Rocky V Ending Explained: The Home Team

Has there ever been a franchise entry more of a cinematic buzzkill than "Rocky V?" I'm struggling to think of one. It's a dour affair compared to the goofy bombast of "Rocky IV" and is generally regarded as the worst film of the original series, but it does have some things going for it. Sylvester Stallone deserves credit for trying to do something different with this one, arresting the out-of-control trajectory of the first four movies by sending his most beloved character back to his roots. If he hadn't, the next logical step would have been for Rocky Balboa (Stallone) to face off against a terrifying alien warrior, but his arch-rival Arnold Schwarzenegger beat him to the punch on that one in "Predator."

Originally intended as the last part of the series, Stallone attempted to steer the Italian Stallion's saga back to the gritty drama of "Rocky." To that end, director John G. Avildsen returned to the franchise for the first time since winning his Best Director Oscar for the first film, bringing back some street-level scuzz as well as some flashy editing in the final fight that wouldn't look out of place in a "Natural Born Killers" hallucination sequence.

Despite its moribund reputation, "Rocky V" is at least interesting, for both good reasons and bad. The film gives us a new angle on the character and some deeper themes that make the previous installment seem very formulaic, but the storytelling is so blundering that each wrinkle is hit on the nose harder than Rocky Balboa getting punched in the face by Ivan Drago. Add to that some bizarre continuity errors at the beginning, and you've got a botched and murky melodrama that hasn't got the quality to match its ambitions. Let's take a look at how it staggers to the final bell.

So what happens in Rocky V again?

We pick up immediately after Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) has defeated Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in "Rocky IV," returning home to find his son Rocky Jr. (Sage Stallone) has aged five years almost overnight, presumably from the stress of being left home alone on Christmas Day to watch his dad fight the Russian killing machine who murdered Uncle Apollo in the ring. It's a bewildering continuity oversight that could have been easily fixed by a "five years later" caption that never comes.

At a press conference greeting the returning hero, Rocky is approached by boxing promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) who wants him to fight his challenger, Union Cane (Michael Williams). Rocky turns it down but has second thoughts when he finds out that his brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young) foolishly signed over power of attorney to his dodgy accountant and lost all his money. Reasoning a few more fights will put him in the clear again, Rocky decides to fight Cane, but his doctor tells him he is suffering from brain damage from the million or so headshots he has taken throughout his career.

Now totally broke, Rocky and the family have no choice but to return to their old neighborhood in Philadelphia, where he starts training fighters at his old gym while Rocky Jr. becomes the target of bullies at his new school. Rocky reassures the boy that things will be alright because they'll stick together as the "home team."

With Duke still trying to tempt Rocky with another lucrative payday, the Italian Stallion sees another way out when he is approached by a raw young fighter called Tommy Gunn (Tommy Morrison). Initially put off by Tommy's brutal style in the ring, he reluctantly agrees to become his manager.

Father figures in Rocky V

Much of the drama in "Rocky V" comes from how Sylvester Stallone's screenplay explores the various father figures in the story. Rocky never knew his dad, and a flashback hammers home the point that Mickey (Burgess Meredith) was like a surrogate father to him. 

This dynamic is echoed in the relationship that develops between Tommy and Rocky. Tommy reveals that he was physically abused by his dad as a kid, and every time he steps into the ring it is his old man he's trying to knock out. As his new manager, Rocky becomes a father figure to the young fighter in the same way that Mickey became his. The difference is, Tommy's emotional scarring has turned him mean and he doesn't know how to deal with that love, resulting in him ultimately ditching Rocky for the fame and fortune Duke promises.

The heart of the film is the relationship between Rocky and his son, who comes to resent his dad because he spends more time nurturing Tommy's progress rather than devoting time to him when he needs it the most. Preyed upon by bullies, it falls to Paulie and another trainer at the gym to teach him how to look after himself, and he is deeply hurt when he overhears Rocky telling Tommy that they're the "home team."

There are some interesting possibilities here, but the shortcomings of Stallone's writing mean that each of these beats comes across as a perfunctory plot point rather than helping the characters develop in an emotionally engaging way. Whereas the first movie took its time exploring the motivations of the characters, this time Stallone seems in too much of a hurry to deliver the payoff, which lands with a bit of a splat as a result.

Rocky's judgement isn't so sound these days

From the opening scene of "Rocky V," we're shown that the beating Rocky takes from Ivan Drago has a profound physical effect on him. As the story moves forward, we see that it has taken its toll mentally, too, with the brain damage he has suffered making him permanently punchy. The Italian Stallion was never the brightest spark but now he is frequently befuddled, slurring his words worse than usual and mixing up names and numbers.

This leads to one of the saddest aspects of "Rocky V." One of the most appealing traits of Rocky's character is that he is so open-hearted that he always sees the best in everyone. Here his kindness has become impaired by his head trauma, causing him to make errors of judgment, like neglecting his kid while pouring all his faith and love into Tommy, who we can tell is a wrong 'un from the moment we first lay eyes on him.

It isn't just the brain damage that twists his decision-making. After years of living as a champion in an opulent mansion, he's back on skid row again. The old neighborhood has slid even further into urban decay since the first film and he just wants better things for his family and himself. This eagerness to hit the big time again blinds him to what Adrian, Paulie, and Rocky Jr. see: Tommy has no heart and "no class," as Paulie correctly calls it for once.

Rocky's misplaced faith in Tommy makes it feel like sacrilege when he first hands the young fighter Apollo's stars-and-stripes shorts and then plans to give him Mickey's cherished gold boxing glove necklace as a Christmas gift. Those items were given out of love to Rocky, who was humble enough to deserve them.

An angel on his shoulder

When Rocky visits Mickey's gym on his return to the neigborhood, he has a tearful flashback to a training session when the old man confessed how much he loved him and gave him something very dear: A golden boxing glove on a chain from Rocky Marciano many years before. He tells Rocky it will be like an "angel on his shoulder," summing up how the crotchety trainer has been with him in spirit since his death in "Rocky III."

Rocky echoes Mickey's words in Tommy's first professional bout, saying he is there as the angel on Tommy's shoulder to help him overcome his fear and win the fight. That encouragement is the turning point for his fighter, who goes on a devastating unbeaten run toward his own title shot.

This thread pays off after Tommy has left Rocky for Duke and challenges Union Cane for the title. Rocky is watching at home on TV, throwing punches at a heavy bag in excitement, almost as if he's guiding Tommy's hands. It is shot like there is some weird voodoo symbiosis between Rocky and the fighter, and the channel between them goes both ways. As Rocky matches Tommy punch-for-punch on the bag (or vice versa), we see Tommy's meanness emerge on his face. Adrian, Paulie, and Rocky Jr. look on in dismay, appalled by the malign influence Tommy has had on Rocky.

Tommy destroys Cane pretty easily to claim the belt and takes to the microphone to thank the man who made it all happen, the "angel on his shoulder," George Washington Duke. He doesn't even have the humility to acknowledge Rocky for getting him so far in the first place. It's a real kick in the teeth for Rocky, which finally makes him realize what a piece of s*** Tommy is.

Tommy is the anti-Rocky

Tommy Gunn may well come from a poor upbringing like Rocky, but he is just the opposite of the former champ. As Adrian says, "He doesn't have your heart! All those fighters you beat, you beat them with heart, not muscle!"

If Rocky is all heart, Tommy is exactly the opposite, a churlish, vicious, and ungracious fighter who accepts Rocky's hospitality but quickly turns against him when he decides he's not getting rich quickly enough. His resentment grows as he keeps winning fights but Rocky, the national hero, keeps getting the headlines. It probably doesn't help that he is nicknamed "Rocky's Robot" and "The Clone Ranger" due to the similarity in fighting styles; we even see a cartoon sketch of Rocky wearing Tommy like a hand puppet, suggesting that the press thinks he's almost a flesh-and-blood avatar that Balboa is using to challenge for the title again.

The big difference between the two fighters is that Rocky only wanted to go the distance against Apollo Creed to earn some self-respect, while Tommy is determined to crush anyone in his way to acquire riches and fame. He gets what he wants, but he quickly learns that he has won no respect from anyone; the crowd boos him and chants Rocky's name during the title challenge against Cane, and members of the media dismiss his victory as a fight against a "paper champion." It's all part of Duke's dastardly plan to get Rocky back in the ring, telling Tommy that the only way he can get the respect he wants is to beat Balboa.

The Home Team

The "home team" theme takes on a different perspective in the breakneck street brawl finale. After Duke goads Tommy into challenging Rocky to a fight, the new champ heads straight down to the 'hood to call out Rocky, who is having a few brews with Paulie at their local bar. Rocky's having none of it, but offers Tommy outside after the young boxer punches Paulie.

With a large crowd gathering and TV cameras capturing the action, it gets low-down and nasty. Rocky sends Tommy sprawling quickly, who responds with some cheap shots. Feeling the agony of his brain injury, Rocky looks in trouble while his neighbors cheer him on. He gets to his feet and calls for one more round, and then summons up just about everything he has ever learned to get the best of Tommy: Some dirty moves from his street-fighting days, a little quick defensive work from when Apollo taught him how to actually box, maybe even a few wrestling moves from his charity fight with Thunderlips in "Rocky III." He knocks Tommy out before fronting up to Duke, who threatens to sue if he touches him. Rocky sends him flying with a punch to the stomach; "Sue me for what?"

Rocky's journey has come full circle. He may be skint and "just another bum from the neighborhood" again but the former champ has come back to his people, rediscovering the value of his "home team" in his family and community.

As a closer, Rocky gives his son the golden boxing glove after a jog up the famous steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It turns out that in 20 years of using the steps for training, he's never been inside to look at the "valuable pictures." They walk in together, the old slugger ready to learn something new from his kid.