Not one bit of the movie franchise fanfare this year has gone to the rebirth of the tale of the tough boxer from Philadelphia who could take on all the punches, literally and figuratively, the world could throw at him.
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens about to burst forth from Disneydom and The Hunger Games tucked away by JLawrenceville, there was little air left in Hollywood’s gossip balloon to chatter about Creed, slipped out to theaters on Thanksgiving by MGM and Warner Bros.
It’s the continuation of the Rocky story first served by Sylvester Stallone back in 1976, when he wrote, directed and starred in the tale of the tough and humble boxer from the City of Brotherly Love who had to first believe in both the tough stuff and wisdom inside himself before he could unleash it upon the many forces that would come down upon him.
That first film inspired many, earned $220 million worldwide, received 10 Oscar nominations and won three, including best picture. America became Rock-ed, from the motivational soundtrack of Eye of the Tiger and Gonna Fly Now to the running of the high steps in downtown Philadelphia. Rocky, you see, was much more than a boxing movie, parts love and struggle and failure and a tiny taste of success. Yo, Adrian, indeed.
Stallone put much effort into five sequels, from 1979 to 2006, with varying degrees of success. Rocky IV, the 1986 film in which Apollo Creed dies in his foe-turned-friend’s arms fighting wicked Russian Ivan Drago, was biggest winner worldwide at the box office. Rocky Balboa, the latest before this year, Rocky returns to his Philly roots after the death of his beloved wife Adrian by opening a restaurant in her name.
And that’s where the former heavyweight champion of the world labors peacefully when we meet him in Creed.
He’s put there by writer and director Ryan Coogler. Stallone, wise man in these things, decided to hand over the twilight of this franchise to younger eyes and a sharp mind. Coogler directed Fruitvale Station, the true and tense story of Oscar Grant, the young African-American man who was killed in 2009 in Oakland by a white policeman while handcuffed.
Coogler called upon his star from that one, Michael B. Jordan, to play the title character for this seventh installment and new direction for Rocky’s tale.
And Jordan, also known for interesting smaller screen work from as far back as 2002 on HBO’s The Wire and more recently on NBC’s Parenthood, is a star on the rise. He shows it all as a young man attempting to live up to not one, but two names.
Coogler goes back more than a decade to a juvenile detention center, where Adonis Johnson is again fighting another youngster, causing a stir with other kids and many guards. Into this walks a concerned woman played by graceful and elegant veteran Phylicia Rashad. The angstful but intelligent boy wants no part of her if she’s from another group home. No, she explains, she knows about his father, also a scrapper like him. He’s got no father, he exclaims.
And so the kid and moviegoers discover that this concerned woman was the wife of Apollo Creed, who had a dalliance with his mother Ms. Johnson that resulted before he died in that boxing ring those years ago. Would he like to come live with her?
Everybody in the packed Thanksgiving night Regal Cinemas theater in Syracuse’s Shoppingtown Mall with my dear wife Karen and I was all in by now.
Next we see Donny Johnson in a grown-up job, well-educated, but slipping away to fill that instinct by fighting in wild weekend Mexican bouts.
Nature overcomes nurture, and he ups and moves to Philadelphia to seek out Rocky Balboa and all that man can share about boxing. Rocky knows by now that time is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, so he’s humbly going about his restaurant business and taking breaks by visiting the side-by-side hilltop headstones of Adrian and best friend Paulie, pulling out a folding chair he’s stowed up in a tree to read them the daily newspaper headlines.
The kid immediately calls him “Unc,” as a sign of respect — and somewhat jolting familiarity, considering Rocky wants nothing to do with returning to the sweaty neighborhood gym to train a fighter, not even after he’s convinced this is the son of his beloved friend Creed.
No more spoilers here. But rest assured that Coogler studied the Rocky past well, with love, and Tessa Thompson does well with musician neighbor Bianca, and tumult, with the real-life boxers that he picked to play the men that Donny faces in the ring, and drama, with the out-of-sport life decisions they all must face.
Creed is an outstanding movie, a delightful 2015 surprise. Hopefully, Coogler and Jordan are up for more.
Have you been a fan of the ‘Rocky’ franchise, and why or why not? What’s your favorite Sylvester Stallone movie, and why? Have you seen Michael B. Jordan’s work, and if so, what do you think of his talent?