|(Illustration created by Matt Dupuis)|
If you’ve watched Rocky V, there’s a good chance you cannot for the life of you remember what it’s about, or which thing happened in which Rocky movie, because there’s just so many of them. The Rocky franchise epitomizes excess. It shares history with Jaws as being one of the first popular movie series to become so oversaturated as to become toxic. By the time a movie series reaches film No. 4 or film No. 5, it’s usually nothing more than a cheap imitation of the first film, with an almost entirely new cast and a plot that tampers with the canon of the first films. In this day in age, it’s more or less impossible to produce four standalone film iterations without the fourth film being seen as a cheap cash-grab by the studio executives. If you haven’t seen Rocky V, and you are a fan of the first movie, it’s probably because it’s got the “V” in it. It’s difficult to see the Roman numeral five next to a film title and not equate it with total garbage, and unfortunately, Rocky V does little to buck this perception.
I resisted watching Rocky V for the longest time. After getting through the first four Rocky’s, which I enjoyed for the most part, I decided the fifth movie was the one I didn’t need to see in my life. I was all too familiar with horrible sequels and how completely soul-crushing they can be. (RANDOM SPOILER ALERT:) I remembered Alien 3, where the characters Ellen Ripley had heroically saved in the previous film were killed off to explain their actors’ absence in the movie, including Newt, the loveable mute girl orphaned by aliens, who deserved something better than a still-shot of a computer readout saying: “DEAD.” I remembered Prometheus, where it turned out that the acid-dripping aliens from the first Alien movie were in fact the biological hybrid of human beings and mythical creatures called “Engineers” who supposedly created all life in the universe. And of course there were the Star Wars prequels.
Still, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by Rocky V. In spite of its reputation, the first four movies were all watchable, and if anything, it was the fourth movie that produced the most famous quotes of the franchise. (“If he dies, he dies.”) Even the most recent (sixth) Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa, gets some love from the fans once in awhile. So what the hell went wrong with Rocky V? How could a non-serialized movie series be relevant for four movies -- which is almost unheard of -- only for the fifth to be an unmitigated disaster?
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me. The EPIX movie channel was airing all five movies one weekend, and I took the plunge. I decided to watch it from beginning to end -- stopping every now and then to write about how good I thought the movie was on a scale of zero-to-10, with 10 being “Great” and zero being “Excrutiatingly Painful.” Save for a few punctuation edits, I have not edited what I wrote about it at all, and since I had abstained from reading any reviews or spoilers prior to my viewing, I came into it completely cold.
What you’re about to read is essentially a live-blogging of a two-decade-old movie with a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (If that’s not a gripping tease, I don’t know what is.) The mission objective was to see if I would wind up loathing the movie like everyone else, and if I did, where did the movie lose me? What specifically was it that made the movie so bad? Was it really all that worse than the other films?
3 Minutes In: Opening credits
The opening credits lend hope, as I see that pretty much all of the original cast members from the previous films are in stanza No. 5 as well. The hope is lessened when I see that it includes Burgess Meredith, who played Mick, the crusty old trainer who died in the third film. So... I guess Mick will either be appearing as a ghost or in a flashback. I'm hoping it's the latter, although it's hard to have much faith in this movie, since the momentum was definitely tilting downward after Rocky IV. And I liked Rocky IV, but it straddled the line of being unwatchable in the beginning when Rocky left his son in the care of a life-sized, animatronic robot that doesn't exist today, and sure as hell didn't exist thirty years ago. I can overlook a laughably-unrealistic ending where Rocky manages to get a Cold War Soviet Union crowd on his side, but when a female-voiced talking robot makes an appearance, that's when I wonder if the series has jumped the shark. If this movie can lack both Ghost Mickey and talking female robots, it may just have a chance.
My beleaguered hope is reinvigorated when Bill Conti appears in the credits. He did the score of the first three films, but was absent in Rocky IV, which instead featured Tangerine Dream-esque synthesizer music. Conti's presence is an automatic improvement. This movie should sound good if nothing else. [8 out of 10]
5 Minutes, 30 Seconds In: Rocky wants to go home
After the credits (which double as a recap, as they did in the prior three movies), the movie picks up immediately after Rocky's victory in the fourth film. Rocky has the shakes in the locker room, and Adrian (his wife) is worried. I'm a little worried that Adrian's actress displayed too much charisma in the scene; hopefully she didn't forget that Adrian is supposed to be weird. Still, I'm genuinely interested in where this film is going. Doom for Rocky perhaps? [8 out of 10]
9 Minutes, 30 Seconds In: Only in America
A Don King imitator challenges Rocky to fight his boxer mere seconds after Rocky and Adrian get off a plane from Russia. I guess Rocky has so little security around him that random strangers are allowed to get right next to him with a microphone if they want to. You'd think he would've learned his lesson after the third movie, when Clubber Lang interrupted his statue ceremony.
Reporters asked multiple questions about Rocky's health, and Adrian was quick to cover for him. It seems like this movie will have a greater emphasis than ever on Rocky's physical condition to fight, although it's weird that one of the reporters commented that he should accept the fight out of "professionalism." Jesus... Rocky's been trying to walk away from the sport since the end of the first movie. Can't these vultures just let the man retire to his wife, kid and talking robot! [8 out of 10]
17 Minutes In: Dumb Money
Rocky's son (whose name eludes me) senses there's something wrong with his old man, so there obviously must be something wrong with his old man. That kid has doubled in age since the end of Rocky III, even though in film-world only a few years have passed. But hey, I'm not going to hold that against the movie. He and Rocky have a brief conversation, and there's real sincerity when Rocky says how happy he is that his kid has what he never did.
Of course, in the very next scene it turns out the family has lost all of its assets because Paulie (Rocky’s sidekick) basically gave it away to an attorney who happened to be a schmuck. How idiot-loser Paulie managed to be in charge of Rocky and Adrian's finances is a break in logic that makes the premise of the movie wobble. Rocky likely now has to fight the Don King wannabe's fighter to get money to support his family, which is a totally believable storyline considering how notorious real-life boxers are when it comes to burning through money. However, this angle would have been more compelling if Rocky, who was quick to buy Adrian watches and a fancy car in the second movie, was the one who caused them to be in financial strife. It not only would have had continuity with the second film, it would've given his relationship with his son more depth -- that he loved him so much that he got caught up in it, and wound up overspending. Instead... it's all Paulie's fault. Meh. [7 out of 10]
27 Minutes In: Brain dead
So it turns out the thing wrong with Rocky is that he has brain damage. Eugh. Rather than the doctors forcefully telling him that he's unfit to fight, they just sort of shrug and let Adrian do the talking. Rocky goes home, picks up old clothes he used to wear, heads over to the bar he used to go to, and even stops by at Mick's old stomping ground. It's at the run-down gym that Rocky remembers something Mick told him, and we do indeed see the grizzly old trainer in a flashback; the scene is weakened because Burgess Meredith doesn't growl enough and is a tad too sentimental for Mick, who I always considered the boxing equivalent of Quint from Jaws. But it's still emotionally effective when he and Rocky hug.
There's a lot of doom and gloom in the air. Rocky is doing a lot of reminiscing, and with all the dismal piano music going on, it certainly looks like Rocky is heading towards some sort of crippling injury later on in the film. Of course, Rocky is retired right now, but... well, come on. This movie isn't going to end without a fight (literally, perhaps not figuratively).
I'm a quarter into the movie, and quality-wise, it's actually a step above Rocky IV. The cheese has really been muted (nary a robot in site), and the tone is rather reflective and ambient. With this movie being what it was, I have to imagine there was less pressure than ever to give Rocky a happy ending. Perhaps the writers wanted to do something that would forever put the franchise to bed. I'm now wondering just why the film has the reputation it does -- is it really a bad film, or does it just have a really, really bad ending? For them to give Rocky irreversible brain damage, and for there to be so much ominous foreshadowing, tells me this movie could end on a sad note, which is sorta contrary to how the Rocky films are supposed to play out. We shall see. Either way I'm not bored, and that's the best I could have hoped to say about it. [8 out of 10]
32 Minutes In: School
The Don King wannabe, whose name is Duke, tries to convince Adrian to get Rocky to fight, but she turns him down. I note that this character's name is Duke because that was also the name of Appollo Creed's trainer in the previous few movies. Why there needed to be another character in this franchise called Duke is weird. Rocky's son transfers to a shabby, cheaper school, and he seems to be very uncomfortable hanging around his old man now. I'm not sure if this plays into the "my dad has something wrong with him" storyline or the "I'm used to living a wealthy lifestyle" storyline. [8 out of 10]
42 Minutes In: Wait, another white boxer?
So, I guess Rocky has that rare type of brain damage that doesn't affect any day-to-day activities at all, but... he can't box anymore. It seems like a very lax, convenient form of irreparable brain damage to me, but that's what he's dealing with. Another offer from Duke is turned down, Rocky's kid is getting bullied at school. And the movie introduces Tommy "Machine" Gunn, a brash white boxer who asks Rocky to be his mentor. Rocky turns him down, but this being a movie and all, I doubt Gunn's presence was completely superfluous. I really don't know what he can add to this movie -- maybe he can fight Rocky's fights or something. I felt like there was enough conflict/adversaries in this movie already with Duke and his personal fighter, "Union Cane." Gunn probably plays a noticeable role the rest of the way, but I hope it isn't overkill for a movie that really doesn't need more character introspection right now. [7 out of 10]
51 Minutes In: Rest for the wicked
In barely any time at all, Gunn is suddenly living with Rocky, sharing the basement with his son, and is getting free training lessons to boot. This after Gunn needlessly pummels a boxer in the gym and admits that he imagines punching his dad every time he steps in the ring. So now Rocky's kid is bummed because he feels he's getting replaced by a redneck with a mullet, which would make anyone depressed.
Rather than it being about Rocky justifying himself to his kid, it seems like the movie is moving in the opposite direction. Junior now has to prove his mettle to Rocky by showing he can box. Or at least that's what I imagine will happen. I'm a little opposed to Rocky immediately handing this guy his kid's room; maybe if Gunn had been introduced from the very beginning, it wouldn't seem so forced and... weird. Instead, it's hard to latch onto what Rocky's doing when we literally just met this Gunn character. He might be a crazy person for all we know. In fact, considering what odd character traits have already been assigned to him, he seems more likely to be a villain than a hero. I'm giving this a 7 so far, but we're teetering on a lower score. I've appreciated the focus on the characters ala the older Rocky movies, but you can't just invent a character 40 minutes into the film and expect it to come off naturally. [7 out of 10]
52 Minutes In: Bad bullies
This is a quick one. Rocky Jr. (I guess that's his name) is punched in the gut by school bullies, who then walk away as he heaves on the ground. Things aren't all bad for him, since he just met a girl. Still, ever notice how over-the-top school bullies are in movies? Bullies are a bad real-life problem and everything, but in movies, they might as well be members of the Yakuza. Of course, as undeserved as it is for Rocky Jr. to get punched in the stomach, it's nothing compared to the bullies in Let The Right One In, who go as far as to nearly murder the main character, even though they're like 10 years old. (Let The Right One In, by the way, is a much better vampire movie than Twilight.)
Also, if you were a bully, would you really pick on the son of a great boxer? Seems like a really, really, really dumb idea. [7 out of 10]
1 Hour, 3 Minutes In: Oh the pain
At long last, we finally get some fighting in this movie. But Rocky ain't involved. Tommy Gunn rises to fame under the tutelage of Balboa (via a montage), and Rocky is so preoccupied with the mullet masher that he doesn't even notice that his son is coming home from school with a black eye every day. In a horrible sequence, we see Rocky Jr. getting training tips from Paulie as Rocky commits all levels of sacrilege, bestowing his red-white-and-blue trunks to Gunn, who wears them in every fight he's now in. We see the two of them racing up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and to really stick the knife in the back of fans, the producers don't even use the "Gonna Fly Now" Rocky theme -- you know, the music that's freakin' synonymous with racing up those steps! Instead, we hear a Joey B. Ellis rap song. Guffaw indeed.
Rocky Jr. beats up his bully and impresses his girlfriend, but Rocky doesn't care because he's too caught up in Gunn's... whatever. Meanwhile, Bill Conti must have seen what was happening to the script and leapt into a river, because all of a sudden, his wonderful orchestral music is incognito. Instead, the film has become infested with rap music, and it's not even bad rap music. But it's woefully out of place here.
I can barely describe how excruciating these ten minutes of cinema were. The hand of an editor or executive producer seems obvious, since the movie has taken a complete 180 in a mere twenty minutes. All the emotional promise that had been built up around Rocky's health is gone -- you wouldn't even know the man's brain dead. Adrian is reduced to giving reaction shots. And Tommy Gunn now appears to be the focus of the movie, even though he's a whiny, huge, mulleted, unlikeable pile of meat. I have to imagine he was forcibly inserted into this movie by a producer, since he wasn't even mentioned in the first 40 minutes, and if that’s the case, what a horrible decision that was.
I suddenly feel like I'm watching a completely different movie, and a bad one. [5 out of 10]
1 Hour, 19 Minutes In: Family issues
The film manages to save itself, sorta. Gunn signs a deal with Duke behind Rocky's back, and Rocky finally learns what a whiny, pissy little jackass his protege is. Meanwhile, his drama with his son comes to the forefront. Rocky Jr. claims his dad wasn't there when he needed him, and Rocky manages to get him back on his side after catching him smoking at the corner of an alley. I found it rather unbelievable that the kid immediately transitioned from Goody Two-Shoes to troubled smoke addict in the blink of an eye, but hey, that's Hollywood.
Rocky really is a loveable character. Even though he's made mistakes, he's so happy-go-lucky when his son is screaming at him that it's impossible not to feel for the guy. He's doing the best he can, you little ingrate! Show your old man some respect, you chain smoker!
Mostly, this movie can't ditch the white menace fast enough. Tommy Gunn should've been written out of this movie altogether, and with any luck, we won't see him at all now that he's taught Rocky a lesson. [5 out of 10]
1 Hour, 28 Minutes In: Gimme the gun(n)
So Tommy Gunn wins the heavyweight championship over Union Cane. Rocky, the lovable doofus that he is, is rooting for his former student the whole time. But Gunn doesn't thank him after he wins, and Rocky is given yet another slab of evidence that this guy is a prick. Gunn is then subjected to the most absurd post-fight press conference ever, where all the reporters berate him for beating a "paper champion" while demanding that he fight a legitimate challenger. Gunn is so steamed at his perception of living in Balboa's shadow that he conspires to get Rocky into the ring by any means necessary.
So at last, Gunn reveals himself to be the main villain, and what a terrible one he is. Apollo Creed was cocky, but there was a man behind him; Clubber Lang was vicious, but he at least had the right to disrespect Rocky since he had been fighting easy opponents; and Ivan Drago was doing everything for his country. But this guy? Gunn is a walking overload of unlikability; a good villain should be respectable as he's being bad, like Darth Vader. A bad villain is one you can't wait to die fast enough, and Gunn is certainly that.
This movie is a little too inconsistent for my tastes. I wish there were more tender moments between the Balboas, but they're too few and far between, and at this point, this is only barely a Rocky movie. [4 out of 10]
1 Hour, 40 Minutes In (Complete): Hubba-wha?
A street fight. That's how Rocky V ends. In da streets, yo.
Tommy Gunn goes to a bar Rocky is at and challenges him to a fight. Rocky declines, Paulie insults Tommy, Tommy punches Paulie, Rocky gets mad and challenges him to a bout outside the bar. And oh what a fight it is.
The final fifteen minutes of this film descend into downright silliness. Rocky manhandles Gunn in their fight, stands over him and says what a disappointment Gunn turned out to be and that he loved him. He may as well have yelled, "You were the chosen one!" like Obi-Wan Kenobi did to Anakin Skywalker in Episode III. Then it becomes a cartoon. With no regard for any potentially-fatal blows that might stem from Rocky's brain injury, Gunn proceeds to throw sucker punch after sucker punch, bloodying his teacher considerably. And all the while, a police car is in the background, just sitting there, waiting for the two men to finish. I guess it's legal to beat the crap out of someone on the streets of Philadelphia.
Also the street fight is being televised live thanks to some of Duke's cameramen. Also Rocky Jr. is there and is yelling things like, "He stole my room!"
In the end, Rocky goes down, but he does indeed see the ghostly vision of Mick, and he's inspired to get up despite injuries that probably should have killed him. He beats Gunn, he gets a hug from his wife and kid. He punches Duke, his pastor congratulates him, everyone cheers his name, and like that... it's over.
In the blink of an eye, this movie came to an end that left me more flabbergasted than insulted. But it was appropriate. This movie was ragingly inconsistent. The score bounced from rap to orchestral; characters popped in and out seemingly at random. Duke (not the Don King wannabe, the Duke that was Creed's trainer) makes an appearance in the beginning and is never heard from again. Rocky has an injury that's supposedly life-threatening, but he takes a litany of blows at the end and is somehow perfectly fine. Meanwhile, the subplot about the Balboas needing money is completely abandoned, and Rocky Jr. goes from questioning his dad because they're broke to questioning him because he doesn't spend enough time with him.
Let's make no mistake: this was a bad movie. I had high hopes in the beginning and was reasonably optimistic at one point that it was going to pan out. But something went wrong. I didn't need to read Wikipedia to know that someone chopped and skewered this script, particularly with the ending. It was fairly obvious that Rocky either should have wound up in an indefinite coma or died... or something... against Gunn. No competent writer would construct a fight where the character with brain damage gets pummeled in the head over and over again, and nothing happens to him. After all, this is brain damage we're talking about.
Sure enough, the ending of Rocky V did get a major facelift before it hit the theaters. In the original script, Rocky was supposed to die in his fight with Gunn. But the ending was changed, and Sylvester Stallone, who wrote the movie, later give interviews saying how disappointed he was in the final cut. “It's been gnawing at me for ten, twelve years, how badly Rocky V fared,” he told Reelz.com in 2006. “And I take all the blame for that. … I think it was a reflection of my lack of focus at the time, and it just was translated on to film. … It really defeated all the other Rocky's, and it bothered me because of the people that had been so loyal to it.”
In the end, Rocky V is indeed a terrible movie. I’m torn between giving it a 3 or 4, so I’ll split the difference and give it a 3.5 out of 10. There were enough good, hearty moments to keep me going, and to be honest, I’m glad the movie didn’t follow through with killing off Rocky, which would have made the ending intolerably depressing. It had a ton of structural issues, especially the third act, which may as well have come from a comic book. But it’s not, I repeat, NOT the worst movie of all time. Worst of the Rocky's, sure, but this movie wasn't as ungodly as it could have been. Again, it wasn't good, but between this and The Godfather Part III... boy... I might have to go with Rocky V. I know that's a terrible endorsement, but hey, that's one way I can sell this movie.