The Rocky franchise is arguably the most beloved film franchise in American history over the last century. And then there’s Rocky V.
Each film in the Rocky Balboa franchise has a ton of heart and connects to the viewer in its own unique way. Yet, Rocky V tends to be the glaring misstep in the collection. In fact, some fans decide to ignore this film completely.
Now I’m not here to say Rocky V is the best film in the franchise. However, the purpose of this column is about “underappreciated” and “underrated” films. If you think about the story, you may agree Rocky V does deserve recognition and even some brotherly love among its constituents.
i must have broke you
One reason you may have trouble appreciating Rocky V is there is no real boxing match. There is no bell. There are no rounds. We’re missing the “big fight feel.” However, I want you to take a step back and ask yourself, “Where does the life of a boxer lead?“
We see Sylvester Stallone‘s Rocky come home in one piece miraculously, following the biggest fight of his life against Ivan “I must break you” Drago. Throughout the film, every time Rocky becomes agitated or disgruntled, we see flashbacks to his first fight with the Russian superpower. Rocky suffers from PTSD, as do most boxers and other high-impact athletes. In Rocky’s situation, going toe-to-toe with incredible athletes like Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Drago has taken a serious toll on his health.
Rocky V begins with Rocky Balboa announcing his retirement, despite intriguing offers from multiple promoters. This makes for a great debate between Rocky and his wife Adrian. Rocky’s life is boxing. He is the fighter, committed to his family but lives for his craft. It’s evident Rocky feels he would be losing a part of himself by giving up the sport that has truly given him everything.
Adrian knows her husband. She is fully aware of his internal struggle, but reminds him of his responsibilities as a husband and father. There comes a time every athlete has to hang up their boots (or gloves). To truly be there for his family, this is the harsh reality that Rocky must learn to accept.
a young gunn
In walks Tommy Gunn.
Off the bus from Oklahoma, Gunn leaves his hometown in search of opportunity and to make a name for himself. When the two boxers meet, Gunn asks Rocky to train him. Rocky is taken back at first because he has never thought of himself as a teacher. He believes he was only ever the student, under the tutelage of Mickey Goldmill.
Although Rocky has his doubts, he sees a lot of himself in this persistent, hungry young man. After some convincing and borderline harassment, Rocky finally decides to take Gunn under his wing and become his trainer.
In Rocky V, we see a very realistic sequence of events for our protagonist. The Italian Stallion has put his mind and body through hell, leaving nothing left to offer in the squared circle.
So what better way to hold onto his decorated career than to coach and live vicariously through Tommy Gunn as he enters the boxing world?
Rocky and Tommy develop a strong bond. It’s so strong that Rocky invites him to live at his house, be part of the family. Rocky becomes excited talking about his past in the ring and remembering his late trainer Mickey. The guy even gives Apollo’s trunks his boxing glove necklace Mickey gave him.
We see all of this unfold from the point-of-view of Rocky’s son, Robert (Sage Stallone, Sly’s real son who died at 36). While Rocky is having the time of his life with his new protege, Robert falls by the way side. Robert is struggling with bullies at school, looking for guidance, and his own father is nowhere to be found.
Rocky is much too busy with Tommy to pay any attention to his own flesh and blood. There were several times during this film I wanted to take a shot at Rocky! It’s that frustrating. While his negligence is completely unintentional, Robert and Adrian take it to heart. They wonder when Rocky is going to realize that Gunn won’t require his guidance much longer.
Before I proceed, what a great of a character we were blessed with in Richard Gant’s “Don King-esque” George Washington Duke! This man is an absolutely riot. His over-the-top ego and clear malicious and money-hungry intentions make for the perfect love to hate antagonist!
Early on in the film, Duke attempts to make Rocky his cash cow, but soon realizes Tommy Gunn is becoming the talk of the town.
As Gunn rises to stardom, Duke introduces Tommy to the lavish life of riches, fast cars and beautiful women, slowly drawing him further and further from Rocky.
This is perhaps his most crushing blow when Tommy gets on the mic following his big-championship win. The Balboa family watches on the television at home, Rocky all smiles as Tommy says he could not have done without the help of… none other than the Duke!
Ugh! What an absolute punch in the gut! This finally opens up Rocky’s eyes: His relationship with Tommy was over. Blinded by the fame and material world, Tommy had used Rocky and threw him out. Tommy had every tool that a young Rocky Balboa had. But, he lacked one thing–heart.
Just as we felt for Robert, we feel for Rocky, dumped and betrayed. We know Rocky isn’t one to pick a fight, but we know for sure that Uncle Paulie can’t keep his mouth shut! When Gunn encounters Rocky at the bar, Paulie gets right in his face, calling him out for the fraud and selfish bastard he is! Of course, Gunn gets physical.
Rocky proved he could stay out of the ring for his family, but one thing he won’t allow, is someone to hurt one of his own. And so comes the best line of this move, “my ring’s outside.”
the people’s champion
Rocky is as much of a man as he ever was! He is the true people’s champion, always willing to do the right thing and stands as a symbol for others to believe. The people of Philadelphia cheer on as he kicks Gunn’s pompous ass all over the street!
Think back to the original Rocky: We met Balboa as a hustler, collecting money on the streets of Philly, a thug. He was raised by the city; that is how he survived. The fact that the end of this film does not culminate in an in-ring bout can certainly be disappointing, but Rocky’s story truly comes full circle.
Rocky was a no-good nobody and fell in love with the girl from the pet shop. He trained at a meat packing facility, and jogged through the city with the people on his back. He refused to take no for an answer and learned from one of the most iconic sports coaches we’ve seen in film. Rocky came from nothing and fought for his city, his friends, and most of all, his family through each and every match.
When his career was inevitably over, he accepted this harsh reality and attempted to pass on his knowledge. Ultimately taken advantage of, he took that disappointment on the chin, a sour-taste left in his mouth as he watched Tommy Gunn move on without him. It was not until Tommy took his anger out on Paulie, that Rocky put on the gloves and reminded us exactly who he is, The Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa.
The fact that we don’t get to see our boxer actually box in this film is disappointing, yes. However, we see a legitimate progression of a veteran athlete’s career. The Rocky franchise is built on love, family and miles and miles of heart, and this film is no exception. (That said, this final street fight isn’t that bad.)
You may not like it, but Rocky realizing that his inability to compete does not define him as a person is something real athletes struggle with at the end of their careers. His love and responsibility to be there for his family moving forward far exceeds his selfish desires to continue boxing. We may not see Rocky hoisting the title above his head with his bruised eyes swollen shut, but we do see our champion standing tall, taller than ever before.