Alpha to Omega- Rocky V

Alpha to Omega

The film franchise is an inescapable part of the modern movie landscape. In this series I will address a series of films from the first to the last, looking at each film as a standalone and how it fits into the series.

Rocky V

Movies are a complex thing. So much happens between the page and the screen that it is often a wonder that any movies get made, let alone good ones.

Look at the basic steps-

Pre-Production- Concept, first draft, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, securing finance, finding a director, hiring a crew, casting, location scouting, wardrobe, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Production- Film, rewrite, reshoot, rewrite, reshoot

Post Production- Edit, rewrite, reshoot, edit, sound edit, color correct, recast, rewrite, reshoot....

It’s all a hot damned nightmare.

So, can it really be considered a surprise when a movie that has a really solid concept completely falls apart in execution?

This is the case with “Rocky V,” a movie that is savaged to the point of having its existence outright denied by Rocky fans... and with good reason.

Let me be clear right off the bat, this is not a defense of “Rocky V,” far from it. It’s a pretty awful film. Hell, even Stallone lists this as his biggest regret. Not “Rhinestone,” not “Oscar,”  “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot,” (of which he says,"People didn't expect me in comedies or musicals. I made some truly awful movies. Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was the worst. If you ever want someone to confess to murder, just make him or her sit through that film. They will confess to anything after 15 minutes!"), not “Assassins,” or “The Specialist,” but... “Rocky V.”

But how? The idea, on paper at least, isn’t terrible. In fact, it’s kind of amazing and fits completely with the arc of the films.

Rocky- Act 1- We meet and come to care about the guy.

Rocky 2- Act 2- We see him face setbacks while running from his destiny until he is ultimately forced to face it.

Rocky 3- Act 3- He gets what he wants, loses what he needs, and has to fight his way back.

Rocky 4- Act 4- He goes to Russia and busts the ass of a communist robot.

At this point the series is following typical dramatic structure pretty cleanly. So, what would happen next that would force the story forward.

Well, as it was established in “Rocky 2,” Rock isn’t very bright and has no idea how to manage his money. So, through some completely unimportant plot contrivances, let’s have him lose everything and force him to start all over again with nothing.

If you think about it, this is the only logical way the story could move forward at this stage. By taking Rocky back to who he was at the beginning, making him a stranger to that world, and forcing him to adapt to it again you get to the core of the character. Rocky is, was, and always will be about resilience. No matter what gets thrown at him he keeps moving forward (this will be revisited in the next film).

Think about it,

1- He’s a joke with no chance who has to prove that he is someone.

2- He has to come to terms with who and what he is and come back to himself.

3- He loses touch with who he was and has to earn that fire again.

4- He has to beat up Russia

Again, classic character arc stuff here.

So, after going through all of this and having everything, what do you do?

Simple, you take it all away.

At the beginning of “Rocky V,” Rock has lost the championship by taking part in an unlicensed fight in Russia, he has lost the ability to fight because of the inhuman cranial pounding he took in Russia, he has no money because of... well, that’s a bit convoluted and ultimately unimportant, the point is he’s broke, and because of the fallout from his financial nightmare he can’t even get endorsement deals.

All he has is a house in the old neighborhood, and Mickey’s gym, which was willed to his son when Mickey died.

So, Rocky moves back to the old neighborhood with nothing and the family tries to start over again.

Now, on paper this is a really solid idea. On paper. But when it hit the screen it was... well, a bit of a mess.

Why? Well, Stallone himself put it best.

“I'm greedy - what can I tell you? It was a mistake because the audience didn't want to see the downside of the character. They wanted him to remain on top. I should have known that. I fell into a sense of self-parody."

So, what happened.

Well, lots of things.

Basically, everything involving Rocky and his family was pretty solid (performances not withstanding). Adrian does what she does, she keeps the family together and does what needs to be done to keep things moving. Again, Adrian has always been the heart of the movies and in this film she falls naturally into the role.

His son has to adjust to being the son of a famous/disgraced celebrity, thrown from a comfortable world of rich kids and rules onto the streets of Philly where things are a bit rougher.

Rocky turns to training fighters and running the gym. Basically, back to where he started. He meets a scrappy up and comer and takes him under his wing.

There is so much promise here.

Then it gets strange. There is a Don King-esque boxing promoter who is convinced that he MUST get Rocky to fight again. He turns Rocky’s protege against him and the whole thing ends in a street fight.

What didn’t work?

Well, Richard Gant as George Washington Duke, the Don King character, didn’t make much, if any, sense. He is crazy rich to begin with, so his obsession with Rocky fighting again seems odd. What is the gain? It’s not like it’s life changing money for the man, it’s just more money. No knock against Gant. He does a great job with what he was given. He just wasn’t given much.

Here’s the thing about bad movies, the villain is never more complex than an adjective or two.

Why is he bad? Well, he’s “greedy.”

There isn’t any more motivation than that. No personal vendetta, no complex issue from his past, no nothing. He wants more money and is willing to put Rocky’s life on the line to get it.

Rocky’s protege doesn’t really work because they cast a boxer and tried to get him to act rather than an actor they could make look like a boxer.

Apollo Creed worked because Carl Weathers is unbelievably charismatic. Honestly, you can’t take your eyes off him. Yes, he is an athlete, and a damned good one, but he was undeniably an actor as well.

James “Clubber” Lang worked because Mr. T was an actor. Not a great actor, but Lang was a one note character. T just happened to be able to hit that note cleanly.

Ivan Drago was... well, he didn’t need to do anything other than look like an action figure. Say what you will, but Dolph is nothing if not an imposing force of nature.

So, Tommy Gunn... played by Tommy “Machine Gun” Morrison, had a bit to live up to. Sadly, he didn’t really deliver. Nothing against him. He’s a boxer who had never acted before and hasn’t really acted since playing a pivotal role in one of the most beloved film franchises in history. The kid didn’t stand a chance.

Rocky’s son Robert, played by the late Sage Stallone.... Look, this kid has been the whipping boy of this film since it came out. I’m not going to pile on. Was his acting great? No. Was it horrid... not really. He was a 14 year old kid in his first acting role playing opposite his father in a movie written by his father from a wildly popular series of films created by his father. He was in an un-winnable position from the beginning.

He wasn’t great, but he did as good a job as any person in that situation could reasonably be expected to do.

The story itself is what killed this thing.

Basically, Rocky loses everything, trains a new fighter, neglects his family, the fighter betrays him in a move orchestrated by a greedy fight promoter in an attempt to score a major payday with a Rocky Balboa comeback fight, the young fighter believes the hype, challenges Rocky to a fight, the two have a street brawl, Rocky wins and realizes what is important in life.

You think that’s bad, substitute the ending with “Rocky is beaten to death in the final fight and dies in Adrain’s arms” and you get an idea of how bad it could have been. I am by no means saying that “it’s good because it’s not as bad as it could have been,” quite the opposite, in fact. This movie was so fundamentally flawed that I can’t really think of a way you could have saved it.

I mean, the best I can think of is setting it up as more of a remake of the first movie with Rocky in the Mickey role, and that sounds fucking terrible. Basically, at this stage of the game there isn’t any real way for them to advance the story of the character without doing something they have done before. So, they had painted themselves into a corner. They’ve done redemption and revenge, now they need to do betrayal and survival, which is not inherently a bad idea, but it can’t work because, as Stallone himself said, “the audience didn't want to see the downside of the character.”

This is a character we have invested in. The first time we saw him he was fighting for next to nothing in front of next to nobody and we go with him through all manner of personal turmoil and land on top with him. Asking us to see him lose everything was just asking too much.

To me there is one, and only one, reason to make a sequel. There is a cool or interesting story to tell with those characters. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be some epic story arc or anything. All you need is a good story for those characters. Give an audience that, and things like logic and reason go out the window (Rocky 4 proved that quite convincingly).

Rocky V is a case study in the law of diminishing returns. At some point you just run out of ground to cover. That doesn’t mean that the story or the character is dead, it just means that at a certain point you won’t get what you use to out of them. Most movie series hit this wall a few entries earlier, so to have four solid films out before tanking is pretty impressive.

But if you think about it the movie going public has been so thoroughly conditioned to expect awful sequels that the longer a series goes without producing one, the greater the expectations grow and the harder it becomes to make ones that don’t disappoint. We know that the cliff is out there and that, eventually, the series is going to find it. It seems like every good entry the cliff gets a little bit higher. The higher the cliff, the more spectacular the fall.

So, no, Rocky V is not unwatchable, it’s just bad and in such a beloved and successful series, “bad,” is the same as horrible. Once again, Hollywood proves that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

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