At the beginning of Rocky V (Directed by John G. Avildsen, PG-13), Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has just finished demolishing Drago, the Soviet über-hulk from Rocky IV. For perhaps the first time, he is truly champion of the world. Yet things couldn’t be worse for him. Years of getting pummeled by human wrecking machines have left Rocky permanently brain-damaged. At the insistence of his wife, the ever-loyal Adrian (Talia Shire), he agrees to retire from the ring. What’s more, Rocky’s fortune has gone up in smoke, the casualty of a sleazy accountant who used it to finance a thin-air real-estate deal. Broke, aimless, with no one to count on but Adrian, Paulie (Burt Young), and Rocky Jr. (played by Stallone’s 14-year-old-son, Sage), Rocky digs through the attic, finds his old fingerless gloves, leather jacket, and porkpie hat, and moves the family to the one place he knows will always be home: the ratty row house jungle of South Philadelphia.
After the increasingly pumped-up hyperbole of Rocky II, III, and IV, Stallone has now made an honorable stab at recapturing the innocence of this mega-hit series. He’s trying to take Rocky back to his roots. Stallone wrote the script himself, but the directorial reins are once again held by John Avildsen, whose straightforward touch helped give the original Rocky (1976) its gritty, Frank-Capra-on-the-waterfront charm.
Stallone is funny and touching as the bighearted but now slightly blitzed Rocky, whose mind, for the first time, seems every bit as woozy as his words. Brain damage hasn’t crushed Rocky’s spirit; it has just increased his guilelessness. Stallone makes him shambling and a little out of it, a man who’s aware of what’s happening at any given instant but can’t quite connect each moment to the next. This sweetly downtrodden, punch-drunk Rocky is often appealing to watch. Yet as a character, he doesn’t have much drive — and neither, I’m afraid, does the movie.
It may simply be too late to restore the innocence of the Rocky series. Rocky V uses so many devices to turn Rocky into an underdog yet again that the film doesn’t quite have a center. No longer able to fight, Rocky becomes a trainer and takes a promising young boxer, Tommy Gunn (played by boxing star Tommy Morrison), under his wing.
Tommy starts winning fight after fight, becoming a kind of surrogate for Rocky. Yet it’s not long before he falls under the spell of George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a Don King-like Faustian promoter who tempts him with money, women, and — most important — the title shot that only Duke can provide. At the same time, Rocky is so wrapped up in Tommy’s career that he starts ignoring his family, especially his son, who’s getting picked on at school. Can Rocky save Tommy’s soul, mend the rift with Rocky Jr., and lay to rest his own aging-boxer demons?
The relationship between Rocky and Tommy is central to the movie, yet for some reason it’s barely developed. Tommy Morrison proves to be a flat actor — I began to miss the lurid histrionics of Mr. T and Dolph Lundgren in Rocky III and IV — and it’s never convincing that Rockys cares about this guy in the same way that Burgess Meredith’s Mickey used to care about Rocky. Furthermore, Stallone and his son have such a warm, easy rapport on screen that we don’t really believe Rocky’s ”distance” as a father. Sage Stallone, however, turns out to be a natural actor. He’s a terrific camera subject, boasting a sleeker version of his father’s sad-eyed soulfulness, and he brings a nice vulnerability to the scenes in which Rocky Jr. fights off the bullies at his new inner-city school.
In the end, of course, Rocky Sr. has to fight: That’s the reason we’re there. Only this time, the bout takes place away from the brighter-than-life hoopla of the ring. Fists are raised, the Rocky music swells, and once again America’s underdog clenches his teeth and goes for it. He’ll probably always be a winner at the box office, even if the magic, as dutifully as Stallone has tried to resurrect it, is most definitely gone. B-