With the ending to the fourth film all but cementing the legacy of the character of Rocky Balboa as pretty much an unstoppable force, there was apparently nowhere left to go with the fifth instalment of the Rocky saga, released five years after Rocky IV. In fact there was said to be a running joke in Hollywood that the only suitable opponent for the Southpaw fighter to face after Ivan Drago would have to be an invincible alien sent to test itself against earth’s mightiest warrior. Supposedly the movie legend rumour mill states that this led to the premise of the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger starring, action/science fiction classic, Predator. Whether this is true or not will probably never be confirmed, but it does go to show how far the character’s arc had been stretched by this point.
With the Rocky, we had the tale of the true underdog simply happy to go the distance and prove that he belongs in the sport. The second movie is a story of a now unbridled ambition finally realised in victory. Part three displays the burden of losing the title and the redemption of regaining it and finally, the fourth chapter is a fable of revenge and the slaying of the mighty Eastern Beast. There was simply no opponent worthy anymore to place in the opposite corner to the Italian Stallion. Who could he possibly face next? That’s when it must have dawned on Stallone that there was no bigger foe than life itself. Sat in front of his typewriter, Sly formulated the fifth chapter for his alter ego. What Stallone crafted would be an almost complete departure from the previous two films. Here we would see Rocky stripped back to basics, over the hill and unable to fight again due to brain damaged sustained in the Drago fight. No longer would he have to face a human opponent, now his test would be far more challenging.
Bankrupt after Paulie had signed over power of attorney to a seedy accountant who has bled him dry whilst Rocky was training to avenge Apollo in Russia, all the material gains of his blood, sweat and tears are now gone. This now meant that the Balboa family would have no option other than to move back to the mean streets of Philly, to Adrian’s old family home. Back to where it had all started, but with Rocky no longer able to fight his way back to the top using his fists, this time he would need to use his skills in a different fashion, by training an up and coming fighter in the guise of Tommy “The Machine” Gunn and then in turn, find himself facing the world of boxing corruption, where loyalty counts for nothing and every player in the game is working to make the biggest amount of cash in the smallest amount of time by running over others in the process.
Interestingly, this would be the first time that a real-life pugilist would take on a lead role in a Rocky film. Tommy Morrison was an up and coming heavyweight fighter at the time who would eventually go on to win a version of the Heavyweight Championship of the World (WBO) and share the ring for real with the likes of George Foreman and Lennox Lewis. Sadly, like many boxing stories, there was no happy ending for Morrison who eventually passed away from HIV health related problems on September 1st 2013. He did however leave behind a real-life show reel of knockouts that would even outshine that of Mr Balboa. Allegedly a relative of John Wayne, Tommy “The Duke” Morrison really could throw the kind of hurt bombs that cinema audiences had long become accustomed to seeing the fictional champion hurl at the likes of Creed, Lang and Drago.
Stallone had flirted with this idea before with former WBC heavyweight Champ Ken Norton who was said to have originally been signed up to play Apollo Creed before his late withdrawal left the door open for Carl Weathers to take on his most famous role. Boxers had actually been featured in the films prior to Morrison, with Joe Frazier making an appearance as himself in the original film and also a brief cameo from Roberto Duran in the second film as a fast, skilful sparring partner brought in to help the Italian Stallion develop his (“greasy-fast-lighting”) speed for the Creed rematch. Unfortunately the man behind Stallone’s inspiration for the first script never made it to the silver screen, with Chuck Wepner’s small part as a jealous heavyweight contender also from Mick’s gym ending up on the editing room floor in Rocky II.
So without further ado, let’s address the elephant in the room. Rocky V is not a particularly good movie and is widely regarded as the weakest entry in the series. However, it does still deserve mention and I truly believe that Stallone had the basis of a good film here that simply got lost along the way. The introduction of a Don King style promoter in the character of George Washington Duke is perhaps a little bit more than on the nose, but it should be pointed out that around the time that this film was made, Mr King had practically owned a piece of every one of the top heavyweight fighters since the late seventies. Duke is played by Richard Gant who is obviously channelling his inner Don-ness and it’s actually quite a fun performance to watch for those familiar with the wild haired, infamous promoter.
Duke’s dastardly scheme is to get Balboa back in the ring, to milk the cash cow whilst there’s still something left to give. When his initial attempts are thwarted by Adrian’s rebuttals, the promoter changes his tactics to snare Rocky’s protégée in an attempt to draw Balboa into a student verses teacher match-up. With Rocky fighting off the advances of the greedy promoter, he fails to see what’s going on in his own family, with his son becoming more and more distant from his father as a result.
Much has been made of the late Sage Stallone’s performance as the champ’s son being not up to standard but in fairness, I don’t think that he really lets himself down and would argue that for an actor his age, and with limited experience, that he puts in a perfectly adequate performance.
Sure, he has a bizarre penchant for dangling earrings but it was the nineties after all. Unfortunately this is another slight against the film. Whereas the first two films have the gritty edge and griminess of the seventies and the following two movies bask in the excess and gloss of the eighties, the fifth film feels strangely out of place in the nineties, a decade now more associated with the hard-edged humour and violence of Tarrantino, the street level warfare of films like Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City. The Philadelphia story on display here plays a much more twee version, as Rocky Junior gets his nice warm, winter coat stolen by two tubby street kids. The stirring orchestral soundtrack of the original films is now replaced with gaudy rap tunes by long-forgotten artists only adding to the feeling that you’re watching something that was probably a little too far removed from its audience even at the time it was released.
Tragically Sage Moonblood Stallone, the eldest son of Sylvester Stallone was found dead at his Los Angeles home on July 13 2012 with the coroner’s verdict recording his cause of death as a coronary artery disease. Rocky V would mark his acting debut, and I will reiterate that for a young actor to appear opposite his much more famous father, it was always going to be an uphill battle.
Still, as much as the film has obvious flaws, there’s something almost comforting to return to the Philadelphia streets and landmarks so familiar from the original film. Growing up watching these movies, it illicits something of a homely feel to once again see the pet shop where Rocky asked Adrian out on their first date, or to see Rocky open up Mighty Mick’s Gym for business once again. For me this is where Balboa belongs. A beacon of hope to those around him that are willing to allow him to show them the way through the darkness. To begin with he has his son and his fighter believing in him, but eventually both move away in their own directions. Gunn is seduced by the money and fame that Duke promises him and Rocky Jr. by his father’s lack of interest in his life, now that his father has taken on the responsibility for managing Tommy’s career. In many ways it seems that Rocky is falling foul of the temptation to live his life through others to claim back the adulation he once received.
Eventually Rocky sees the error of his ways and rekindles his relationship with his son. Gunn goes on to win the title and Balboa is happy for his former student, despite him having left his tutelage. But this is not enough for Gunn. Encouraged by Duke, Tommy attends the local bar where Rocky is celebrating his former pupil’s victory and demands a match with Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie bearing the brunt of a solid punch to the jaw when Balboa turns Gunn’s offer down.
We then get something completely original for a Rocky film, with the final fight between Gunn and Balboa taking place on the Philadelphia streets outside the bar. Here we are treated to perhaps a glimpse of Balboa’s so far unseen past, with Rocky employing various street fighting moves to eventually make the much younger and fresher Gunn submit replete with black and white flashbacks of his former trainer Mick barking instructions courtesy of a very frail looking Burgess Meredith cameo in what would be one of his final roles.
Interestingly Stallone originally wrote that after Rocky’s street fight victory that the former champ would collapse and die in Adrian’s arms but he was eventually convinced by both the studio and the returning director of the first film, John G. Avildsen, that an iconic character such as Rocky Balboa should go out on top and live. In all honesty I truly believe that this was supposed to be the final film in the saga for Stallone, but it’s clear that the finished product left Sly unfulfilled. In fact, when once asked to rate this film out of ten, he simply replied, “Zero”.
Rocky V will always be the least regarded of the series, but if one thing can be taken as consolation, it’s that it caused Stallone to go back to the character much further down the road. With his dissatisfaction eating him away, he knew that he had to make amends to both to himself and the loyal fans of the franchise. With his return to his most iconic role in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, he was at least able to use elements of the story left over from Rocky V and in all honesty, as a huge fan of the Rocky saga, this is the only positive that I can draw from this film.
Film ‘89 Verdict – 4/10