On paper, what Rocky V attempts to accomplish is admirable. In the wake of the absurd, wildly excessive Rocky IV, it makes an effort to bring the series back to its humble, character-driven roots. That effort includes bringing back original Rocky director John G. Avildsen, bringing back composer Bill Conti, dropping the outlandish camp elements that marked the third and fourth films and giving Rocky a series of realistic, relatable struggles to deal with. Unfortunately, none of these decisions manage to prevent the film from being terrible.
Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot) may have won the fight against the powerful Russian boxer Ivan Drago, but it seems the fight took a real toll on his health. The doctors tell him that he's suffered some significant brain damage, and that another fight could kill him. Rocky decides to retire – a decision he's made quite a few times, but this time he means it (probably). Unfortunately, Rocky's retirement comes at a particularly tough moment. It seems that Paulie (Burt Young, Rob the Mob) made a bad deal with Rocky's shady accountant, leaving Rocky and his family almost penniless. They're forced to sell their mansion and move back to the low-rent Philadelphia neighborhood they used to live in. Adrian (Talia Shire, The Godfather) goes back to her job at the pet store, Paulie goes back to his job at the meat-packing plant and Rocky starts running the old gym given to him by his late trainer Mickey (Burgess Meredith, Santa Claus: The Movie).
Despite the obviousness of the “money isn't everything” message, the opening scenes have their moments. Under Avildsen's guidance, Stallone begins to feel like the Rocky we knew and loved years ago – the mumbly, big-hearted lunk with a resilient spirit. It doesn't fit at all with the performance Stallone was giving in Rocky IV, but consistency has never been a strong point for this series. There's promise in the notion of Rocky losing everything and attempting to figure out what kind of man he wants to be now that there's no place for him in the boxing ring. Alas, that promise falls apart with the arrival of Tommy Gunn (professional boxer Tommy Morrison).
Tommy is a young, hungry fighter who has fierce admiration for The Italian Stallion, and he asks Rocky to be his trainer. Rocky agrees, eager to give this hot-headed but talented kid the same sort of opportunity Mickey once gave him. Sure enough, under Rocky's wise guidance, Tommy's career begins to skyrocket. Unfortunately, success has a tendency to draw vultures: the Don King-esque boxing promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant, Men of a Certain Age) is determined to get Rocky back into the ring, and feels that his best shot at doing so is to create conflict between Rocky and Tommy. If they start bickering with each other, maybe they'll settle their differences in the ring, right? It's a ridiculous plan, but it works because the film needs it to.
The Rocky series has never been entirely averse to cliches, but the contrived conflicts Rocky V serves up feel like something from a forgettable straight-to-video boxing drama. The dialogue and acting often feel that way, too: Stallone is pretty good, but there's a reason Morrison never acted in another movie. Every single one of his line readings rings false, and he has an awful lot of them to deliver. He handles himself well during the fight scenes, sure, but one can't help but wish that authentic acting hadn't been traded for authentic boxing. The fact that Tommy is saddled with a terrible arc doesn't help – he's seduced into making a series of foolish mistakes, and Rocky ultimately refuses to grant him any forgiveness or redemption. After all, Tommy's not family. It's a weirdly sour note for a film this sentimental.
Sadly, Shire's performance in the film is easily the worst she delivered over the course of the series. It's not entirely her fault, mind you: she's been transformed from the concerned-but-supportive wife who whispered “win!” from her hospital bed into the sort of one-note sports movie wife who spends most of her screen time telling her husband to quit doing what he loves. Yes, there's a difference: Rocky's health (and perhaps even his life) is at stake. However, there's nothing of the original Adrian in the version we're seeing here – it's as if the actress has been hired to play an entirely different, less complicated character.
Let's not forget about the business with Rocky, Jr. (Sage Stallone, Daylight). The previous movies didn't pay a whole lot of attention to Rocky's kids... perhaps due to the fact that Rocky didn't seem to pay a whole lot of attention to his kids. There's potential in the notion of exploring Rocky's failings as a dad, but the film gives this material the after-school special treatment. Rocky Jr. feels that Tommy gets too much of Rocky Sr.'s attention, and starts beating up other kids at school in an effort to become a “real fighter” and get his dad's attention. It's well-intentioned, but painfully on-the-nose (as are the scenes in which the film attempts to caution audience members about the real-life dangers of boxing – you can't preach against the sport and get off on it's thrilling brutality at the same time).
As if these things weren't bad enough, Stallone and Avildsen have to drag poor, dead Mickey back into this mess. Burgess Meredith turns up for a couple of syrupy flashbacks, and his ghost makes a special cameo appearance during the climactic fight between Rocky and Tommy. It feels like a cheap, cynical way to get a fan favorite character back onscreen. Apollo Creed's death may not have been a particularly dignified one, but at least he gets to remain in the grave during this mess.
Stallone has admitted that Rocky V was a film no one really felt inspired to make. He had told all of the Rocky Balboa stories he wanted to tell, but all four of the previous films had been megahits, and the opportunity to wring some more money out of the franchise proved too difficult to resist. That's nothing new – that's the reason most terrible sequels (and even some exceptional sequels) get made – but it feels more than a little ironic given the film's anti-materialism sermonizing. It's the worst film of the series for a wide variety of reasons, but mostly because it's missing something every other Rocky film has: sincerity.
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes
Release Year: 1990