Rocky V (1990)

When it’s on: Thursday, 30 August (11.15 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

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: *

Rocky IV (1985)

When it’s on: Sunday, 15 April 2012 (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV 4
IMDb Link

I was reading a cracking article at Den of Geek recently that advised how I could tell the film I was watching had been made in the 1980s. One of the tell-tale signs was the use of musical montages, which I guess was a trend arising from the impact made by MTV. Reading it, I found myself transported back to a series of mid-eighties movies, some caught on our Betamax home entertainment breezeblock, but many at the local fleapit (which, I’m happy to report, still exists). The Karate Kid was stuffed with montages, my favourite being the one accompanying Bananarama’s Cruel Summer because I liked the song. Another was Mannequin, a roundly terrible feature that I think I went to see on a date and, worse still, insisted on actually watching the thing. What a catch, huh?

And then there’s Rocky IV, a film that in reality consists of little more than the most wafer-thin of plots strung together by montages. Here’s a spoiler-free guide to what happens in it:

  • The Russian boxer fights Rocky’s friend, who loses and dies.
  • Rocky fights the Russian boxer.

In between, we get a series of flashbacks to episodes in Rocky’s life, culled from the first three films and intended to peer into our hero’s tortured mind as he contemplates his epic struggle with the Russian. The likes of Survivor and other MTV-friendly turns are piped onto the soundtrack to give these clips shows some momentum, but it’s scurrilous and cheap film making. Later, more pumping music plays to the shots of Rocky training for his big fight. Exiled in the Soviet Union, watched constantly by KGB heavies and cut off from the outside world, he goes back to basics in building up his strength, which is juxtaposed with shots of the Russian using the most high-tech equipment, not to mention dining on steroid injections to boost his freakish strength.

Rocky IV was made as Reagan’s America hit the heights of its Cold War revival. Far from being portrayed as the country falling into economic chaos that it really was, the USSR was depicted as an unknown superpower, capable of anything and intent on bringing down the democratic west. In hindsight, it was an incredible attitude to have mere years before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but it was the party line at the time and Sylvester Stallone conjured a yarn to match.

It’s jaw-dropping stuff. An early tagline for the film was Get ready for the next world war. The film’s opening shot showed two boxing gloves painted in USA and USSR colours colliding into each other. The Russian boxer, played by Dolph Lundgren, and his promotion team (one of which includes Brigitte Nielsen) are cast early as baddies, overshadowed with ominous, foreboding music. In the promotional fight between Lundgren and Rocky’s friend, the washed up Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), it’s clear what’s going to happen, yet the film pads out the inevitable with a jolly James Brown tune, which then juxtaposes to jarring effect with the joyless build-up to Rocky’s fight in Moscow. Of course, Rocky’s indomitable spirit is what matters in the end. He wins over a previously partisan Russian crowd and finishes on a speech of such incredible pomposity and bloody cheek that even the Politburo (led by a shadowy Gorbachev) start applauding. It seems the spirit of Glasnost started here.

Even the things the previous films did well i.e. the fight scenes, have been reduced to cartoon violence, with little inherent logic to them. The two fights in Rocky III made sense as Balboa took on Mr T’s Clubber Lang before and after his new and improved training regime and fresh determination. In Rocky IV, watch the pummelling dealt out to our hero. At around the same time as this film came out, a young heavyweight boxer called Mike Tyson was laying waste to every opponent on the way to his title. Many of his wins came via first round knockouts, yet the punishment he meted was as nothing compared with the licking Rocky takes here, and unlike Iron Mike’s victims Balboa comes back for more. Because that’s what America does, right? Gets back up and dishes it back? Yeah right.

Rocky IV: *