Continuing my voyage through the Rocky franchise, we come to the one I'd been dreading to watch, Rocky V.
I'd been dreading making it to Rocky V, mainly because very few nice things have been said or written about it. It was the lowest performing Rocky movie. Of all the Rocky movies, it picked up the most negative reviews. Every film franchise has that one film where every fan agrees it's the worst. For The Godfather, it's #3. For Star Trek, it's the odd-numbered films. And for Rocky, it's #5.
Stallone himself even has very few nice things to say about it. In a 2006 interview, when asked to rank all the Rocky films on a scale of 1 to 10, he gave Rocky V "less than 0...doesn't even make the scale." In a 2010 interview, he admitted that he largely did it for the paycheck. After the massive success of Rocky IV, it's no wonder that Stallone was reluctant to do a fifth one. In the late 1980s, when asked about a fifth one, he'd occasionally joke that maybe in #5, Rocky could fight an alien. As has been widely documented by now, a couple of enterprising screenwriters thought that was hilarious, sat down to write "Rocky fights an alien," and the end result was Predator. When I was a kid and first started really getting into movies, I bought this huge coffee table book called The Movies of the Eighties. In the book, they re-print an interview with Stallone on the possibility of a Rocky V, to which Stallone replies "The only one left for Rocky to fight is to go into a mirrored room and fight himself." The chapter ends with, "Stallone must have been ready to go into that mirrored room, because at the time of publication, Rocky V was just announced."
So if the creator and star of the Rocky franchise was doubtful going into it, and he still has doubts about it all these years later, I, of course, had my doubts firing it up on Netflix.
Following franchise tradition, the film starts mere moments after Rocky's final fight. After the pounding he took from Ivan Drago, he's got tremors in his hands that have him worried. He returns to the USA and a hero's welcome, but as soon as he gets off the plane, he's ambushed by the villain of our piece...boxing promoter George Washington Duke, quite obviously based on Don King. Duke represents the current #1 ranked contender Union Cane, and Duke is eager to set up a bout. However, Rocky turns down the challenge at the moment because he's eager to get home to his kid.
Now, I thought Rocky II was contrived to get Rocky back down to the bottom, but this one takes the cake. After returning home, Rocky and Adrian soon discover that their sleazy accountant has cleaned them out, leaving them bankrupt. Rocky considers earning the money back through endorsement deals, but Rocky's lawyers tell him that in the investigation of the sleazy accountant, Rocky's criminal past as muscle for a loan shark will come back to haunt him, so no company will want him. After watching the first movie, I always wondered if that would come back to bite Rocky on the butt later in the franchise. Rocky considers taking up Duke's offer and fighting Union Cane, but the doctors say Rocky suffered permanent brain damage after the Drago fight, and if he steps into the ring again he could die.
With the money gone, his fame tainted, and his career over, Rocky, Adrian, and Rocky Jr move back to the old neighbourhood. Adrian gets her old job back at the pet store. No longer in the best private schools, Rocky Jr starts going to public school where his father's fame makes him a target of bullies. The one thing Rocky owns is Mickey's gym, left to Rocky upon Mickey's passing. So, to make some money, Rocky re-opens the old gym and starts training new boxers. Like I said, highly contrived. All this doesn't stop Duke, though, as he keeps harassing Rocky to get back into the ring.
Both Rocky and Duke see their opportunity in Tommy Gunn, a hungry young boxer who shows up at Mickey's gym, asking Rocky to be his manager and trainer. Rocky's reluctant at first, but if there's one thing I've learned about the franchise, Rocky's fatal flaw is that he's a big softie, so he finally gives in to Gunn and begins training him. And Rocky proves himself to be a rather adept trainer, as Gunn quickly rises through the ranks under Rocky's tutelage. But all of this comes at a price, as Rocky Jr starts feeling jealous of all the attention Rocky is lavishing on his protege, and Rocky Jr falls in with the wrong crowd at school.
Yeah, it's the ol' "father buries himself in work and neglects his family" cliche.
As I said, Duke sees his opportunity, too. If Duke can't have Rocky, he'll take Rocky's protege. With a promise of an easy path to fame and wealth, Gunn signs on Duke to be his manager and leaves Rocky. This breaks Rocky's heart, as he admits to Adrian that he was living vicariously through Gunn's victories, and it felt great having a protege to pass along his knowledge to. Adrian gets all, "Dude, that's what your son's for," and Rocky reconciles with Rocky Jr. But still, when Gunn does win the championship, and accredits his success to Duke, you can see the hurt in Rocky's eyes.
But things are not well in the Duke/Gunn camp. The press and the public are hostile towards Gunn. Gunn is accused of being a manufactured champ, because he never won the title from Rocky. Duke convinces Gunn that the only way he can win respect is in a fight against Rocky. So, Duke, Gunn, and their entourage go down to Rocky's neighbourhood and literally call out Rocky. Rocky keeps saying no, so when Gunn roughs up Paulie in frustration, Rocky agrees to a fight...right here, right now, in the streets. Duke is furious, because he can't make money off a street fight, but Gunn's too angry and frustrated to care.
So what was billed as being Rocky's epic final fight is little more than a street brawl, where Rocky finally delivers a needed comeuppance to his brash, hot-headed padawan, and finally puts Duke in his place.
Ya know, after the years of negative reviews I'd read, I was expecting this film to be a lot worse. You have to admire it for trying to toss aside what the Rocky franchise had become known for at that point. It's not as polished as #3 and 4, trying to recapture some of that grime and grit of the first film. And the traditional Rocky formula is almost gone. You can't fault a franchise film for trying something different.
That being said, swapping one formula for another (Dad buries himself in work, thus neglecting his family) is still a formula. The franchise fatigue was setting in, and you couldn't shake the feeling that you'd seen it all before.
But it's not that bad. Give it another chance.