By Chelsea Gibbs | Total Rocky Contributor
It seems that every year, Hollywood churns out more and more sequels, prequels, reboots, and reinterpretations of its own creations like some sort of self-cannibalistic monstrosity.
2015 boasted quite a few: the trend of strike-while-it’s-hot sequels (Ted 2, Pitch Perfect 2, Hotel Transylvania 2, Minions), the continuations of reasonably popular recent series (Taken 3, Magic Mike XXL, Insidious: Chapter 3, Paranormal Activity 5: The Ghost Dimension, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel); the continuations of recent box-office hits (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Furious 7, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip); literary adaptations pushing out their welcome (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, The Divergent Series: Insurgent); the sequels no one wanted and no one asked for (Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser, Vacation, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, Hot Tub Time Machine 2, Terminator: Genisys); and most successfully, the highly-anticipated resuscitations of old, but extremely lucrative and popular properties: Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
But then there were the sequels nobody asked for because nobody knew they wanted them – Mad Max: Fury Road (boasting ten Oscar nominations; quite the feat for a May release) and Creed.
What is so spectacular about them? They are both helmed by filmmakers who possess unique, inspiring visions. There is a drive to do something never before accomplished while using familiar characters with established universes. Most impressive is the drive behind Ryan Coogler, who takes the Rocky franchise back to its deeply personal roots. Creed rises like cream to the top because unlike a number of franchise reboots and sequels, it was not released as a grasping effort to squeeze another dollar from a recognizable name. It’s not a retread or a vanity project. It exists as a singular, powerful result of Coogler’s need to tell a story.
Creed takes creative risks in the midst of its homages, never buckling under fan service (unlike The Force Awakens, where it’s laid on a bit heavy, as if to apologize for the prequels). Creed embraces a universe where Rocky Balboa is an icon: its lead character Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) shadow-boxes in front of projected YouTube footage of Rocky’s fights with Creed; he even watches tourists take pictures in front of the Rocky statue that stands on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Iconography of the franchise itself is not ignored: Adonis trains in gray sweats reminiscent of Rocky’s, and he also wears the red/white/blue shorts for his big fight at the end of the film, echoing those worn by his father.
But these things do not make Adonis a Xerox copy of Apollo or Rocky; in fact, his arc is driven by his need to be his own man.
We first meet him as a scrappy kid who regularly gets into fights at a juvenile detention center. When Mary Anne Creed (played with dignity and determination by Phylicia Rashad) comes to take him home with her, she is able to connect with him through a mutual feeling of loss. She knows how it feels to lose someone, as Adonis does, and vows to take in the illegitimate son of her late husband. This establishes one of the film’s central conceits, which is to ask viewers to reconsider what constitutes a family.
While it would seem that Adonis has been taken from the dredges of society to the very top – gated home, palatial estate, great job and all – he is clearly not pleased with his situation. He is ridiculed by those inside and outside the world he would like to join, reminded by the trainer at the local gym that the boxers he works with need to fight to live: “They fight for life, kill or be killed.” By comparison, Adonis is living a privileged high life; the trainer and other fighters sneer at his desire to become one of them. Mary Anne derides his dreams as well, but for different reasons. Citing the instances where she had to help Apollo do everything from climb stairs to use the bathroom after a fight, she yells, “I didn’t take you in so you could go backwards! You want to be brain-damaged?” Her pain is not dismissed as hysteria, and as much as we want to see Adonis succeed in the ring, it’s hard to forget the concern that is her due.
Adonis has no real answers when he gets to Philadelphia and is asked by his girlfriend, Bianca, and by Rocky himself why he wants to fight. Bianca has the assumption that most fighters are “street.” Rocky wonders why someone as educated as Adonis would choose the life of a fighter. Adonis mostly dodges the question, but after he and Rocky establish a close mentoring relationship (with Adonis even moving with Rocky to train), he ultimately admits he’d like to make his own name.
In this, he is successful—as is Coogler and his co-writer, Aaron Covington. The characters in this film are not cardboard cut-outs or empty placeholders used to prop up a franchise many in the industry imagined to have dying clout. While some basic beats of the story might have been predictable, the characters’ reactions and behaviors are not. Coogler does not let any of his characters off easy, and that is what serves to make them so human and relatable.
Part of what makes Rocky stand out is that it refuses to let its title character be a stereotype. He’s an athlete who plays one of the most brutalizing sports in existence, but he is far from a brute. Small, quiet scenes show his tenderness with a pet turtle, his ability to make fun of himself, and his unconventional approaches to wooing a girl most people wouldn’t look at twice. Adonis receives similar multi-dimensional treatment and, it should be noted, so does Tessa Thompson‘s Bianca. Adonis is aggressive and knows what he wants, but he’s not a thug. Bianca isn’t some sassy sidekick. She is not a shrinking violet or a pushover, and her character is firmly established outside of her relationship with Adonis.
“Time beat him. Time, you know, takes everybody out. It’s undefeated.”
In some ways, Bianca is actually painted as the most courageous person in the movie. As a musician battling progressive hearing loss, she embodies a positive approach to one of the film’s most urgent themes: how to fight a ticking clock. Adonis asks if the thought of losing her hearing scares her, and she shrugs and says “I knew it would happen eventually, so I figure I should just enjoy what I love as long as I can.” This serves to contrast with Rocky’s gloomier reckoning of Father Time when Adonis asks how he was able to beat Apollo who, in Rocky’s own words, was a perfect fighter: “Time beat him. Time, you know, takes everybody out. It’s undefeated.”
It’s what we do with the time we have that is important, and Bianca teaches Adonis that. He in turn is able to share that lesson with Rocky when the icon of physicality is diagnosed with cancer. This is the sort of plot point that could easily feel like a cheap trick to wring some emotion from the audience, but Creed does not rely on that sort of melodrama – the cancer is not a lazy plot device; it is a means of learning more about the characters.
For instance, Rocky is able to maintain some of his familiar humor.
His first trip to a doctor is brought out after a sudden collapse. She asks if he’s fallen before, and with a little grin he says, “Not without bein’ punched.” But the humor evaporates when he is faced with the realization that he must choose between chemotherapy and the looming specter of a premature death. Predeceased by his wife, best friend, and trainer, and with his semi-estranged son living far away, Rocky tells Adonis that he had long ago decided he would never get treatment if he were to get sick: “Everything I had is gone. It’s all behind me.” Adonis is hurt by the implication: “And I’m just some bum staying at your crib?” Rocky shrugs and says, “We aren’t a real family, kid.”
It’s a scene that beautifully demonstrates the humanity of both characters. Understandably upset, Adonis storms off. Rocky feels instant guilty for the way he handled the conversation, and that—along with the characteristically bumbling, semi-macho way he addressed Adonis—is what helps him remain sympathetic.
What’s ultimately at stake is that Rocky and Adonis both need to recognize they are their own worst enemies, and embrace their challenges (something Bianca has already successfully done). Adonis was letting his own pride and his father’s name stand in his way of personal progress, and Rocky was ready to throw in the towel after years of being on his own. They are each presented with opportunities to grow, and ultimately take them: Adonis promises to train hard for a big fight against international boxing champ Ricky Conlan if Rocky will get chemo.
This leads to a very poignant training montage where Adonis’s struggle to attain a more disciplined athleticism is intercut with Rocky’s physical struggle to handle his chemo treatment. Reminiscent of the way Rocky would work with and guide Adonis from the sidelines, Adonis is there to help his mentor through the side effects of his treatment. The end of the sequence leads to the best sort of audience goosebumps: clad in gray sweats, Adonis pumps his way through his own version of Rocky’s iconic run, and is met with a nod of approval from the him. The torch is passed – received by a man who absolutely deserves it.
Adonis is not a character who will be seen in anyone’s shadow – Rocky Balboa’s, or Apollo Creed’s.
The day of his big fight, he receives a package from his mother with a note that reads, “build your own legacy.” In the ring, Rocky encourages him to do the same by telling him what he’ll take home from the fight (regardless of the outcome) is “Pride. Knowing you did your best. You’re doing it for yourself – not me, or your father’s memory.” He later prods a bloodied and near-beaten Adonis by reminding him, “It’s you against you; he’s just in the way!”
“Let me prove it!” Adonis begs him. “Prove I’m not a mistake!”
In classic Rocky style, Adonis proves it not by winning the fight but by showing he can go the distance. Rocky credits Adonis with teaching him how to fight again, and Adonis thanks him as family. Most importantly, he tells a reporter that he is proud to be a Creed – in essence, forgiving his father and thus hurdling his biggest personal hang-up along the way.
Ultimately what Creed preaches is the importance of humility (shown lacking in Adonis’s competitor, Ricky Conlan), as well as the sacredness of a mentorship which goes both ways. That it can do all this without a superficial sheen and without any cheap emotional tricks is a tremendous credit to its creators.
Sylvester Stallone’s investment in the project is a testament to them as well – he’s not trotted out for mere name or image recognition, and he doesn’t phone it in. After years of building an image that has become almost a parody of hyper-masculinity, playing larger-than-life action heroes or trading in on that image by making fun of it, it is truly something special to see him at work in Creed. You don’t see a movie star. You see Rocky Balboa – a little more tired, a little older, but still the same character you met for the first time forty years ago. The fact that it is so subdued, that it feels so familiar, that he disappears back into the role is a credit to the performance.
All said, it is an astounding group effort. In a touching gesture, Stallone asked Coogler if he would consider it disrespectful to attend the Oscars when the black crew and cast of the film were ignored. Coogler encouraged him to go and represent the film, and Stallone has unceasingly praised the team that brought Creed together, with good reason:
It is beautifully edited. There are no superfluous moments; the characters are fleshed out in their dialogue, their physicality, and their interactions. Each training montage has its own meaning and drives the story forward.
The cinematography is the editing’s steady partner, particularly in the film’s two major fight sequences. In the first, the fight is miraculously captured in a single shot, taking the viewer subconsciously into the exhausting stop-and-go nature of a fight. Adonis’s match with Conlan involves more use of quick cuts and slow-motion. Notably, there is a moment where Conlan lands a hit so hard, it seems Adonis might be down for the count. As he falls to the mat, we see a brief spastic collection of flashbacks. It ends with footage of his father, grinning like a smug panther in the ring. Desperate to prove himself, Adonis launches to his feet.
His time on the mat is silent, which makes the roar of applause when he jumps back up all the more invigorating. At times, the audience surrounding me was moved to cheer so loudly, I wasn’t always sure which cheers were coming from around me and which ones were coming from the screen. By far the loudest reaction came when the iconic Rocky theme began to blare at the end of the Conlan match. The grit has paid off, and the theme music signifies it: here is Rocky’s worthy successor.
The movie could’ve ended on the triumphant note of the fight, but it does the audience one better by finishing on an ambiguous scene at those wonderful Philadelphia steps.
Adonis matches Rocky’s slowed pace as they make their way up the steps (a fitting metaphor), and there is no clear-cut discussion of whether Rocky is in remission, if he’s fully recovered. They laugh together. They tease each other. When they reach the top for a glorious view of the city, Rocky tells Adonis they’ve come to his favorite place:
“You can see your whole life from up here. Looks pretty good. How about yours?”
Adonis echoes the sentiment: “Looks pretty good.” It promises optimism without painting a rosy picture, and though sentimental, it does not feel forced. It’s a moving farewell to Rocky Balboa, which also promises a bright future for Coogler, his crew, and Michael B. Jordan in one fell swoop. It’s their turn to fly now.