Dear Fellow Film Critics,
Sports films resonate because, by and large, they’re comfortably predictable. They appeal to our basest human needs – to persevere, to win, to feel the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, as the saying goes. Many of us adults will never experience the life-altering rush of an athletic triumph, but we all face obstacles in our lives that we must find the strength to overcome.
Boxing movies specifically cater to this instinct because they are quite literally about fighting. And though the good ones are about much more than that, at their very essence, boxing movies lay out a blueprint for success: set your goal, test your physical and mental capacities, find something inside of yourself that you didn’t know existed, and push yourself to the limits. Watching that cinematic journey and savouring vicarious victory is one of life’s small pleasures. Call it sophomoric, call it cliché, but you know what? A lot of the time life is fucking cliché. And Creed director Ryan Coogler knows that. He embraces these clichés and still manages to exceed expectations. He made the Rocky film a fan would have made. Because he is a fan.
When you’re six or seven you’re not necessarily able to articulate why certain things appeal to you more than others, you simply love the things that you love. Most kids in the late 70s/early 80s were obsessed with the original Star Wars trilogy. I was obsessed with the Rocky movies. An unknown, past-his prime, palooka from Philly defying all odds to go up against Apollo Creed, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world? Those other kids could keep their light sabres and their dark sides, my heart belonged to the Italian Stallion, king of the underdogs
As much as I enjoy a rollicking sci-fi or fantasy flick, even as a kid, I always felt more connected to quiet, character-based movies rooted in reality. And when elements of the Rocky films became formulaic and cheesy, I always found something – a song, a character, a memorable line of dialogue – that kept me hanging on. Being able to look past certain idiosyncrasies, missteps, and outright disaster (Rocky goddamned V), and not walk away is the basis of unconditional love. It’s also the classic definition of an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship.
Creed was the chance to make things right again - and not just with me and other die-hard fans who would have been content to let things end with 2006’s better than expected Rocky Balboa. It was an opportunity to reintroduce a set of characters and circumstances for a whole new generation to fall in love with. Even with the winning combo of director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan (lauded for delivering 2013’s critical darling Fruitvale Station), I honestly didn’t know if Creed could do it. I walked into the theatre with lowered expectations. I walked out a born-again believer.
There was one specific moment when Creed won back my affections. Adonis, Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, has just moved into Rocky’s house to train with him full time. On a shelf, Adonis sees a picture of Rocky and his son, Robert, taken when Rocky was in his prime, and Robert was a child. Rocky mentions that Robert moved away, that it was difficult for him living in Philly being Rocky’s kid, and that they have a good relationship though they don’t see each other often.
This scene is played matter-of-factly. Coogler doesn’t force Sylvester Stallone or Jordan to mine the emotional depths of the father/son dynamic in a film that is so plainly about the father/son dynamic. But those of us with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Rocky franchise recognized that the picture is of Stallone and his real-life son, Sage, who died in 2012. This scene could have been maudlin, or tacky, or gross, but instead it was something every Rocky film since the first one hasn’t been: powerfully understated.
There’s a truth in Creed that I just wasn’t expecting, and when it showed up in this, and every other scene, I realized how much it had been missing from the other films. After the unlikely runaway success of the first Rocky film in 1976, each subsequent sequel became more interested in putting butts in seats, than in reaching any kind of emotional honesty. Sure, there were scenes that moved me – Rocky’s monologue when Adrian is in a coma (Rocky II) , Mickey’s death (Rocky III), Rocky’s speech in front of the Politburo (Rocky IV)– but I was always aware that I was being manipulated, either through sweeping soundtrack strings, painfully sentimental dialogue, or yet another training montage. I felt something, but they were cheap jabs, never gut punches.
Creed hit me. Hard.
I expected that Creed would focus on family bonds. The title is kind of a giveaway. I knew Adonis’ internal fight would be to accept his father’s legacy. But I wasn’t prepared for Rocky’s fight for his life, and the larger theme of mortality. And I certainly wasn’t prepared to see Stallone deliver the performance of his career. Perhaps because for once, he hadn’t written Rocky’s dialogue, or because this is the first movie in which Rocky doesn’t box, or maybe because his primary job on Creed was as an actor, but it really freed him to explore the character of Rocky as a mere mortal, and not as a legend. When he delivers the line, “Time takes us all down in the end. It’s undefeated,” it’s not done for effect. It’s just the truth.
If Rocky IV was the movie I didn’t know I needed after my dad died in 1985, then Creed is the movie I didn’t know I needed in 2015, when I became the primary caregiver to my mother who is battling Stage IV metastatic melanoma. Which we found out about on February 11th, 30 years to the day after my dad’s death because yes, life is a fucking cliché, and we all have to fight whether we want to or not. The alternative isn’t an option.
“One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time.” It’s a mantra from Creed, and it may be simplistic and banal, but it reminds me that there’s just as much triumph to be had from helping my mother get up my four porch steps without both of us collapsing from exhaustion, as there is in running up the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And it’s enough to just enjoy an unexpectedly solid film that lets me savour a predictable victory. In life, it’s a gift we’re rarely given.