‘Rocky V’ may be the best of the sequels
Recently they’ve been airing the Rocky movies on AMC. After some late nights on the couch and with the help of my TiVo machine, I managed to watch them all over the course of a few weeks. I’m not sure if the experience changed me all that much, though the saga of the Italian Stallion is an extremely engaging one, but I am left with a couple of insights.
For one, Sylvester Stallone was an extremely gifted storyteller and filmmaker before he became a clichÃ© some time in the ’80s. And for another, even though the Rocky series became a tad formulaic and, by the end of Rocky IV, a bit absurd (Rocky training for a fight in Siberia by chopping logs, besting a man twice his size and half his age and then an arena full of Russians chanting his name ‘— ‘“Rocky’… Rocky’… Rocky’” ‘— as he delivers a message of tolerance and world peace over the microphone? Give me a freakin’ break), Stallone was able to bring a fitting and noble end to the dramatic life of Rocky Balboa, one with elements of dignified resignation and closure.
That’s right, I’m saying that Rocky V was the greatest of all the Rocky sequels.
You’re not gonna catch me saying that it was the best of all the Rocky movies ‘— that distinction belongs solely to the 1976 original, written by Stallone and winner of the Oscar for Best Picture of that year. Have you seen it lately? It’s a bit contrived by today’s standards, but the emotion and heart of this story about a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia boxer who gets a million-to-one shot at escaping a life of obscurity cannot be denied. It was certainly Stallone’s finest turn on screen, and no role he’s filled since has played so well off his natural state of punchiness.
By Rocky II, Stallone had already become a bit of a caricature of himself ‘— he’s got the ginzo haircut and the stupid jacket with the tiger on the back, and in this outing he’s beginning to try and shake the dumb-guy persona that made Rocky so loveable in the first film.
The series jumped the shark in 1982’s Rocky III, and I can pin it down to the exact moment: it’s when they slide the body of Mickey, the crusty old Jewish trainer, into the mausoleum slot while Rocky watches, hiding his bruised eyes behind smoked sunglasses after Mr. T beats his ass. I will admit to being visibly affected by this moment when I saw it onscreen in the theater, but as I was only twelve years old and as such my tastes were markedly less sophisticated, I think I can forgive myself. I also had a more-than-passing fondness for the song ‘“Eye of the Tiger,’” for which I have no excuse.
Rocky IV marked the absolute nadir of the franchise ‘— an anti-Soviet diatribe made during the heyday of Stallone’s other badass character, John Rambo. Rocky IV sucked for a lot of reasons, chief among them being Paulie’s robot maid and the conspicuous absence of a Frank Stallone tune.
I’ve always regarded Frank as the more talented and handsome of the Stallone brothers. He’s been nominated for Grammies and Golden Globes, and his name was bandied about at Oscar time after his portrayal as the surly bartender from Barfly in 1987. But I digress.
Rocky V was in many ways a work of genius nearly equal to that of the first. If you haven’t had the pleasure of sitting through it, let me break it down for you.
Rocky wins his fight against Drago, the Russian, but at a terrible price. ‘“I can’t stop my hands from shaking,’” he tells Adrian (though, admittedly, they only seem to be shaking in that one scene). Adding to his troubles, Paulie has signed power of attorney over to Rocky’s accountant and the bastard has stolen everything ‘— the house, the cars, all the trappings he’s accumulated over the years save for the gym willed to them by Rocky’s deceased manager Mickey and where the future champion once trained. Rocky, Adrian and their teenage son are forced to move back to the tough Philly neighborhood from whence they came and run the gym for income. ‘“Did we ever leave this place?’” he asks Adrian.
‘“I’m not sure,’” she replies.
Can you see the closure forming here, people?
As the plot unfolds Rocky takes on a fighter, a young nobody whom he takes through the same training sequence he endured in the first two movies’— the same exercises, the same camera angles, the same music. The young fighter (played relatively convincingly by Tommy Morrison, a real-life boxer and onetime holder of the WBO heavyweight title who eventually contracted AIDS and served time for weapons and drug charges) even fights in the same Philly boxing club used in the opening scene of Rocky, with the mosaic tile Jesus on the wall.
Throw in a dozen or so references to the original film, a shady Don King clone, a betrayal and a flimsy Oedipal motif and you can see why I love this movie so.
But the best part is the finale, when Rocky and his protÃ©gÃ© duke it out in the streets of Philly amid piles of garbage and the clanging of chain link fences. Rocky was always a street fighter, you see; at this moment the protagonist comes full circle and the cycle is complete. Or to put it another way, the horse is finally beaten to death.
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