Action Heroes – Stallone: Rocky V

Hmmmm…..I’m desperately trying to think of a way of introducing this fifth instalment of the Rocky franchise without using the phrase “What the flaming heck was Sylvester Stallone thinking?!” but I really can’t….

“What the flaming heck was Sylvester Stallone thinking?!”

I’m not sure which aspect of Rocky V I dislike the most, but the fact that there are any aspects to make a list with at all is completely crazy, and tells you all you need to know in a film series that I love and cherish as much as this. Oh dear oh dear where do I begin?

Let me back up a moment and explain where I’m coming from on this one, as I feel that some Benji context is required.

As I have copiously described before, I was, and still am a big Stallone Fan. I had taken a massive personal interest in the Rocky series, with the movies influencing my young self in many ways. When Rocky IV came out in 1985, my tiny fourteen year old teenage mind was whipped up and smashed into millions of adoring little Rocky chunks. It was my movie event of the year. It was also one of the biggest, brashest, most excessive and brilliantly executed movies of its time, and I believe is still today, the most successful sports movie ever in terms of unadjusted box office. I bought the soundtrack on vinyl for pete’s sake!! Rocky IV delivered in spades, and I left the cinema on a high like you wouldn’t believe.

A further sequel seemed assured but the fact that it took five years to happen may be testament to what a troubled piece of work it turned out to be. By the time part 5 hit the screens, I was nineteen, studying Jazz, and living in Liverpool (which is where I saw it). Rather than being on a high, I remember leaving the cinema pretty bummed out and wearing a slightly strange expression on my face. How could THAT have been the new Rocky movie? What’s happened?!

A little while ago, I wrote back to back retrospective reviews of two consecutive James Bond movies: Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only – I noted while researching and writing the latter that it seemed like the franchise was trying some kind of formula ‘soft reset’, as Moonraker had taken Bond down a certain Mega-Blockbuster movie extravaganza route to a point that could not be exceeded. A change of direction, flavour and approach was agreed to be required. I also noted that, although the movie was subsequently successful financially, the plan didn’t really work and the movie left a lot of people (my young self included) somewhat deflated.

It seems possible that something similar happened in Stallone’s mind when envisioning what Rocky V was going to be about. How exactly do you follow Rocky IV? Do you try and make it bigger? More spectacular? Find someone even huger than Dolph for Rocky to be brutalised by, yet finally overcome? This is after all the standard sequel playbook i.e. ‘up’ the ante, give the audience more of what you think they liked, less of what they didn’t, hope that artistic merit comes along for the ride, and that you’ve read the lay of the land correctly as well. The trouble Stallone may have immediately encountered however was that he wasn’t just following Rocky IV was he? He was also following in the footsteps of I,II and III, and it seems all too clear that he was deliberately accepting the challenge, and intending to bookend the series; making part 5 the closing chapter. This means that there was an obvious alternative option to the bigger is better route. Don’t try and beat Rocky IV at its own game. Instead, why not go back to basics, make the story smaller, more compact, more human. Try and make it character driven, and make it less about ‘boxing’ and spectacle, and more about Rocky, his family, and (as it turns out) the betrayal of a protege (Tommy Gunn). Basically, the mantra must have been to try and recapture what made the original Rocky such a good drama. To that end he even hired original Rocky director John G. Avildsen to helm, rather than direct himself, and brought a visibly ancient Burgess Meredith back to play Mickey (in flashback of course).

Sounds like a brilliant plan.

Except of course, it wasn’t brilliant. It was pretty far from brilliant in fact, and I think I know at least some of the reasons why. Hmm, I feel a Benji analogy coming on:

Anyone who knows their Automotive history, might have heard a term few years ago that was very popular called the ‘World Car’ concept. The idea was that as markets became more global, tied together and dependent on each other; the major car companies began to realise that it would really make financial sense if it were possible to produce ‘one’ car that you can sell everywhere, thus saving on all manner of r&d, and tooling costs. Now, these days it’s more about badge engineering and creating engine a drivetrain platforms that can be globally marketed. However, initially the Holy Grail of course was literally, designing a single car that could succeed in a global market, rather than having one for North America, a different one for Europe, and yet another one for the far east or wherever else.

Early attempts at this theory resulted in colossal failure, and the concept was found to be immensely hard to bring to market. At the end of the day, people are different and the car that appeals to folks in the UK, may not float the boats of our American cousins, hence the primary problem with trying to achieve a truly ‘World Car’.

Bear with me a moment and you’ll see how this relates to Rocky V.

I remember a few terrible attempts at the ‘World Car’ – one in particular (I forget the manufacturer), was a car that looked almost the same in the UK as it did in the USA and Europe, yet actually shared very few common components (particularly body panels). It almost completely got the ‘World Car’ formula arse about face, saving the manufacturer almost nothing in economies of scale, and producing cars that were 95% different yet shared a basic, visual surface similarity.

OK I didn’t say it was the most fantastic analogy, but it does illustrate how one can set out with a goal in mind, do your homework and gather together all manner of elements you deem to be essential and still miss the point completely. One could opine that in Rocky V, Sylvester Stallone got the formula for a final Rocky episode, and a return to basics almost completely wrong, and tried to sell us the idea that given a catastrophic (and frankly inconceivable) total loss of fortunes, Stallion and famalam would go right back to the dirty Philly streets they came from, and not only that, but Rocky himself would immediately dig out his nasty old black jacket, gloves, hat and ball, start smoking and go back to all the old haunts. Then we’ve got Adrian getting her old job back at the pet shop, donning her old horn rimmed spectacles, and becoming instantly frumpy again in nighties and bad knitwear. Really? Mrs. Balboa didn’t manage to keep a single nice frock after the Estate Sale? Come on!

Instead of the use of subtle references or gentle reminders of the old times, Stallone bombards us with one chunk of original Rocky memorabilia after another, hitting us like blunt hard blows to the head:

BIFF! – remember this?

POW! – what about this?

KABOOM!! – And there’s this too!

SLAM! – You will accept what I’m trying to sell you!!

This whole dynamic plays so crudely, it’s almost insulting to anyone who holds the series dear. It smacks of a man trying far too hard to link a movie that is all but lost and out of ideas, with its so solid progenitor.

I found it a tough watch at the time, and with every repeat viewing since. Watching it again for the sake of this retro, I found it difficult again to see the good, (but there is some). I still cannot believe this movie made it to the cinema screens like this.

So, as is my wont, I feel I do have to mention the good bits, there aren’t many to be sure, but the core cast is one of them.

Stallone himself, Talia Shire (who had visibly aged between IV and V, destroying the suspension of disbelief that the movie is set directly after part 4), and Burt Young all perform their somewhat enlarged dialogue roles seamlessly, and possibly something about the more familiar blue collar environment seems to bring even more reality out of them (Young in particular). Some of the best moments in Rocky V are these little bits of character business, like when Paulie gets knocked to the floor by the now rogue and out of control Tommy Gunn, and in a quiet moment while the chaos carries on overhead, Rocky helps him up and Paulie, nursing his bloodied, possibly broken tooth says “You shoulda left him on the street where you found him” – Nice bit of business.

Many people I’ve talked to about it seem to dislike the movie, but do think the street fight between Rocky and Tommy is a high point. I disagree. I’m not that moved by that scene. My absolute favourite scene in the movie is Tommy’s world title fight that Rocky et al are watching on TV at home. It’s chock full of subtleties and marvellous business. The moment where Tommy mentions his new promoter as ‘the angel on my shoulder’ instead of Rocky is just heartbreaking. Rocky’s reaction, Adrian’s reaction, and Paulie’s all just beautifully painted, and effective in transmitting the idea of a total and utter betrayal. That scene is the nearest Rocky V gets to bringing me to tears.

Hands down, best scene.

I know the inclusion of Burgess Meredith as Mickey was supposed to be a real plus point and must have looked on paper like a great idea, but in actuality the pathos Stallone creates is almost unbearable and again the whole scene plays so heavy handed as to be almost comical.

Speaking of comical, the things that for me bring this movie down more than anything else are the truly terrible supporting characters. Namely Tommy Gunn, Union Kane, Balboa Junior and worst offender of all, the character of boxing promoter George Washington Duke…..oh dear lord no.

So one can almost forgive Stallone for hiring real life boxer Tommy Morrison to play Tommy Gunn, but not quite. It seems like an odd move considering the success he’d had up until now hiring people who first and foremost could really act, and then teaching them to box. For a supposedly character driven piece, it would seem the right way to approach it. Morrison looks ok (if a little pudgy round the middle) in the ring, but he just doesn’t have the acting chops to hold his own against the core cast. He’s hopeless in fact, and as for that fruity little mullet thing he’s got going on……

Same deal with paper champion Union Cane, he’s completely awful, but at least is not prominently featured enough to wreck the movie.

OK so a quick mention of Rocky Junior played by real life son Sage Stallone. I guess one can’t be too hard on the boy, but seasoned child actor he was not. His scenes play with that awful insincerity and the 2D cardboard nature of child actors. He’s not terrible, but he’s also not very likeable either, which doesn’t help.

So now we come to one of the main architects of Rocky V‘s woes, a certain George Washington Duke.

While watching the movie with my wife, she asked “Is this supposed to be a comedy?” – good point darlin’ good point.

No I don’t believe it is supposed to be a comedy, however the character of Duke is so ridiculously over the top, it beggars belief. There are occasions where you almost expect some kind of cartoon sound effect to happen in conjunction with Duke’s latest bit of terrible over acting, or intensely fake expression. It’s widely understood that the character is a thinly veiled interpretation of real life promoter Don King, but personally I don’t care about that at all. If the real Don King is anything like the Duke character, then I’m glad I don’t know him. What’s important is that the character is nothing but destructive and detrimental to the Rocky universe. It is god awful in the extreme, and he really does wreck every scene he’s in.

Ultimately though, it is not the Duke character alone, or in conjunction with any of the others that make the movie so unsatisfying, but a fatal cocktail of bad concept, bad execution, bad casting and a monumental miscalculation concerning what the audience wants from a Rocky picture.

I almost felt insulted that Stallone released the movie with the end credits showing a montage of stills from all the previous episodes, and to do it with that god awful Elton John song over it just adds more insult to injury. Please no more! Stop! Stop!

It is testament to Stallone’s talent and tenacity, that he not only knew he’d made a misstep with Rock V,but manned up to it, and set out to put things right. With the release of Rocky Balboa in 2006, he found the right formula, and finally created a movie that has the heart and quality to be the series bookend that Rocky V could never have been.

Ben Pegley

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