Who’d have guessed that one of the best (of seven) Rocky films wouldn’t even have Rocky in its title?
Yet here we are, forty years removed from the original boxing blockbuster, and the titular palooka is finally passing the torch…to the son of the champ who gave him a shot all those years ago.
Guess there was still some stuff left in Rocky’s basement. Not to mention a few skeletons in Apollo Creed’s closet.
We know we’re not alone in having been touched by Sylvester Stallone’s uplifting tale (inspired by the real-life Muhammad Ali vs. Chuck Wepner match in Richfield, Ohio) of a scrappy underdog who repeatedly defies the odds to win the title (and defend it, and regain it) and metamorphose from loan shark muscleman to “civilized” celeb (and back) while juggling myriad personal problems.
We were too young to see the first Rocky in theatres (1975), but our parents took us to its first sequel (1979), and we caught every installment thereafter at the cinema on multiple occasions, thrilling to every punch (and Bill Conti “Gonna Fly Now” montage). We bought the bubblegum cards and snatched up the videotapes, upgrading to DVD when those became available. In 2006 we were delighted to take our own kids to see Rocky Balboa, thereby completing a 35 year cinema cycle.
We visited the real Mighty Mick’s Gym (a convenience store) in Philadelphia, stood outside the pet stop where Adrian worked (J&M Tropical Fish), ran the steps at the art museum, and walked beneath the elevated track where the “human jukebox” serenaded Rocky’s neighborhood. We’ve had lunch at Pat’s Steaks and dinner at Adrian’s Restaurant (The Victor Café). We own the motion picture soundtracks on cassette and CD, and we’ve seen Survivor (“Eye of the Tiger,” “Burning Heart”) in concert.
We thought Rocky Balboa concluded the saga on a happy high note, with actor / director Stallone making good on his promise to deliver the fitting, fan-respectful finale that Rocky V (1990) wasn’t. Returning to the ring for one final bout (an exhibition match in Las Vegas), an over-the-hill but resilient Rocky exorcised his personal demons, going the distance with the reigning heavyweight champion Mason Dixon—just like he did three decades prior against charismatic Apollo.
Rocky literally fades out at the end of the flick, walking into the distance after visiting his wife’s grave.
“Yo, Adrian, we did it!” he says, speaking to all they’d accomplished as a couple as much as his own remarkable career, comeback, and un-retirement.
The sign-off also saluted us—the fans who’d shared their journey.
So as excited as we were to learn Rocky would appear yet again in offshoot picture Creed, we were leery about witnessing whatever travails befell the even older guy we’d encounter.
Rocky Balboa had mended the old wounds (Rocky V) so effectively, so eloquently. Why rip open the bandage?
We’re happy to report that Creed more than allayed our fears about the respectful handling of what will likely stand as Rocky Balboa’s sunset appearance. It’s a bittersweet swansong of a film that brings the icon full circle, what with the ex-prizefighter slipping into the manager / mentor role previously inhabited by lovable curmudgeon Mickey (Burgess Meredith).
Stallone not only hands over his gazillion-dollar franchise to a worthy onscreen boxing successor for the next generation: With Creed, he also abdicates his (and John Avildsen’s) director’s chair to a young upstart who wasn’t even around when Apollo died: 29-year old Ryan Coogler, whose 2013 drama Fruitvale Station drew critical acclaim.
That movie’s star, Michael B. Jordon (Chronicle, Fantastic Four) plays Adonis Johnson, a successful L.A. financial advisor who forfeits a lucrative promotion to be a fighter, just like the deceased father he never knew, Apollo Creed.
Donny’s employers can’t believe it, nor can adoptive mom Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad)—who (in a 1998 flashback) plucks her husband’s illegitimate son in from foster care after the boy’s real mom dies. She saw how Apollo’s pride led to his premature death (at the hands of Rocky IV’s juiced Russian Olympian, Ivan Drago) and has no desire to watch Donny get his brains similarly scrambled.
“Do you know how many times I had to help him up those stairs because he couldn’t walk?” she asks Adonis.
“Or wipe his ass, because his hands were useless?”
Mama Creed’s uncensored remark hits like a right hook in the Hollywood-ized context of a series that has traditionally portrayed its boxers as warriors who don’t hurt easily and never seem to require an everyman’s recovery time. But Creed continues the realism established in Rocky Balboa—both in and out of the ring—with a conviction modern audiences will appreciate.
Coogler also turns in the longest, most authentic Rocky chapter ever (and possibly most true-to-life boxing film of all time). The punches thrown here don’t resonate like the freight trains that were Clubber Lang’s comic book uppercuts or Drago’s 1400 PSI trip-hammers : They look and sound like the genuine article, as on a HBO pay-per-view event (which figures into the climactic finale), and we wince in our seats watching the actors trade believable blows. Adonis is even so rattled by a case of pre-fight jitters that he nearly craps himself.
Mom’s misgivings tearing at his conscience, Adonis heads to the city of brotherly love to ask Apollo’s old chum to take him under his wing. Only Rocky (who still runs an eatery) isn’t interested: The retired champ hasn’t been to a gym in ages, and remains haunted by his failure to stop the “Living in America” debacle that killed his buddy. But Rocky recognizes in Adonis the same determination and persistence that defined the self-proclaimed Master of Disaster.
“You’re like a pigeon,” Balboa tells Donny.
Adonis takes to calling Rocky “Unc” and slips into the Stallion’s old exercise routine: He chases chickens in alleyways and jogs through Philadelphia marketplaces as neighbors cheer him on. He’s got a massive chip on his shoulder—he wants to prove he’s not a mistake, or some “fake Creed”—but he eventually charms beautiful Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a partially-deaf musician living next door. The trio forms a surrogate family under Rocky’s roof as Adonis hones his skills, drawing the attention of eager upstarts at Mick’s, whose current proprietor (Ritchie Coster) can smell the money.
Unable to work out with the competition at Goldmill’s place, Rocky gets Adonis in good with the crusty crew at another local gym, where they prep for a match against a prodigiously-tattooed terror. Adonis hopes to succeed on his own merits, but a media circus develops when rivals blow the lid on his lineage.
Meanwhile in Liverpool, undefeated champ “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) looks to cash in one more time before doing time on gun charges. So plucky handler Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish) makes Adonis an offer he can’t refuse: Take on his “real” surname, and he’ll get a shot at Ricky’s title.
But can Adonis earn that name? Does he even want to?
The film takes a dramatic turn when Rocky collapses to the canvas (for the first time without having been punched down). The prognosis isn’t good, and even our favorite fighter isn’t resolute enough for an uphill battle with a foe that doesn’t care how hard you hit. Rocky’s seen it all before, he tells the doctor…and it didn’t end so well for Adrian.
“Can we just keep this to ourselves?” he asks meekly.
Despite a few disagreements (and their respective races and ages), Rocky and Adonis enjoy a natural kinship that doesn’t feel forced. While a couple familiar Rocky peripherals pop up, the glaring absences of others (Paulie, Rocky Jr.) are credibly explained. But where are Little Marie and Steps? Given their bonds with Balboa, one would think they’d at least check in—if only to wish Rocky luck with his protégé.
Still, Creed’s callbacks go well beyond chasing chickens: Donny and Bianca venture out for cheesesteaks (albeit at Max’s instead of Pat’s); museum visitors mug with the Rocky statue; Rocky still cracks his eggs single-handedly, feeds a pet turtle, drives a white Econoline, and hits the speedbag. He’s also back to bouncing his racquetball.
Stallone convincingly projects the simple-mindedness of a punch-drunk ring retiree, making for some touching (and funny) moments: He requires bifocals, needs help with his spelling, and has no concept of “the Cloud.” Rocky also has a couple tear-jerking outbursts—not unlike the ones with Robert and Paulie last episode—that will endear him to longtime fans that much more.
But does the former ironman have enough left in his tank to tackle leukemia? Or will this mark the end of Philadelphia’s favorite son? Does Rocky trade his tree-hidden folding chair for a proper resting place alongside his soulmate?
Just how wet are Creed’s waterworks?
You owe it to yourself to find out this Thanksgiving, kid. You’ll come away shocked by just how satisfying Rocky’s sixth sequel is—and leave the theatre ready to root for Jordan in Creed 2.
Come to think of it, Rocky Balboa remains a pitch-perfect ending to our favorite anthology: It’s just that this movie marks the beginning of another.
If Creed’s any indicator, the star-spangled trunks are safe with Coogler and Jordan.