Sometimes I like to have fun and write articles that I don’t really mean – like when I suggested that Jack Reacher was really just a figment of another character’s imagination or when I told you how Rocky IV‘s propaganda was so poorly executed that it made me want to be a communist. Today, I’m going to make my most bold claim yet and I want it to be understood that I really do mean it when I say that Rocky V was very close to being the best Rocky movie of them all. With a fairly awful 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, and an average score of 4/10, Rocky V is nearly universally considered to be the worst of the series. Despite the final product, it still planted seeds that could have resulted in an incredible final chapter.
1. Brain Damage
One of the most bizarre aspects of the franchise is the disproportionate relationship between Rocky’s intelligence and the number of blows he takes to the head. In Rocky, he starts off as a mumbling thug who carries a notepad in order to remember basic tasks. He struggles to express himself, ending most sentences with “y’know.” As the series progresses, he takes hundreds of punches to the head but becomes more erudite and gains the ability to communicate more complicated ideas. Rocky V eliminates this farcical violence-induced brain boost and introduces the idea that, after his fight with Ivan Drago, Rocky is suffering from “cavum septum pellicudum,” or, as they refer to it for the rest of the movie, “brain damage.” CVP functions as a reset button for Rocky’s intellect, allowing Stallone to play the character much more like the first movie. It’s his best performance, at least since the original, and the return to below-average intelligence allows for some truly heartfelt scenes.
2. The Kid
Rocky Jr. is the Rocky franchise’s Wesley Crusher. With that being said, the relationship between Rocky and his son is the most genuine and relatable pairing in any of the movies thus far. After Rocky’s brain damage disqualifies him from ever boxing again, he puts all of his heart and energy into parenting. His son becomes his life’s focus and it is fascinating to watch a man of subpar intelligence try to provide and nurture his gifted son. There are seeds here that would eventually become movies like Forrest Gump and I Am Sam. When Rocky finds an opportunity to get back into the fight game by training and managing a young upstart, he allows his paternal energy to be redirected toward the young boxer, creating feelings of friction and abandonment with his son. The combination of Rocky’s cluelessness and lack of intellect makes him incapable of recognizing the damage he is doing until it’s literally spelled out for him by Adrian. The second she does, Rocky reassesses his priorities and starts to rebuild their relationship. No matter how annoying it may be to see kids acting in a 90’s movie, there aren’t many themes more universal and meaningful than exploring the bonds of family.
Paulie is probably my least favourite part of the Rocky franchise. He is constantly looking for handouts as long as they don’t come with any sort of responsibility. His narrative purpose was to introduce Rocky and Adrian but once that happens, he becomes a jealous leech who is constantly drinking and failing at providing comic relief. He is a jaded drunk whose interjections are rarely worth listening to, especially when they cross into bigotry. Nonetheless, Rocky keeps him around, housing and feeding his brother-in-law, even inviting him to corner for him in his important fights. This very movie starts with Paulie’s biggest blunder yet. While Rocky is recuperating from his brain trauma, Paulie somehow accidentally gives power-of-attorney to the Balboas’ accountant, who then loses it all in some kind of failed scheme. He has literally cost them everything but he’s still welcome to live with them.
Nonetheless, Rocky V is where Paulie finally shows some value. First, he watches out for Rocky Jr. when he notices that the kid’s father is distracted elsewhere. Paulie silently and thanklessly supports Rocky Jr., encouraging him and training him at the boxing gym in order to give him confidence and to prepare him for an eventual showdown with a school bully. This surrogate parenting is the most compassionate thing we see Paulie do in the entire franchise.
Paulie also gets a great moment at the end when Rocky’s protégé is trying to challenge Rocky to a street fight. Paulie cannot believe the disrespect that the up-and-comer has shown his friend and ends up putting himself right up in the challenger’s face. He lips off, giving the kid a piece of his mind, taking a punch to the mouth for his trouble. Until that moment, I would have expected to be thrilled to see Paulie beat down but instead, I felt an unexpected mixture of sympathy and pride.
Mickey is the opposite of Paulie in that he was pretty much the best thing about the Rocky series. His death in Rocky III was a powerful moment from which I still haven’t recovered. So, it was unexpected and incredible to see him back! I don’t care that it was in flashbacks, Burgess Meredith still makes incredible use of the scenes, adding passion and further depth to the relationship between Mickey and Rocky. I am more than willing to accept whatever fantasies or hallucinations it takes to just get Mickey back onto the screen one more time.
At no point would I ever try to argue that Rocky V actually is the best Rocky movie. It’s strange, with lower stakes, bizarrely aggressive boxing reporters, and a really notable absence of any scenes of Rocky boxing. The script has some of the worst jokes I’ve ever heard on a professional feature film. But, despite all its flaws, I really don’t believe that the movie deserves its bum rap. It’s a flawed film that nonetheless tells a real story about a family straining to hold onto its pride and remembering to find its strength inside itself.
Dylan Clark-Moore is a podcast creator and blogger at NetFlakes. You can find him on Letterboxd and Twitter.
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Rocky V is also available from Amazon as part of the Undisputed Collection