The first thing required of any critic who utters a word about a Rocky movie is that he rank the films prior to the new one. From Best to Worst, mine are: Rocky, Rocky IV, Rocky III, Rocky II, and Rocky Balboa.
Fine, I’ll give you some more. Rocky IV is Ronald Reagan vs. an iron bear where the honor of Cold War rivalries hangs in the balance, and it could only be more awesome if the robot had a jetpack. Rocky III is the most polished and palpable of the sequels and contains some of the best montage and wordless storytelling in the history of film. Rocky II is thirty-five minutes of the greatest triumph ever relegated to the bookend of a ninety-minute slog. Balboa is well intentioned but unkempt and ultimately unnecessary.
There is no “Rocky V.”
The sad irony of the Rocky series is that after beating Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, and Ivan Drago – with that last fight saving the entire face of America (emulated a near-decade later by the ping-pong sequence in Forrest Gump), Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie were essentially written into a corner. Balboa was an earnest effort to give him the kind of emotional demons only a Rocky movie can KO, but it merely stalled the inevitable truth. The era was over.
But that didn’t mean Rocky couldn’t be in a movie again. The thought of him playing second fiddle to someone else in a movie continuing the franchise that bears his own name was one no one took seriously until that trailer showed up. Then it couldn’t have sounded more appropriate.
After all, the one thing we’ve never seen Rocky do is train another. He’s had Mickey, Paulie, Apollo, and Duke in his corner, but he’s never sat in someone else’s. But if Sly Stallone’s performance in Creed is any indication, there is truly no one better for the job.
No one better for the bastard son of Apollo Creed, that is. Adonis (“Donnie”) was the one thing Apollo never knew about and perhaps would have been the one thing to keep Apollo from signing up to die if he had known. Donnie moved between foster homes and prisons until Mary Anne Creed (Apollo’s wife) finds him and takes him in, where he then becomes too sheltered for his own tastes.
Rocky, at its heart, has always been about rooting for the underdog.
- Star of his own movie? Make him the impoverished, browbeaten guinea pig in a fixed publicity-stunt fight against the heavyweight champion of the world.
- Heavyweight champion? Distract him, beat him, kill Mickey, and put the fear in his head.
- Still heavyweight champion? Kill his best friend, embarrass the entire nation, and engineer his opponent with steroids in a lab.
Given the history of this series, Donnie couldn’t appear to be less of an underdog. He’s financially set for life with the genes of greatness. At first he seems too stocky to stand out; he’s smart and dapper enough to succeed in a nonviolent career, but he’s cocky enough to get in over his head before he knows it, and driven enough to do whatever he wants. He’s like a better Vincent Corleone.
And he hates that. He’s as hungry for Apollo’s legacy as anyone could be, and he’s willing to use his studious knowledge about his father’s history with Rocky Balboa to seek the aging veteran out. But he’ll be damned if he takes the name, as if the absence of his father is the source of his strength.
It isn’t, of course. His relationship with Rocky and Bianca, his lady love, are, transcending the film from being just a good stylistic Rocky sequel to a masterful recapturing of the very spirit that made us fall in love with these movies forty years ago.
Donnie’s insecurities aren’t as adorable as Rocky’s were (and they aren’t meant to be), but he’s got Rocky’s unintentional puppy dog earnest approach to women. Adrian was the tightly-wound spinster turtle whose love for Rocky grew as he helped her emerge from her shell, a deeply-felt love that pumped the heart and filled the veins of this entire franchise. Donnie sees a reflection of himself in Bianca, a woman not only as driven as he is, but also keenly aware of how the continuous abuse one takes in her chosen career leaves her at the mercy of time. This was the unspoken great failing of Apollo Creed, and this film elevates the son without tarnishing the legacy of the father.
Still, don’t mistake Creed for an alien movie. Rocky as a series is nothing if not transparent in its bravado, but director Ryan Coogler imbues an energy that hasn’t been attempted since Rocky IV. The training montages are cut from the cloth of Rocky II, but the fights are their own organism. They’re as cinematic as any other great action sequence we’ve seen this year.
I feel bad for the fact that I’ve just given Creed 600 words without really saying anything about it. In particular, I’ve left out the details about Rocky himself. All you’re getting out of me on that is that Sylvester Stallone has turned in what may be his finest acting performance since First Blood. No Academy Awards race for Best Supporting Actor would be credible or complete without his nomination. You have to see it to believe it, and you’re better off going in cold.
Rocky was a cultural milestone for Italian Americans. Of its genre, we’ve since seen psychological inversions (Raging Bull), Oscar weaponization (Million Dollar Baby), and ensemble family biopics (The Fighter) – all great films, but none as effecting upon a people. If you’ve watched enough of these growing up, you can’t not notice how few of them actually star the black fighter. In that respect, Creed is the movie you’ve been waiting for, but it’s so much more than that. It is a re-invigoration of classic American folklore, one of the best films of the year, and you absolutely should not miss it.