Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Go For It: An Examination of ROCKY V

by Adam Riske and Patrick Bromley
Patrick and Adam revisit the overly maligned 1990 entry in the saga of Rocky Balboa.

Adam: Patrick, what’s your history with Rocky V? For me it was a cable staple and the first Rocky movie I ever saw as a kid. It’s part of my DNA. Are 9-year-olds the best audience for Rocky V?

Patrick: Rocky V was the first Rocky I ever saw theatrically because it was a divorce movie (a movie I saw with my dad in 1990 because it’s what we did together once my parents split the same year). I’m not sure I had seen it since then, because its reputation and my memory of it always told me it wasn’t a movie I needed to revisit. Having watched it again for the first time in 30 years, it’s both not as bad as I remember and also not a movie I like very much. Would that I was 9 years old again.

Adam: Rocky V came at a career lull for Sylvester Stallone, who seemed to be going back to the well for a hit after Over the Top, Lock Up, and Tango & Cash. It’s an interesting counterbalance to where he was in 1985 when he had huge financial successes with Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV. During that time, he was really feeling himself. Rocky V, and Stallone’s portrayal of Rocky Balboa in the film, feels like a self-imposed humbling that extends past the screen. Stallone has done this at least a couple more times in his career. Do you think Rocky V is more interesting than the previous sequels because we’re seeing an artist who is usually an alpha in a meta state of vulnerability?
Patrick: It’s surprising to me that Stallone only made one Rocky movie in the ‘90s and that it kicked off the decade, because he had a pretty rough ‘90s overall, box office-wise. Maybe he would have gone back to the well much sooner if audiences of that time had the same hunger for nostalgia, the way they seem to have in the 2000s. I think Rocky V works better in the context of 1990, in that it’s a return back to what made the character so special before the success and bombast went to Stallone’s (and Rocky’s) head in III and IV. Trying to turn Rocky into the new Mickey is a logical progression for the character, and going back to his roots in Philadelphia is, as you said, a welcome humbling. In 2020, though, I think it suffers from the existence of Creed, which is like if someone did Rocky V really, really well. Creed kind of renders Rocky V irrelevant.

Adam: I agree Creed is the best version of “this” (outside of the original Rocky), but I don’t know if Creed would exist if the seeds weren’t planted already in Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. I like what you said about Rocky V being better in the context of 1990. I was thinking about how Stallone clearly has an opinion about promoter Don King (and probably Mike Tyson), an unfavorable one at that, and made a satirical comment on the late ‘80s-early ‘90s era (era) of boxing with his George Washington Duke character (played by Richard Gant) and to a lesser extent Tommy Gunn (the late Tommy Morrison). Selfishly for me, I also just love Rocky V as a time capsule for 1990 - that period where the early ‘90s was still trying to find its footing and shedding the trends of the late-’80s. This is evident in the soundtrack which ranges from music by Snap! and MC Hammer to Elton John ballads.

What did you think of the sections with Sylvester and Sage Stallone? It obviously made me sad (because Sage Stallone passed away at a young age), but I think their rapport livens up the movie in a couple of key ways -- the first is opening a son vs. surrogate son dynamic w/Tommy Morrison, and second giving Sylvester Stallone someone else to play off of instead of the (by this time) trite interplay Rocky has with Adrian (Talia Shire) and Paulie (the eternal Burt Young). The best I can say about the Adrian material in Rocky V is that there’s a certain poignancy to Stallone and Shire’s scenes together knowing Adrian doesn’t make it to the next sequel.

Patrick: Watching the movie this time, I was struck by how strange it is that Talia Shire is a very famous actress who basically only ever played Connie Corleone and Adrian. Her scenes with Rocky in this movie are fine, I guess. They basically just keep saying the same things to each other, which is one of my problems with the screenplay for Rocky V. I like the stuff with Sage a lot better, because I really like Sage’s performance. My 30-year old memory is that he was bad in the movie, cast only as a bit of nepotism not unlike Sofia Coppola’s turn in Godfather III the same year. I was totally wrong. He’s my favorite part of the movie now, sensitive and natural in a movie where almost no one else is. It’s wonderful to see Stallone on screen with his real son and mostly made me very sad that Sage left the world so soon.

This is probably a good time for me to mention that I find Stallone’s performance in Rocky V... distracting. I know he means well every time he goes to play Rocky again, especially here when he’s bringing the character back to his humble beginnings, but it comes across almost as a caricature of what Rocky started out being. Is he just leaning too hard into the “brain damage” subplot? Am I being too hard on him?
Adam: Sage Stallone is great in Rocky V. Off-topic, do you remember a movie called Chaos that came out in the early 2000s that starred Kevin Gage and Sage Stallone? I remember Roger Ebert really going after that movie. I never saw it (fear of Gage, the reviews made it sound repulsive).

Anyways, back to Rocky V. Stallone is leaning into the character in a peculiar way. I realized as I was watching Rocky V that my Stallone impression is straight from this movie (e.g. ending everything with “yo” or saying, “you know, it’s like-a..” at the start of a sentence). He’s playing the character in the “sweet spot” of below his normal intelligence and John Travolta in The Fanatic. Stallone course-corrected this in Rocky Balboa. The Rocky in Rocky V could not run a restaurant. He plays “brain damage” in a way that reminds me a lot this time of Harrison Ford’s performance in Regarding Henry. This might sound completely loony, but a reason Rocky Balboa is one of my favorite characters is because he’s very emotionally intelligent. He’s not the textbook definition of “smart,” but he can express himself in bold, unguarded ways that level me at several points throughout the series.

Do you find yourself enjoying any of the campier elements of Rocky V? This is one of those movies where I can objectively see it’s not great, but I only want to love it. Some of the earlier touchstones of the series (the priest blessing Rocky, Paulie’s fits, Adrian’s pleading) are now all basically parody. I enjoy them in a Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding kind of way. Plus, there’s Union Kane/E from Entourage/Home Team/He Took My Room etc... it’s like AM/PM - too much good stuff.

Also, where would you put Tommy Gunn in the pantheon of Rocky challengers? I might be crazy, but I think he’s an interesting character, like Rocky’s black-suit Spider-Man. The ending is a bit rushed though. I think they could have set up the two guys coming to a head earlier in the movie.

Patrick: I’ve avoided Chaos my whole life because of Ebert’s review. I don’t need a remake of Last House on the Left minus the artistry. But I’ll always love Sage for being one of the people behind Grindhouse Releasing.

Here’s where I have to be honest and say that Rocky has never been my series. I guess that means you should have written this piece with Rob, but maybe you guys have already covered your feelings on these movies in past columns. I don’t straight up dislike any of them (even III has Thunderlips and Mr. T), but my affection for the franchise never goes much further than me liking Sylvester Stallone and wanting to see him make good movies. I think there’s, like, half a good movie in Rocky V -- the stuff that Creed takes and builds on to make a much better movie.

Tommy Gunn is part of that equation. He’s half of an interesting character. Morrison’s performance is fine (like Sage, he’s better than I remember), and I really like your “black suit Rocky” comparison, but it’s almost like the movie doesn’t know what to do with him once he finds success. His heel turn is so fast and makes very little sense, so the fight at the end doesn’t feel earned at all.
For me, the campier stuff is at total odds with the “back to basics” approach of the movie. Bringing back John Avildsen and getting Rocky back to his roots suggests that Stallone knows he had strayed too far from what the franchise was originally about, but then the 1990-ness of it all gets in the way, so we get Tommy Gunn and George Washington Duke and that soundtrack and that disastrous final fight, which turns into an Oliver Stone movie. It’s a style that’s totally out of Avildsen’s comfort zone and it shows. Did you know that Rocky was originally supposed to die in that fight? Not only would that ending have denied us two of the best Rocky movies, but also would have made Rocky V more or less irredeemable.

Adam: I had heard Stallone wanted to kill off Rocky in Rocky V, but the studio persuaded him out of it. I’m glad. I go into each new Rocky movie worried he’s going to kill off Rocky. That’s not where I want to see his story end ever. I’m not a big fan of Creed II (it’s fine but a real letdown from Creed), but I will say I loved where they left the Rocky Balboa character at the end of the movie: at Milo Ventimiglia’s doorstep.

Also, I’m happy to be writing this with you since you’re not totally in the bag for Rocky. It balances the conversation.

Heavy Action 1990 Lightning Round to wrap up: Gut impulse, what do you think of each of these?

RoboCop 2
• Death Warrant
• The Rookie
• Lionheart
• Navy Seals
• Another 48 Hrs.
• The Hunt for Red October
• Air America
• Days of Thunder
• Kindergarten Cop
• Young Guns II
• Memphis Belle
Patrick: Oh boy. I wish I liked most of these movies more but would watch any single one of them if they were on.

RoboCop 2 - Some great stuff, some terrible stuff. It’s hard to follow up a perfect movie.

Death Warrant - I haven’t seen this as many as a lot of other Van Damme movies, but I’m a fan. This whole period really is his Golden Age.

The Rookie - An early divorce movie (movies I saw with my dad after my parents split up). My dad was a big Clint Eastwood fan, so he picked this one over several other more age-appropriate movies for us to see.

Lionheart - I know this is technically a better movie than Death Warrant, but I think I would rather watch Death Warrant. Competitive fight movies have never been my kind of action movie.

Navy Seals - Chuck Sheen. Bill Paxton. Michael Biehn. Lewis Teague. Maybe I shouldn’t dig it, but I can’t help it.

Another 48 Hrs. - I’m a huge fan of the original movie, and there’s enough Walter Hill in the sequel to make it super watchable for me, but it definitely feels like a paycheck movie for almost everyone involved. So much breaking glass.

• The Hunt for Red October - I think I’ve only seen this once. I know people love it.

Air America - I was so, so excited to see this movie as a kid. Having seen it, I have no idea why.

Days of Thunder - Pretty much in the same category as Top Gun for me, except that I like Nicole Kidman more than I do Kelly McGillis. Plus, this one has Caroline Williams, so advantage Cole Trickle.

Kindergarten Cop - Another early divorce movie. It’s weird how many family comedies of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s ended with characters in mortal danger.

Young Guns II - Saw this first show, first day. Didn’t love the fates of all the characters (RIP Doc), but I’m still a big fan of this movie. The photography is gorgeous and “Blaze of Glory” should play when I’m dying.

Memphis Belle - One of Doug’s favorite movies, and a movie I saw in the very early days of getting to walk to the Elk Grove Cinema and see movies by myself. I didn’t have any interest in WWII movies, but it was PG-13 so I could get in. I liked it way more than I expected to and still like it more than a lot of war movies.

Happy 1990 week, Adam! Go for it!

Adam: More Lionheart for me to love! Happy 1990 week, Patrick! Home Team!

1 comment:

  1. The only good thing to come out of Chaos was it's director challenging Outlaw Vern to a wrestling match after Vern trashed the movie in his review.