You have to give it to Sylvester Stallone. The reason why Rocky is such a pop culture icon is because Stallone has always managed to keep him relevant. Rocky could have gone down with eighties icons like Max Headroom or Alf, but Stallone has kept his character socially relevant time and time again. The first film was about the underdog, the second about fame, the third about repeating history, the fourth about the cold war, and part five is where the series trips and falls on its face. “Rocky V” doesn’t have much of a point to make and doesn’t do much of anything with Rock Balboa at all. It seems to be like one of Stallone’s efforts to break Rocky out of the eighties cold war pigeon hole and make him blue collar and the underdog again. Instead rather than building a hopeful and raucously engaging sports drama, “Rocky V” is depressing right until the very end.
It’s really no wonder why Stallone gave us “Rocky Balboa” and “Creed” since Rocky didn’t deserve to end with this fifth and final film. What’s worse is that Rocky devolves in to something of a meat head who punches his problems away. He wants to be a boxer again so he teaches Tommy Gunn how to punch. His son is experiencing a bully in school, so he punches him out. Tommy has fame but hates Rocky for having respect, so they punch their problems away. It’s kind of the anti-thesis of what the original film strived for in which Rocky was a man who worked very hard to win, and managed to win his true love by being a sensitive and caring teddy bear underneath the fists. Here, Rocky is poor again and living in Brooklyn with Adrian, Paulie, and his son. When Rocky takes young boxer Tommy under his wing, he begins to mold him in to a sort of neo-Rocky for the nineties.
But Tommy eventually falls under the spell of fame, money, and the encouragement of a Don King-esque manager (Richard Gant), and soon begins to turn on Rocky. Rocky is something of a shell beyond losing his money, and we now learn that he has considerable brain damage which often gives him a slow response time to most stimuli, and a searing head pain that threatens to kill him at any time. Nonetheless, Rocky becomes obsessed with training and giving Tommy his championship as a means of re-living his glory days. All the while his son Rocky Jr., as played by the late Sage Stallone, is trying to overcome a violent bully in his school, which he uses as a means of connecting with his dad who he hopes can train him to take down his tormentor. Rocky is often depicted throughout the movies as someone who’s slow on the uptake, but here he is written as downright neglectful and dismissive of his own son.
“Rocky V” also struggles to find a narrative within the repeating beats from the previous superior “Rocky” films while tackling the all too low hanging fruit of somewhat jabbing at Don King as someone who took the art away from boxing. John Avildsen tries to inject the same urban grit we saw from the first film, but instead it ends up feeling murky and listless. By the time we enter the obligatory fight in the climax, the interest has waned, and Stallone never really raises a good enough argument for why we should root for Rocky at all. It’s a great thing Stallone brought the character back and redeemed him as best as he could, as “Rocky V” is a brutal and tedious drama that has literally nothing interesting to do with its title character.