Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Rocky V
Sometimes, you gotta go for it.
Sylvester Stallone is a figure of particular fascination here at Your Weekend Cheesy Movie. He has, in fact, been a fascination of yours truly for decades. He is an indisputable Titan of Cheese with his heartfelt need to talk about certain topics and his passion for doing so in the action genre. His story more or less begins with Rocky, the script he wrote while taking parts in films like The Lords of Flatbush and The Party at Kitty and Studs’. Holding out for a deal which would allow him to star, he suddenly became a media sensation. It’s a great example of American can-do gumption — although parts of that “go for it” origin aren’t entirely true. But, really, the key thing to remember is that Stallone’s story will end with Rocky Balboa, even if he meant to put the character’s boxing gloves down almost thirty years ago. This weekend’s cheesy movie is the tale of his first attempt to escape his greatest creation: Rocky V.
The plot sees Rocky returning from his fight in the USSR — where he ended the Cold War — to discover his finances are in the gutter and his brain is turning to mush. Following the fight with Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), Adrian (Talia Shire) found Rocky with shaky hands and an irresistible urge to call her Mickey. Willing to let it go, she forces Rocky to get a CT scan after he considers taking one more fight to get them out of their suddenly revealed debts. The results of the scan indicates he is suffering from cavum septi pellucidi, an irreversible condition known to occur in boxers. Adrian and Rocky are told he will not be able to get a boxing license anywhere in the country with that brain damage and the thought of a last fight finally slips through his fingers.
The Balboas are forced to relocate back to the old neighborhood in Philadelphia, where Rocky starts fixing up Mickey’s (Burgess Meredith) old gym — gifted to Rocky’s son Robert (Sage Stallone) in his will — while Adrian heads back to the pet store across the street. The feeling of nostalgia grips Rocky as he starts wearing the hat and coat he used in those days. Paulie (Burt Young), meanwhile, seems unfazed by the loss of his robot wife.
Yes, dear readers, I will never let anyone forget Paulie’s robot wife from Rocky IV.
But the feeling that they are getting on with their lives is constantly shattered by George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), a boxing promoter with a certain similarity to real-life promoter Don King. Also, Rocky’s attempts to spend more time with Robert fall apart when a young fighter named Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison) convinces Rocky to be his manager/trainer. And as Tommy collects an impressive record in the ring, Robert finds himself learning to fight in the shadow of his father’s bond with the young, hungry boxer.
And if all of this sounds a little uninspired, that’s actually part of the charm. Hoping to end the series, Stallone made the decision to strip Rocky back to its essentials. It’s not the worst impulse as Rocky IV saw the character turning into a superhero with endless resources and a robotic servant. In realization, though, Stallone found himself grasping at too many ideas. Story threads including Rocky losing his fortune, losing track of his son, regaining purpose by becoming Mickey, and a critique of King’s management style leave them all feeling underdeveloped.
Nonetheless, they offer plenty of cheese. The friction between Rocky training Tommy while neglecting Robert is brilliantly told in Stallone’s preferred storytelling technique: the montage. But as original Rocky director John G. Avildsen returned to direct this “last” installment in the series, the montages do a fairly efficient job of illustrating Robert’s plight. That’s not to say they’re realized well, though. There is an inherent silliness to scene after scene (even in montage) of Rocky shouting encouragement Tommy’s way while Robert learns how to use a speed bag in the background. To make it even better, this montage is almost immediately followed by another montage detailing Tommy’s professional boxing career and the encroachment of Duke in the Rocky/Tommy bond. In the finished film, it plays out almost exactly the way Stallone would’ve wedded these montages had he directed the film himself. In the hands of Avildsen, though, it becomes a slightly more refined cheese.
But something the skilled director’s hand could not save are the performances. Gant’s Duke is downright silly in every moment he is on screen. Sure, he’s suppose to be silly because he’s a parody of King, but there’s something off and overly cartoonish about him. It may just be a simple clash of tones as he pops up in some of the film’s grittiest environments. One can see Stallone reaching for an interesting counterpoint, but neither he as a writer or Avildsen as a director could make it work. So, instead, we get an abrasive character who never becomes the right sort of abrasive.
Despite being more at home in the gritty realism of the first Rocky, Shire seems utterly out of place here. She spends the entire movie haranguing Rocky. He deserves some of it, to be sure, but in an utterly silly scene in which she starts shouting “you’re losing us” to him, it becomes clear how little she thought of the script. That Stallone was able to make their dynamic so poignant in the next film by killing Adrian off underscores just how off the rails this aspect of the story had become by Rocky V. We like to joke that the whole point of her character was to nay-say Rocky, but Stallone makes it text here.
Surprisingly, Sage Stallone acquits himself well here thanks to limited screentime and rather shallow plot. He seems real when the script asks him to be a neglected child or to recoil from — and then fight — some schoolyard bullies, but his performance starts to creek when Robert’s resentment of Rocky boils over.
That moment happens during a surprisingly eventful Christmas Eve at which Robert walks out on Rocky, Tommy comes by to announce he’s signing with Duke, Adrian starts shouting “you’re losing us,” and Rocky somehow uses his charm to win his son back. It is an overload of dramatic beats Stallone fails to parse out correctly, but the result is an fantastically cheesy sequence which would seemingly serve as the end of the picture. Except, of course, this is a Rocky movie; which means it must end in a fight.
And this fight shatters the gritty tone utterly. After winning the Heavyweight title, Gunn is shouted down by reporters who claim he will never be as good as Rocky. When Duke agrees with them, he uses Gunn’s anger to make him goad Rocky back into the ring. Instead, Rocky positions Gunn into a street fight. The fight is one of the worst shot, worst choreographed things Avildsen ever committed to screen. It becomes clear most of it was shot a set recreating the Philadelphia street in front of Mickey’s gym thanks to some dubious lighting and Mickey himself appears in Rocky’s punch-drunk mind to cheer him on for another round. Oh, and just for good measure, Robert runs down to the corner to encourage him as well.
Now, it’s important to note that Stallone originally wrote this fight to end in the death of Rocky Balboa. In the actual film, you can see it start to play out this way just before Robert and Adrian appear on the scene. But according to legend, United Artists and Avildsen began to have second thoughts about killing Rocky and Stallone himself decided a series about perseverance should not end with the hero dying in the street. Instead, Rocky manages to beat Gunn, close out the night by gut-punching Duke, and walking away with his family. To watch the film reverse itself in its final moments is to see the molten core of cheese at its center.
Because, let’s face it, Stallone will never really, willing, kill Rocky.
After years of letting this be the end of the story, he returned to Philadelphia in 2006 for Rocky Balboa and later pulled off becoming the Rocky version of Mickey in Creed and Creed II. Each time was meant to be the last for the Italian Stallion, but with word that Stallone may be working on a Rocky VII, I can’t help but assume the story will go on until Stallone finds his great reward. And, honestly, I’m okay with that as it means the potential for a film as good as Rocky or as cheesy as Rocky IV continues to exist. And since he’s already made Rocky V, he will never make its mistakes ever again.
Rocky V is currently available to stream on Netflix. Is it also available as part of a Rocky collection Blu-ray set.