Remembering ‘Rocky V’: The Film That Almost Killed Rocky
When Sylvester Stallone, the star and screenwriter behind every Rocky movie, decided to pen the fifth installment, he was determined to return the franchise to its gritty roots.
For all its box-office success, Rocky IV had proven to be the showiest of the Rocky films. Bright lights, a larger-than-life villain and a post-fight speech that seemingly ended the Cold War were among the movie’s more cartoonish ingredients. While this was great for Stallone’s bank account, the star wanted a back-to-basics approach for the fifth outing, something similar to Rocky’s humble, low-budget beginnings.
To that end, he reunited with John Avildsen, the director who won an Academy Award for his work on the original Rocky. Stallone crafted a story centered on how a life in the ring had affected his titular character.
Brain damage would force Rocky into retirement, his relationship with his son would be frayed, and poor financial planning would render him penniless. Rocky would turn to coaching, mentoring a promising young fighter named Tommy Gunn, only to have the boxer abandon him for a glitzy, big-shot promoter. The climactic scene would see Rocky and Gunn duking it out in a parking lot brawl.
Watch the Trailer for 'Rocky V'
In Rocky V, the Italian Stallion, a man who in earlier films seemed superhuman, would instead be shown as more fragile and vulnerable than ever before. This would be Rocky’s swan song, and in Stallone’s original vision, the film would end with the boxer’s death.
“In [the fifth movie], Rocky was supposed to die,” Avildsen confessed in a 2014 interview. “At the end of the movie, he is on the way to hospital, his head is in Adrian’s lap and he dies because he’s taken this great beating from Tommy Gunn. … And the last scene of the movie, Adrian comes out of the hospital and there’s the world press assembled because Rocky then is a big deal and she announces that he is dead, but as long as people believe in themselves, Rocky's spirit will live forever.”
This original ending - which reportedly moved Stallone to tears while writing - would have brought to a close one of the most successful franchises in cinematic history.
“When I read that, I said, ‘Wow, what a great way to go out,'” Avildsen admitted. “What a beautiful ending!”
Despite the director’s enthusiasm, the film would not progress as written. Just two weeks into shooting, studio executives informed the filmmaker that the script would need to be changed.
“I get a call from the head of the studio, and they said, ‘Oh, by the way, Rocky’s not going to die,” Avildsen recalled. “Batman doesn’t die. Superman, James Bond - these people don’t die’.”
Watch Rocky and Tommy Gunn Brawl in 'Rocky V'
As fate would have it, the movie nearly killed Rocky in a very different way. With its dark tone and few moments of levity, Rocky V turned off many fans of the franchise. Stallone’s determination to make the sequel edgier accidentally rendered many of the characters unlikeable. Adrian, who in the earlier films came across as sweet and loving, spent most of the movie whining. The couple’s son, Robert (played by Stallone’s real-life son, Sage), was a moody teen with few redeeming qualities. Boxing promoter George Washington Duke - a thinly veiled copycat of Don King - was vapid and annoying. Even the hero, Rocky, came across as less endearing than in previous films.
Released Nov. 16, 1990, Rocky V was a flop at the box office. The film finished second in its opening weekend, more than $3 million behind Home Alone. It quickly faded in the following weeks, though overseas revenue helped the picture eventually turn a profit.
The film’s failure sent Rocky away for more than a decade. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that the Italian Stallion would once again grace the silver screen, this time in Rocky Balboa.
While promoting that picture, Stallone expressed regret regarding Rocky V.
"I was very negligent [with] Rocky V," the star confessed to Entertainment Weekly. "It just didn’t leave anyone with any sense of hope. It was very reflective of where I was at the time."
"I'm greedy - what can I tell you?” Stallone admitted to Britain’s The Sun. “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."