s guess, and he’s such a permanent fixture in the series that his punishment is to move back to Philadelphia with the family and carry on as normal. Young must have happily cashed in the cheques for this stuff. Paulie had very little point since Rocky II, the comic relief who existed as a kind of cautionary anti-Rocky (watch out kids! If you don’t follow your dreams you too could end up with a pork pie hat glued to your head and sleeping in a string vest with yesterday’s newspaper for a blanket).
Ditto Talia Shire, reprising her role as Rocky’s wife Adrian and adding almost nothing to the proceedings. Again, Stallone ran out of things for her to do several films ago, so she just stays on the periphery, supporting or being disappointed at the behest of the script. Into the tale stride three new characters, all terrible. At least Richard Gant’s boxing promoter is a paper-thin Don King caricature, one who reprises King’s overblown, portentous patter even in private conversation, which we all hope is what his real life inspiration is like. Far worse comes in the shape of Tommy Morrison, a heavyweight boxer in reality who takes on the role of (I’m not making this up) up and coming fighter, Tommy Gunn. The youngster, who seeks Rocky for training, becomes his protege and his reason for carrying on, whilst delivering unto unfortunate audiences another monosyllabic performance with all the subtlety of a tie-in track by Survivor. As Gunn emerges as a contender, the plot twist that finds him ‘stolen’ by Gant and betraying Rocky is so obvious that it can’t possibly be… oh, it does.
At the very bottom of the barrel, there’s Sage Stallone, Sylvester’s real life son playing his kid in the film. Writing anything ill about someone so recently deceased seems awful, but there’s little getting away from either his leaden performance or the poor way he’s treated in the film. Sage gets the thankless task of being the rich kid suddenly sent to a rough state school, with all the nastiness such a proposition implies, but none of that’s as bad as having to put up with the majority of Stallone Sr’s attempts to reconnect with his street life, pretending to be a wise guy, cracking terrible jokes, etc. No one deserves this, not least the viewers.
Apparently, the original screenplay built up to a street fight between Rocky and Gunn that ended with Balboa finally succumbing to his injuries. Presumably, this is why there are several scenes – mainly flashback, filmed in black and white – involving Burgess Meredith, his character having passed two films ago but appearing to deliver sentimental speeches about never giving up and so on. The touching relationship between Mickey and Rocky was always a really strong element of the early films and Stallone must have known it also, hence the shoehorning in of several bits of previous, but whilst nice none of it makes a lot of sense. In any event, when most of the film was in the can and Rocky’s death scene approached, Stallone had a change of heart and rescripted the ending, in which, well, you know. I’m not saying the character’s demise would have made Rocky V a better film, but at least it would have been building up to something. What happens is from the lower drawer of cliché-driven cobblers, as though everyone had stopped trying by this stage.
The close, apart from being crap, lacks any kind of narrative and emotional satisfaction and dooms Rocky to linger inconclusively. If there is a happy ending, it’s the potential for yet another sequel, one that was wisely put off for sixteen years and produced the much better Rocky Balboa, which seemed to channel an older, wiser Stallone as well as anything written for his iron jawed character.
Rocky V: *