Rocky V (1990, John G Avildsen)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now retired, Rocky Balboa acts as mentor to a promising young boxer – but his commitment to the cause leads to a rift in his family…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa again. (Five movies in and the actor’s soppy shtick is starting to grate now.) But for the first time with a Rocky sequel he didn’t direct. As this was intended as the final film in the series, original director John G Avildsen returned, having spent most of the intervening 14 years making Karate Kid movies… Soon after the events of Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa is welcomed back to the US by excited journalists who are proud that he beat a Soviet boxer in his own back gulag. But the bonhomie falls away when the Balboas lose all of their money and are forced to move into meagre housing in urban Philadelphia. Needing cash, the now-retired Rocky considers fighting his replacement as world champion, a young guy called Union Cane, but is then diagnosed with cavum septum pellucidum (in other words: irreversible brain damage). So instead he takes over running his old boxing gym, and then encounters a promising young boxer called Tommy Gunn. The two quickly develop a bond, with Tommy even living in the Balboas’ basement (much to the chagrin of Rocky’s son, Robert, who feels ignored). But then Tommy is tempted away by a flamboyant boxing promoter, who promises him riches if he fights Cane. As the public turns against him for abandoning his old trainer, the riled and petulant Tommy feels the need to beat Rocky in a fight – and the two men end up brawling in the street… During filming the plan had been that Rocky would die at the end of his scrap with Tommy, but then Stallone changed his mind and the character lived to fight another day (in 16 years’ time, as it turned out).

Other main characters:
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) insists that her husband has retired after his bruising battle with Ivan Drago in the last film – even when Rocky is tempted by a huge payday if he gets back into the ring.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa (Sage Stallone) has magically aged a few years during the weeks his father spent in Russia – he now appears to be about 12. When the family move into inner-city Philly, he starts at a new school but is soon bullied. (You know, in that way that sons of world heavyweight boxing champions are often picked on…) As Rocky becomes more and more distracted with training Tommy, Robert is beaten up and feels isolated and alone. He wants to learn how to fight but his dad is too busy to teach him.
* Pauline Peninno (Burt Young) has mucked things up in a big way. He naively signed away the family’s power of attorney to a crooked accountant, who has now wiped out all their wealth. (Does this make sense? Since when did layabout Paulie have that kind of authority?) Rocky and Adrian’s only remaining asset – thankfully, because it keeps the plot going – is the old gym once owned by Rocky’s mentor Mickey Goldmill. Characteristically, Paulie shows little remorse for his fuck-up. He also moots moving to Miami to work as a gigolo.
* The flamboyant, loud and arrogant George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) styles himself as a promoter extraordinaire, and is pretty obviously based on boxing impresario Don King. He wants Rocky to fight one of his young clients, a guy called Union Cane (Michael Williams, a real-life boxer giving a truly dreadful performance). But Rocky resists the idea, so Duke hounds him in the media and in person then later turns his attentions to Rocky’s new protégé.
* The late Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) appears in some newly filmed flashbacks. Set during the timeframe of Rocky II, and featuring Mickey giving pep talks to Rocky, the scenes are so heavy-handed they very nearly rip through the screen and flop onto the floor.
* Tommy ‘the Machine’ Gunn (Tommy Morrison) is a boxing hopeful from Oklahoma who introduces himself to Rocky on the street and wants him to be his trainer. A walking collection of muscles with a mullet on top, Tommy is a savage brawler who impresses Balboa enough that the older man takes him in, shows him the ropes, encourages him… However, Tommy’s head is then turned by the flashy Duke (and his cleavage-on-legs moll). Morrison gives a pretty flat performance of a one–note character.

Key scene: When Tommy gets a chance to fight world champion Union Cane, Rocky watches the bout on television – and he throws or ducks every punch along with his friend. When a victorious Tommy then gives a speech, he says he wants to thank one man in particular and Rocky’s chest puffs out in pride… only for Tommy to say he owes everything to Duke.

Review: If this lacklustre film is about anything, it’s about fatherhood. At one point, Rocky says that having his son was like being born again; it gave him a second chance. Rocky himself has lost his own father figure (trainer Mickey, who died in Rocky III) and is now attempting to take on the role of a parental mentor. However, the person who he should be focusing on – his son, Robert – gets ignored because Rocky has acquired a surrogate in the form of Tommy. (All of this has an extra level to it: Robert is played by Sylvester Stallone’s real-life son.) But the choice of storyline has an odd emotional effect. Rocky is the film’s lead character and yet is behaving so appallingly – being such a poor father – that we don’t have any sympathy for him. Tommy, meanwhile, is soon revealed to be a selfish chancer. Robert should be the one we root for, and it’s actually not a bad performance from 13-year-old Sage Stallone, but he gets relatively little screen time. It constantly feels like the movie, not just Rocky, is distracted. Elsewhere, the clunky plot that strips the Balboas of their wealth overnight is pretty laughable. The high times of the previous sequels (flashy cars, mansions, robot butlers) has gone, and now Rocky and co are back in a working-class ghetto. (‘This neighbourhood’s coming down with tooth decay,’ says Paulie.) Director John Avildsen is going for the kind of stark realism he used in the original movie, but it now comes off as artificial. Rocky might start wearing his old hat, old locations might get reused, old scenes echoed. But it’s all undercut by a cast who are either coasting or not good enough, a hip-hop-flavoured score that feels out of place, and lots of soft Hollywood lighting. Then the finale is just risible. Tommy goads Rocky into brawling on a Philadelphia street and the resulting fight is shot with tricksy frame rates, irritating editing and the kind of staging you usually only see in music videos. Rocky wins and everyone around him acts like a 45-year-old man beating up the world heavyweight boxing champion in the gutter is a perfectly reasonable thing to happen.

Four butts in the buckets, asses in the seats, out of 10

Next: Rocky Balboa

Rocky (1976, John G Avildsen)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa is offered the chance to take on the world champion…

What does Stallone do? Wanting to give his career a kick-start, struggling actor Sylvester Stallone wrote a script inspired by a no-hoper boxer who nearly lasted the distance with Muhammad Ali in March 1975. Selling the project to United Artists, he insisted that he play the lead role himself and this was the start of Stallone the movie star. Nevertheless, his persona in this film is quieter and far more downtrodden than he later became; it’s actually a decent job of acting. Rocky Balboa (aka the Italian Stallion) is a young guy from Philadelphia, scraping a living from fighting in poorly paid boxing bouts and carrying out strongarm work for a puffed-up gangster. Crucially, he’s not an out-and-out crook – early on, we see him defy his boss and *not* break someone’s thumb. We also feel for Rocky when he’s given just $40 for a bruising fight or when he loses his locker at the local gym or when he sweetly flirts with a woman he fancies. He’s a nice guy, if rough round the edges. The character is then offered the chance of a lifetime: to fight the world heavyweight champion in a title bout. (Unbeknownst to Rocky, the champ has picked him from obscurity simply because he likes his nickname.)

Other main characters:
* Rocky’s love interest, Adrianna ‘Adrian’ Pennino, is played by Talia Shire (then most notable for her role in The Godfather series). When we meet her, she’s a meek, nervous, glasses-wearing singleton in a cardi who works at a pet shop. Rocky flirts with her and their slow-burn, underplayed romance takes up a big section of the movie’s middle third.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) runs Rocky’s local gym and has a 50-year career in boxing. He’s rude and mean towards Rocky – but we eventually realise it’s down to frustration. Mickey thinks Rocky has the talent to be successful but wastes his time working for a loan shark. When Rocky is offered a chance to fight the world champion, the gravelly-voiced and lopsided-faced Mickey offers to be his manager/trainer. He’s one of the great mentors in cinema, and Meredith brings plenty of soul to the part.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is Rocky’s pal and Adrian’s brother. A drunk and a dullard, he tries matchmaking Rocky with Adrian because she’s nearly 30 and he worries about her ending up alone.
* World heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) – a charismatic, verbose character fairly obviously based on Muhammad Ali – is preparing for a boxing bout to celebrate America’s bicentennial. But his opponent pulls out due to injury, so Apollo hits upon the PR-friendly idea of taking on a local unknown instead. Weathers is terrific, taking a thinly written character who doesn’t get much screentime and giving him so much pizzazz.

Key scene: The title bout, as Rocky goes 15 rounds with Apollo. There’s a remorseless volley of punches, sweat flying everywhere, the macabre moment when Rocky needs to have his bruised eyelid sliced open, and the euphoric ending that pulls an amazing trick of giving our lead character an emotional win despite him losing the fight on points. After the final bell, as Rocky calls out for his girlfriend – ‘Adrian! Adrian!’ – he doesn’t even listen to the result being announced. It was never about winning. Creed was just too good. It was about *not falling down*.

Review: At the Academy Awards ceremony on 28 March 1977, Rocky beat All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver to the Best Picture Oscar – that’s some company, and to be honest it’s difficult to argue that the conventional Rocky deserved the win. The narrative structure of a lowly hero who overcomes obstacles is as old as the hills and has a familiar Hollywood chime. But perhaps what appealed to the Academy voters the most was the grimy, cynical sense of realism. This story takes place in a cold, inner-city, working-class world of litter-strewn streets and flaking wallpaper and money problems. It’s shot in real locations and is not lit very prettily. Aside from the pointedly flashy Carl Weathers, the film is also stocked with characterful and ‘unattractive’ faces. All this makes the slightly implausible story – an unknown being given a shot at the big time – feel like something that could actually happen, while the script and Stallone’s unshowy performance really make you root for Rocky. Then once we enter the training scenes and especially the climactic bout, Bill Conti’s incidental music becomes more and more stirring and rousing and anthemic and you’re throwing and ducking every punch. It’s melodramatic, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

Eight raw eggs out of 10

Next time: Rocky II

The Karate Kid Part III (1989, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Daniel LaRusso’s former nemesis John Kreese enlists a powerful friend to help get revenge…

Cast and story:
* As with Part II, this film begins with a montage of the story so far. We get clips from the first two movies to remind us who John Kreese (Martin Kove) is and why he hates Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) so much.
* As this film’s story gets underway, Kreese is down on his luck. He’s shuffling about unshaven and his once-thriving dojo has closed down. So he goes to see his boss: Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who’s also an old pal from their Vietnam days. (The 16-year age gap between the actors doesn’t seem to be important.) Silver is a ponytailed twat: a crass businessman who’s made his fortune by dealing in nuclear waste. Seeing his friend so defeated, he pays for Kreese to go on holiday and then resolves to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for… you know, winning a minor karate tournament for under-18s… Right, okay…
* As Kreese gets on a plane, coming the other way at the airport are Daniel and Mr Miyagi. They’re just getting home from their trip to Okinawa in the previous film (which means this 1989 movie is actually set in 1985). Daniel’s bulked up somewhat while on holiday.
* The pair soon get a shock: Daniel’s apartment building, where Mr M works as caretaker, is being demolished. With Daniel’s mum looking after an ill relative in New Jersey (Randee Heller returns for a tiny cameo at the end of a phone), Daniel moves in with Mr Miyagi. He also uses his college fund to set up a new business for his friend: a bonsai shop.
* Meanwhile, Terry Silver is working full-time on his revenge plan. He hires a young karate hotshot called Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), who bullies Daniel into competing in the next Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championship. However, not keen on the situation, Mr Miyagi refuses to train his friend.
* Terry then goes to Daniel and claims to be from Kreese’s original dojo. He apologises for what happened in the first film and tells Daniel that Kreese has died. Oh, and while he’s here why doesn’t he train Daniel for the competition? However, Terry’s tactics are harsher and more violent than Miyagi’s and the training regime not only injures Daniel but makes him feel uneasy…
* As with the last film, Daniel’s girlfriend has dumped him off-screen. But he soon meets a young woman who works in the pottery shop across the street. Jessica Andrews (a bland Robyn Lively) is introduced via a suggestive shot of her hands caressing some clay on a wheel, but the relationship never really goes anywhere. She even drops out of the story before the karate-tournament climax.
* After Daniel tells Terry he’s not going to fight in the tournament after all, Silver reveals that he’s in league with Mike Barnes… and Kreese, who’s not dead! The whole thing’s been a plan to punish Daniel for winning in the first film! Mwa-ha-ha-ha! The three are about to beat Danny up, but then Mr Miyagi arrives (yay!) and saves him. Finally, Mr M agrees to train Daniel for this year’s tournament.
* A rule change has just been brought in that says the defending champion goes straight through to the final, so at least we’re saved a montage of Daniel beating no-hopers. Then in the final he faces – wouldn’t you know it? – Mike Barnes, who keeps alternating between scoring a point and hurting Daniel on purpose. But Daniel eventually manages to win. Kreese and Silver, watching on from the sidelines, are not happy.

Review: This tired re-tread of the first Karate Kid film suffers from an obvious, cartoon villain. We’re asked to believe that a powerful, successful millionaire is willing to spend weeks of his life engineering a convoluted plan simply to embarrass a schoolboy. Terry Silver is like a bad guy from The A-Team or Scooby-Doo. He has no depth, no nuance, no personality beyond being a bad guy (“What do you mean you can’t dump it in Borneo? Who in Borneo knows what chloride sludge is?”). At least the first movie’s chief antagonist was an angry teenager who was embarrassed about being dumped. Part III also has a very boring love story for Daniel, though part of this lacklustreness was because they cast a 17-year-old to play opposite the 27-year-old Ralph Macchio and some of the more romantic scenes had to be dropped. A disappointingly drab film.

Five bonsai trees out of 10

The Karate Kid Part II (1986, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Mr Miyagi hears that his father is dying, he returns home to Okinawa. His young friend Daniel comes with him, but both are soon the targets of bullies…

Cast and story:
* We begin with a recap montage of the first film. (Don’t you miss sequels that did that?) So we’re reminded of how schoolboy Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) met handyman-cum-karate-teacher Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) and how a close friendship developed between them. It’s a lengthy sequence: almost five minutes.
* Then there are scenes set immediately after the climax of the first film. Daniel’s mum and girlfriend are said to have gone on ahead to a restaurant (to save hiring the actresses), but bad guy John Kreese (Martin Kove) is there. He’s aggressive and racist, so Mr Miyagi puts him in his place and embarrasses him.
* We then cut to six months later. Daniel has been dumped off-screen by Ali, while his mother has to go away for a few weeks for work, then Mr M gets a letter from an old pal in Okinawa. His father is seriously ill so he must leave for Japan. Faithful Daniel goes too because he’s now at a loose end over summer.
* When they arrive, things don’t go well. Miyagi’s former best friend, Sato (Danny Kamekona), is still holding a grudge from 45 years earlier and wants a fight to the death. Turns out, Mr M fell in love with a woman who was planning to marry Sato.
* Our heroes also meet Chozen Toguchi (Yuji Okumoto), a young thug with a shit-eating grin who works for his uncle Sato. He takes against Daniel because… well, you know, plot.
* Also living in the village are Yukie (Nobu McCarthy), the woman Miyagi fell in love with, and her hot niece Kumiko (Tamlyn Tomita), who shares a flirtation subplot with Daniel. In one romantic sequence the young pair explore a coastal area typified by some dodgy matte paintings of ancient ruins.
* After Mr M’s father dies, Sato gives him three days to mourn but then wants the duel he’s been waiting 45 years for. Meanwhile, Daniel has pissed off Chozen (somehow) so he’s got problems of his own.
* After a lot of going round in circles, things finally reach a head when there’s a violent storm. Sato’s house is destroyed, but because Mr M is a nice guy he saves his rival’s life. Sato is grateful and the grudge is forgotten (yay!).
* However, Chozen still wants to hurt Daniel (seriously, pal, get over it!). So he gate-crashes a ceremonial dance being held in the matte-painting castle and attacks Daniel. The pair fight and Daniel gets the upper hand, but because he’s a nice guy he declines to kill his rival.

Review: This disappointing sequel suffers from three main problems. Firstly, it lacks drive. There’s a sedate pace to the storytelling – especially in the middle third – while neither Mr Miyagi nor Daniel are ever attempting to achieve anything beyond ‘not getting beaten up’. Secondly, the dialogue is often tiresome with lots of scenes of Daniel asking questions and Mr M explaning Okinawan culture. There are also several lines that feel like they’ve been added to explain a plot hole (“But I thought you said…”, that kind of thing). And thirdly, the story is difficult to get excited about. The plot sees grown men bullying the elderly and a teenager over something that happened 45 years ago. You spend half the film wondering why Daniel and Mr Miyagi don’t just shrug their shoulders and go back home. Even potentially interesting story material feels thrown away. Our characters’ overseas visit is a trip back in time – to a country of old cars, antiquated customs and rock’n’roll music. Meanwhile, a nearby US Army base is eating up the village, bringing modernity and danger. Helicopters sometimes fly past in the background of bucolic scenes. But none of this has any bearing on the story.

Six handheld drums out of 10

The Karate Kid (1984, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A teenage boy moves to LA but is persecuted by some local bullies. So with the help of a mentor figure, he learns karate to defend himself…

Cast and story:
* The lead character is high-school student Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). At the beginning of the story he moves with his mother (Randee Heller) from New Jersey to California.
* Mother and son have a relaxed, easy-going relationship – she’s upbeat and can-do and they feel like pals as much as a family. The longer the film goes on, however, the more Lucille fades into the background. Daniel’s new parental figure becomes local handyman Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita).
* He’s an elderly bloke from Okinawa who has a dry sense of humour and a strong sense of honour, but also a tragic past. Forty years earlier, his wife and son died while he was away fighting in the war. So he’s lost a son and Daniel’s dad isn’t even mentioned – the two characters soon develop a bond, especially after Mr M saves Daniel from a beating…
* On his second day in LA, Daniel hung out with some new friends. He flirted with cute rich girl Ali Mills (an adorable Elisabeth Shue) but also angered her ex-boyfriend Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).
* The sneering, aggressive Johnny and his gang of sycophantic mates arrive on the scene like the villains from a biker movie. They take against Daniel and bully him using their karate skills, so Mr M goes to see their sensei: Vietnam vet John Kreese (Martin Kove), a man so damaged by the war that he now finds pleasure in schooling teenage boys in how to beat up other teenage boys. Mr Miyagi strikes a deal: the gang will leave Daniel alone until he competes in an upcoming karate tournament.
* However, this gives Daniel just six weeks to train. (He’s also still trying to woo Ali, so it’s a busy time for the lad.) At first, Mr Miyagi’s techniques do not go down well. He forces Daniel to do some boring chores (cleaning his cars, painting his house), but then Dan realises that he’s been subliminally learning basic karate moves as he works.
* Full of this muscle memory, he then takes part in the tournament. Ali, who he’s now dating, and his mum are there for support. Despite some underhand tactics from an opponent he reaches the final, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he faces Johnny…
* Accompanied by rousing incidental music, Daniel wins the bout by using an unconventional ‘crane kick’ – an up-and-down kick to the face delivered while in mid-air – which he’d seen Mr Miyagi practise earlier in the film.

Review: As many people have pointed out, in some ways this movie is a redo of 1976’s Rocky (which was also directed by John G Avildsen). It’s a predictable, underdog story of a hero having to fight more powerful opponents with the help of a seen-it-all-before, older mentor. There’s even a stirring score from Bill Conti (Rocky, For Your Eyes Only). But that doesn’t mean it’s not a very enjoyable experience. Weaved in amongst the by-the-numbers, don’t-look-at-it-too-closely plotline are many details and delights – not least some strong performances. Macchio is very fine indeed and appropriately full of attitude and defiance despite looking about 12 years old. Shue and Heller are likeable presences, while Kove uses his three scenes to create one of the most memorable bad guys in 80s genre cinema. But the star of the show is Pat Morita. To some viewers in 1984 he would have been Arnold from the sitcom Happy Days; to others he was a stand-up comedian. Ever after, he was Mr Miyagi. Despite being just 51 during filming, he gives the character an ancient-feeling soul and a huge gravitas – as well as mixing in plenty of twinkle-eyed humour. The character is a superhero, rather than someone who comes from the real world. He can beat up a gang of teenagers and he can magically heal Daniel’s wounds. Away from Mr Miyagi, the movie feels part of the Brat Pack/John Hughes/teen movie cycle that was just getting underway in 1984. It’s set in and around an American high school (even featuring a dance held in the gymnasium); the soundtrack is filled with contemporary pop music (Bananarama!); and there’s a recurring theme of social class (Daniel is disliked because he’s poor; a person’s worth is dictated by the cost of his or her car). But there’s also something Spielbergian about it, especially in the scenes set at night which have wafts of smoke creating a spooky atmosphere and a young boy riding a BMX. Directed by Avildsen with a confident yet unfussy style – dialogue scenes often play out in uninterrupted two-shots – this is a very effective and amiable movie.

Nine Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championships out of 10