Only in America: Rocky V (1990)
America is a nation of mythmaking. We tell stories about our pasts to make the future look brighter. We sand over repercussions and consequences in order to tie our legends into a tidy bow. Rocky (and its sequels) is seen as the quintessential depiction of the American Dream. A young man comes from nothing, and succeeds through hard work, with a supportive woman behind him, and a loving community around him. Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) may lose the fight, but it’s a moral victory. It’s about perseverance and determination—never backing down and always hitting your potential.
By the time we get to Rocky V in 1990, Rocky has had his ups and downs. He won the fight against both Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), and married the love of his life Adrian (Talia Shire). But he lost his trainer and mentor Mickey (Burgess Meredith). High off his success in Russia, Rocky returns home to his wife and teen son Robert “Rocky Jr” (Sage Stallone). He loses his fortune after his accountant runs off with his money, and is forced back to his old neighborhood in Philly. A sleazy promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) is pressuring Rocky to fight a hotshot champion, which Adrian is against because Rocky is suffering from brain damage. Rocky Jr. feels neglected by his dad when Rocky starts to train an inexperienced boxer Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison).
An out of touch Rocky—unable to fight, not connecting with his son, and training some young blood—is a natural progression for the character. Some of those elements are present in Ryan Coogler’s exceptional Creed. What goes wrong with Rocky V is there is a wistful longing for the past, and Rocky’s (even Stallone’s ) need or some reassurance that he had it right all along. It’s a classic baby boomer set-up, where Rocky got his success from putting his heart into his work. Working class people are the real deal, uncorrupted by wealth and fame. He achieved the American Dream because he had spirit, and these other guys…they’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Ultimately, Rocky is the champion because he’s always right.
None of this inherently makes for a bad film. But, Rocky V is a silly, ludicrous film. The dialogue is clunky, the narrative threads are handled clumsily, and the acting is rather forced. Plot points are not so much introduced but just appear and coerce attention away from something else. For example, Rocky Jr. gets bullied by some kids in his new school, beats one up after some training from Uncle Paulie (Burt Young), and then makes friends with them. Rocky Jr.’s victory over his bullies is a triumphant moment for him, but then the film shows that he fell in with a bad crowd (wearing a ridiculous earring!!), showing attitude to his family. All that comes out of nowhere.
Originally the script said that Rocky would die after the climactic street fight with Tommy Gunn, putting an end to the Rocky franchise. And it makes sense that Stallone would have that impulse. I don’t think anyone really believed in this film behind or in front of the camera. Sylvester Stallone later confessed regret for Rocky V, even suggesting he made the film out of greed. But if Rocky had died in the end we wouldn’t have gotten Creed or even Rocky Balboa, both of which are well-regarded. The studio demanded a change to the ending, because this franchise is about hope, redemption, and perseverance. And they’re right. If the Rocky series is a wish fulfillment story, then he needs to come out on top. I just wish Rocky V wasn’t such a condescending, transparent yearning for a glorified past.