An athlete born in the year (1976, that is) that Rocky Balboa first fought on the silver screen would probably be nearing retirement now, if he or she had not retired already. But Balboa himself (played, as always, by Sylvester Stallone) keeps turning up. This is not without risks of seeming exploitative. Worse, it is not without risks of seeming redundant. (Have you ever read Jean Christophe, Romain Rolland’s ten-volume biopic novel of its eponymous protagonist? Me neither.) If there is one chief strength of the new addition to the Rocky franchise, it is that the movie manages to be a fairly standard uplifting Hollywood drama without being the metaphorical equivalent of the last bit of toothpaste being squeezed out of an old tube.
That is to say that Creed is actually pretty good. It justifies its own existence without leaning to heavily on its predecessors. That doesn’t mean that it’s great and it doesn’t mean that it’s surprising. But Ryan Coogler (best known previously for his docudrama Fruitvale) demonstrates that sometimes you can fill old wineskins with new wine and, if the skin doesn’t break, the wine is still worth drinking. The new story, in this case, arrives in the shape of the film’s main character, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), a lovechild of Apollo Creed determined more than anything to prove that he is more than the wages of a one-night-stand.
Mr. Jordan is up to the task, assisted by the fact that his character, while an underdog, is not a stereotypical one. Unlike the Rocky of the 1976 film, he is not down on his luck, but has a tendency to run away from the kind of luck that he gets. Yes, he spent part of his childhood in the juvenile criminal justice system, but after being adopted by Apollo Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), his upbringing is of the privileged variety that allows him to quit a promising career at a corporate, coat-and-tie job, lose his classic 1965 Ford Mustang in an ill-advised fight with a much more experienced fighter and move to Philadelphia to pursue a full-time boxing career without so much as getting part-time work.
But there is still plenty of adversity. Much of this adversity is attributable to the directorial skill of Ryan Coogler. Boxing, while not nearly as popular a national pastime as football, is nonetheless the favored competition when it comes to sports movies. Boxing in movies rarely looks like the real deal, but with Coogler’s up-close-and-personal, almost claustrophobic camera work in the ring, it feels real enough. Thanks to Coogler’s work, the audience can almost feel the resounding ache that echoes in the head that is on the receiving end of a fist.
Mr. Stallone’s Rocky is there—as Johnson’s trainer and surrogate uncle—to remind the audience that the effects of getting knocked about last long after the initial pain goes away. It is not accurate to say that Mr. Stallone can play himself. He is not Rocky Balboa. Despite his career possibly being disappointing to critics,1 Mr. Stallone has managed to remain successful well beyond middle age. But he can play characters who he might have become (in this case the old Philadelphia warrior) with a raw power that still commands the screen as well as the ring. He doesn’t appear to have changed much, or had any desire for change, since the passing of his wife. He still lives and runs a restaurant in dilapidated Philadelphia. When his young protégé assures him that he has downloaded his suggested boxing drills to “the cloud”, the old fighter’s eyes scan the sky for a passing cumulonimbus.
Like this character, the film is short on surprises. It follows a fairly mainstream trajectory from the initial failure, through the search for the mentor, to the young romance (with Tessa Thompson’s club singer Bianca as the love interest), to the training, breaking-in-fight and eventual final match. But Mr. Coogler is a smart enough director to make these conventional elements seem real rather than forced. And the Philadelphia of the film’s setting is filled in with the right details also (sure enough, Philly Cheese steak sandwiches make a cameo appearance in a restaurant which will, no doubt, soon become a hipster watering-hole.)
But, like most movies in the series, this is a story about that ever-so American concept: the future. Being a Rocky movie rather than a Scorsese or Eastwood production, it is not hard to guess that this will be one for those who prefer the Nahum Tate version. But, with so much John Webster on the screens these days, a little bit of Nahum Tate is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be surprisingly relieving. And, nearly 40 years out, it is good to see that the Italian Stallion and his successors can still convince us to wish them luck. They’re going to need it.
(1) On the release of the first Rocky (1976), Roger Ebert suggested that Stallone could act like a young Marlon Brando. After the release of Judge Dred and The Expendables 3, this judgment seems premature. Then again, older Marlon Brando did star in The Missouri Breaks, The Formula and The Island of Dr. Moreau.