Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Rocky Road: Rocky V (1990)

Here's a shocker: I come not to bury Rocky V, but to praise it.

Upon its release in 1985, Rocky IV achieved a degree of financial success that was heretofore unprecedented for the boxing franchise. However, given the critical brickbats it endured on the way to box office nirvana, one could make the argument that writer/director/star Sylvester Stallone had sold Rocky Balboa's soul to get there. In many ways, Rocky IV was to this series what Moonraker was to James Bond -- hugely successful financially, but completely at odds with everything preceding it. In Bond's case, that meant using the next entry (1981's For Your Eyes Only) to re-ground the secret agent in a traditional espionage story.

For Rocky, it would necessitate Stallone going to ground for a few years to come up with a story that not only recaptured the essence of why audiences the world over had first fallen in love with him lo those many years ago, but also gave them something that was worth the wait. After a four-year layover, during which the star saw his box office fortunes vary wildly (1986's Cobra was a smash, 1988's Rambo III wasn't), he decided that the best thing he could do for his most famous character was to kill him off. Yep, the big idea for Rocky V was to culminate with our hero taking a dirt nap. 

And make no mistake, this wasn't just some passing fancy on Stallone's part. The assumption all the way through filming was that it would lead up to that ending. In a sense, you can sort of see where he was coming from with this daring idea. After all, short of shooting Rocky into space to box against Darth Vader, there wasn't much he and the other Rocky creatives could come up with to top the borderline super-heroic antics of the earlier films. So what better way to re-emphasize the essential vulnerability and humanity of his alter ego than by actually finishing him off?

In fact, vulnerability was the order of the day when it came to Rocky V, which required our hero to transition from world champion back to underdog. Picking up right where the previous sequel left off, we learn that Rocky has suffered brain damage after the brutal battle with Ivan Drago (in TV Tropes terms, this is the ol' "Happy Ending Override"). Bad enough that he has to retire upon his return to America, but he soon also learns that some crooked maneuvers by his accountant (inadvertently aided by the ever-unhelpful Paulie) have left him penniless. And so, the mansion, the cars, and presumably the robot, are all put to auction, with Rocky and family heading back to the mean streets of Philly to start over. 

This proves especially challenging for Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone, son of Sly), going from the lap of luxury to something much, much less. Meanwhile, Rocky makes the acquaintance of a young fighter named Tommy "The Machine" Gunn (Tommy Morrison), who shows enough promise that he convinces the retired champion to mentor him and serve as his manager. While things initially appear promising for the Balboa-Gunn team, things take a turn when unscrupulous promoter Duke (Richard Gant) sees an opportunity to cash out by pitting student against teacher.

This all would have culminated in a brutal street brawl between Rocky and Tommy, with Rocky dying in the arms of his beloved Adrian (pregnant with a girl) after sustaining one too many hits. Certainly, this was the coda that was championed by Oscar-winning original Rocky helmer John Avildsen, who returned for this presumably final entry (as did composer Bill Conti, after sitting out the last one). But whether as a result of pressure from the studio or Stallone himself having second thoughts about axing one of his most reliable meal tickets, the ending was changed at the last minute to one that has Rocky living to fight another day.

When assessing the overall quality of this franchise, it's become popular in most circles to point to this installment as the one where things went topsy-turvy, but the truth is that Rocky V is far better than most folks give it credit for. If anything, the reason it comes in for so much criticism isn't even (entirely) the fault of the movie itself, but rather that it got stuck with having to course-correct from Rocky IV's go-for-broke antics. And let's face it, given how number four turned out, it can't help but feel like a letdown when you start the next entry with brain damage and bankruptcy right out the gate.

If I have a quibble, it's just how quickly that bankruptcy happens and how totally destitute it leaves him. The preceding two entries had Rocky achieve such a high degree of success that it strains credibility to believe he'd end up right back where he started. I mean, this is the guy who had the entire Soviet politburo applauding for him last time. If George Foreman could make a fortune by endorsing a fat-burning grill, you're telling me that Rocky Balboa, the guy who singlehandedly ended the Cold War, couldn't throw his name on an appliance or two? Hell, have him sign autographs for an afternoon.

Still, if that's a necessary bit of story illogic we have to swallow, it shouldn't take away from what the movie does well. For one thing, Rocky suddenly feels like Rocky again, with Stallone bringing back the slurred speech and trademark hat from the first two entries. Also, there's some nice character stuff with Adrian, as well as with Rocky Jr. as father and son work through the changes in their suddenly dynamic relationship (Stallone reportedly got emotional on-set due to some of the dialogue with his real son hitting too close to home). We also get a sweet cameo by Burgess Meredith for a flashback that's one of the best scenes in the entire series.

As far as the opponent in this go-round, while it's hard to top Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago in the boo-hiss department, Tommy Gunn definitely pulls his weight, gradually earning the resentment of Rocky's nearest and dearest even as the big-hearted former champ makes excuses for him. While Morrison's acting inexperience (he was an actual pro fighter making his screen debut) is evident at times, there's enough reality to him that we buy his eventual heel turn. It helps that, as the audience, we're privy to the slow seduction of wealth and glamor by Duke even as Rocky himself remains unaware, so it's just a waiting game until the two confront each other. 

As for the street fight, I think it was a clever way to have Rocky do his thing without contriving another reason to get back in the ring. After Tommy separates from Rocky and ends up winning the title on his own (albeit against a manufactured champion), the press turns on him, loudly proclaiming that he'll never measure up to the beloved teacher he left by the wayside. Determined to prove his worth, Tommy ambushes Balboa at a local bar, but the Italian Stallion is determined to let things be. That is, until Tommy makes the mistake of pasting (an admittedly mouthy) Paulie across the kisser. "You knocked him down, why don't you try knocking me down now?" says Rocky, just before battle commences.

And remember, at the time they made the thing, this really was meant to be his final battle. Even after having second thoughts about the "Rocky dies!" twist (which surely would surely have generated a few headlines), the plan was fully in place that this fourth sequel would put a bow on the whole shebang. Heck, the closing credits even cycle through a series of still images encompassing all five Rocky flicks, with Elton John's catchy valedictory ballad "The Measure of a Man" playing over them. Of course, what neither Stallone nor Avildsen nor the studio could have anticipated was just how apathetic audiences had become in the interim. 

Heavily tipped by home studio United Artists' to be their make-the-quarter release, Rocky V landed with a resounding thud when it hit theaters in November of 1990 (mere weeks before Talia Shire's other franchise's ultimate chapter, The Godfather Part III). While Rocky V grossed a not-insubstantial $120 million worldwide against a $40 mil budget, that was still less than half of what Rocky IV had grossed five years earlier. Also, if Stallone had hoped critics might favor the newly-stripped down, grounded approach, he bet wrong. They were just as vicious with this one as they had been for number four. (Unfairly so, I'd argue.) 

Nonetheless, my personal feelings notwithstanding, there's no denying that Rocky V was a disappointment when compared to the outsize expectations it engendered. In the years since, even Stallone has said he did it more for the money than anything else. And so, after fourteen years and five films, it sure looked like the Rocky saga had come to an ignominious conclusion -- ending with a whimper rather than a bang. But as any boxer knows, as long as you're in the fight, you have a puncher's chance. And while it would take awhile for him to get back in the ring -- sixteen years, in fact -- Rocky Balboa was still determined to go the distance.

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