In anticipation of the November 25th release of CREED, we’ll be taking a look back at the ROCKY franchise and discussing why these characters and this world are still relevant and necessary forty years later.
Rocky V effectively killed the Rocky series. Sylvester Stallone considers the movie the series’ true nadir and one he made out of greed. Director, John G. Avildsen, who was nominated for an Oscar for directing the original Rocky says the movie isn’t what he wanted it to be. At one point, Rocky was supposed to actually die at the end of the movie, really ending the series, but Stallone reworked the script so he came out victorious. To put it bluntly, many people really hate this movie. Those people clearly haven’t seen Rocky IV, because while Rocky V is an aesthetically unappealing film with poor writing and a strange finale, it also features the purest continuation of the character since Rocky II.
Rocky V picks up immediately after Rocky IV and cleverly uses the events of that movie for exactly what they are: PTSD-inducing trauma. Rocky isn’t the same after his fight with Ivan Drago. We first come upon Rocky in the shower, hardly able to breathe and shaking, calling out for Adrian to help him. Drago knocked Rocky so silly that he’s permanently brain-damaged and is no longer allowed to fight. He returns to a country which, despite having stopped the entire Cold War, is displeased with his unwillingness to jump back in the ring and defend his title. Enter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), an overt Don King reference who will stop at nothing to profit from Rocky’s name.
To make matters worse, it looks like Paulie has been up to his old tricks being a pile of human garbage and has wasted the entirety of the Balboas’ fortune on a bad investment deal. Rocky, Adrian, Robert Jr. (having strangely aged years in what has only been just a few months) and Paulie have to move back to the slums of Philly where Rocky dusts off the old black jacket and hat. Rocky takes up training fighters in Mickey’s old gym and is introduced to young brute, Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). Tommy represents everything that Rocky thinks he used to be. He’s a bruiser with nothing but his punch in his pocket, looking to get his chance.
The only problem here is that Rocky was never Tommy Gunn. Sure, Rocky Balboa comes from nothing and is known for being a punching bag with a steel jaw and brutal left hook but he was never a guy looking to conquer the world. He had goals but he also had fears. Rocky was selected by Apollo Creed to fight for the championship and all he wanted was to last against the champion and hold his own. Rocky was never greedy.
Nonetheless, Rocky takes Tommy Gunn under his wing, training him and thusly ignoring the needs of his son. Robert Jr. is getting bullied at school and is in desperate need of fatherly attention after a short lifetime without Rocky. He isn’t wrong in his anger at Rocky, but Rocky isn’t displacing Robert for a new son like he thinks. Tommy represents Rocky’s skewed version of his mirror image. The movie is smart in letting Rocky just be Rocky, not forcing him into a corner where he’s purposefully hurtful toward his son because of his physical inadequacies. Rocky just doesn’t know how to handle that relationship, as evidenced by his awkward interactions with Robert Jr. before the family is kicked out of their mansion. Robert Jr. learns to fight on his own (with lame help from Paulie) and eventually becomes leader of his own pack, resentful of his dad for not helping him get to where he is.
Rocky, being the sweet soul that he is, can’t see that Tommy is slowly being poached by Duke who offers Tommy his chance at the title. Tommy, being the lump of stupid that he is, falls for the facade of women, cars and money and leaves Rocky for the title fight. The public, quite unbelievably, rejects Tommy Gunn as their champion after he wins his fight which prompts Tommy into confronting Rocky once and for all, demanding a fight so he can be crowned the true champion. The film resolves in a brutal street bout between Rocky and Tommy. Rocky is seemingly the great fighter he always has been (and totally unfazed by all the further brain damage he racks up here) and knocks Tommy onto his ungrateful ass. Rocky also gives Duke the what-for despite Duke’s constant threats of, “You touch me, I sue.”
The neighborhood, the Balboas and even the law enforcement hovering around to see the illegal street brawl shuffle their champion into an ambulance and, for at least 16 years, off into that good night.
If this had really been the last we saw of Rocky Balboa, I don’t believe this movie would hold as high esteem for me as it does. Judged on its own merits, it is a welcome return to the truest version of this character that falls into disappointment. Tommy Gunn, while being a compelling villain, is written too broadly and portrayed by an out-of-his-league actor. Ending the film in an all-out street fight also feels wrong as this was once the guy who refused to break someone’s thumbs in the shipyard even though he probably deserved it. The film is lit poorly, giving it the feel of an early ’80s indie flick and replaces the iconic score for ill-fitting pop/rap.
There are blemishes all over this movie, but it isn’t the disaster history has made it out to be and is often quite entertaining. After what became a parody of the character in parts III and IV, we finally have our Rocky back. We get him back even more some sixteen years later, with Rocky’s fully-formed triumph movie, Rocky Balboa. Bring some tissues for that one, folks. It’s going to hurt.