'Rocky V' delivers earnest, but flat-footed punch

November 16, 1990|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Rocky V'

Starring Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire.

Directed by John G. Avildsen.

Released by UA-MGM.

Rated PG-13.

You can run from "Rocky V," but you can't hide.

The new Sylvester Stallone movie is -- so what did you expect? -- a great big extravagant folk opera of loss and gain, bathos, pathos, mythos, ethos, Italian food, values so corny they're embarrassing (even if they're the right values), good will, stupidity and an admirable bit of modesty.

You have to give it to Stallone. He's really tried hard to wean himself of the eviscerating vanity of his last few pictures, the shameless love of his own face and body that turned them into cartoons. You can read it in his face, and the good news is, he has a face again.

For some reason, this pleasant-looking man has kept himself for the past decade on the verge of starvation and post-workout exhaustion, in quest of physical perfection. Thus he'd achieved the perfect Mapplethorpian image of male beauty -- exquisite muscles as brilliantly defined as words in the Oxford English DTC Language Dictionary and a face so drained of flesh that the bones under the eyes stood out like doorknobs.

Now, the Rock man has relaxed a little. He's had a little pasta, a little cannoli, a little lasagna, a little manicotti, a little fettuccine Alfredo, a little rigatoni, a little macaroni, a little spaghettini, a little vino. The holes under his cheekbones have gone away; if the cheekbones themselves are still around, it would take an archaeological team to dig them out.

This seems to be Stallone's way of reaffirming "old-fashioned" values like family, home, hearth and roots. He's self-consciously rebuilt himself into the old Rocky, that charming, not terribly bright shuffler and scuffler of the first and best of the films. But however wonderful these abstractions may be, he's still got to find a way to dramatize them, and that's where "Rocky V" has problems.

The concept is pretty shameless. It's to discover Rocky on the top of the world in Minute One (he's just pulped Ivan Drago) and on the bottom of the world in Minute Two. No one -- not Job, not the Hunt brothers, not John Connolly -- has ever lost more money faster. The bottom doesn't just fall out on Rocky, it disappears, and when he's done tumbling, he and his wife and kid have tumbled all the way back to where they started, in a little row

house on Philly's crummy south side. Yo, Rock! Life be tough, no, my man?

Believable? Not for a second. But what is this, a documentary? "Sixty Minutes?"

Because Rocky is a good man, and his wife Adrian (Talia Shire) a good woman, these lost millions aren't as shattering as they would be if a certain film critic I know lost a quarter in a Coke machine. However, Rocky's son (Stallone's real son, Sage) has some trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. He's gone from Choate to P.S. 142; talk about culture shock.

At its roots, "Rocky V" is a parable of Oedipal fury, about a false son and a lost true son. And at the primal level, it works reasonably well, no matter how shamelessly Stallone's script and John Avildsen's direction milk the material.

As the movie has it, an Oklahoma boxer named Tommy ("The Machine") Gunn, played with proletarian ferocity by Tommy Morrison, sucks up to Rocky and manages to insinuate his way into the household as Rocky's protege. The real son goes ignored.

It would help if Stallone didn't make Rocky quite so dumb. It's difficult to care for a palooka so dense as to not see what is manifestly obvious to all about him for a whole lengthy hour -- that Tommy Gunn is a shallow manipulator simply riding the Rock to the big time, quick to jump off when a better offer is tendered. Meanwhile, the real son is hurting worse and worse.

I doubt Sage Stallone won his role on talent alone; but the truth is, for what the part requires of him, he turns in a performance that is as professional as any. He makes Rocky Jr.'s pain real and his consequent slide into punkhood believable.

And Richard Gant, as a villainous Don King-style promoter, also has good fun with a cartoony role that involves loud declamations rather than formal acting.

I do feel the ending, meant to be an affirmation of Rocky's warrior spirit and unquenchable heart, doesn't quite deliver. We want to see him get it all back; but instead, with a nod to the hitherto unacknowledged principle of naturalism, the last fight is not for bucks but for pride, duked out in a Philly back alley. It's the standard crummy stuff, about as close to real fighting as it is to nuclear physics, all syncopated to some really bad disco music, as if nobody realized that disco is dead. Who needs it?

If I were scoring it as a fight, "Rocky V" loses by a TKO in the final round, after a gallant middle passage where it absorbed violent body damage but kept bobbing and weaving gamely. It has heart. No brains, flat-footed, but heart.

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