It arrived five years after “Rocky IV,” the film where Rocky avenged Apollo Creed’s death by defeating a Soviet super soldier on Christmas and somehow convincing the Russian audience to cheer for America by sheer virtue of Rocky’s unbridled awesomeness. (And also, he bought a robot.) When you put it like that, it’s not surprising that “Rocky V” tried to scale the story back a little bit.
Picking up right where “Rocky IV” left off, we find Rocky in a pretty rough place at the beginning of the fifth installment. After multiple films where his family and manager warned him he was getting too old and too seriously injured to box, he’s diagnosed with brain damage and has to stop fighting immediately. This couldn’t have come at a worse time because his brother-in-law, Paulie (Burt Young), gave away their power of attorney when they left the country, and the Balboa family accountant flushed their life savings away.
Forced to return to their humble home in Philadelphia, the Balboa family picks themselves up again from their bootstraps. Adrian (Talia Shire) goes back to work, their son Robert (Sage Stallone) overcomes his bullying at school, and Rocky manages up-and-coming fighter Tommy “The Machine” Gunn (Tommy Morrison) and treats him like a surrogate son. This only alienates Robert more, since he’s actually Rocky’s son, and he’s being neglected in favor of a stranger.
Rocky coaches Tommy to stardom but a championship match is held out of reach by opportunistic boxing promoter George Washington Duke (Richard Gant), who corrupts Tommy, steals him away from Rocky, and tries to manipulate the two of them into a title bout. When Rocky refuses, Tommy starts a fight in the middle of the street, on live television. Tommy loses and publicly humiliates himself because, unlike Rocky, he cared more about pride than the strength of character.