Maybe this is crazy, but Sylvester Stallone is a genius. Sure, he’s produced more crap than a flock of geese, but he invented Rambo (the onscreen version anyway) and the beloved Rocky Balboa, one of the all-time great characters in movie history. He puts that hat on, that leather jacket, and lays down some doe-eyed, slack-jawed philosophy, and suddenly the world and my place in it seems clearer. I think it’s that way for a lot of people.
All told, there are six true Rocky films: Rocky (still a masterwork of underdog pathos), Rocky II (a smart, heartfelt sequel), Rocky III (the next logical progression in the to-riches part of the saga), Rocky IV (a short and satisfying glasnost-era melodrama), Rocky V (the one we don’t like to mention) and the absolutely underrated Rocky Balboa, a brilliant low-budget comeback that reintroduced the character after a 16-year hiatus, and that takes us back, full circle, to the spirit and scrappy indie production values of the 1976 original.
In Rocky Balboa, the former champ is lured out of retirement for an exhibition match with the current champ to breathe some life into their dying sport and to quench the never-say-die fire in Rocky’s belly. It’s Stallone’s Unforgiven, an elegiac and sweetly made send-off to the character that made him a superstar and who still inspires millions of people to face down their demons and go the distance, often by running up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But a funny thing happened after Rocky Balboa. We didn’t want to say goodbye to the Italian Stallion just yet. Frankly, it was just so nice to see him again. The character had still more life, more fight in him and more wisdom to impart to an audience for whom humility and quiet dignity have become fast fading concepts. And, so, Creed was born.
In much the same way that Casino Royale rebooted and reinvented James Bond, the Creed movies are a savvy, baton hand-off of the franchise to a younger star and directors, but (in an inspired creative move) Stallone doesn’t do the obvious and simply write a younger Rocky into the mix, he shifts the focus to the son of his former adversary and best friend, Apollo Creed.
Rising screen sensation Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed outwardly bears little to no resemblance to Rocky. First off, the obvious, he’s black; secondly, he’s got a streetwise confidence that belies his inner sweetness; and third, he’s riddled through with daddy issues. But under Adonis’ toughness is the essential element required for these films to work: his character’s fragility, a sad, broken heart and the deep-seated desire to fight to find his self-worth. Enter Rocky as the perfect supporting character.
The Creed films put Rocky in his protege’s corner as both trainer and life coach. It’s another completely sensible and satisfying story pivot: turn Rocky into Mickey, his own former trainer and mentor. But whereas Mickey was tiny, gruff and occasionally cruel; Rocky, though sometimes reluctant, is a lumbering sweetheart always there to lift Adonis up, coach him through his toughest battles and inspire him to rise up when he’s knocked down.
It’s a testament to the timelessness of Stallone’s formula, and the ways he keeps repackaging it with sincerity and love, that the image of an underdog fighter, bruised and bloodied, getting up from the canvas to the strains of that indelible theme music still has the power to stir the heart. It’s the kind of thing that can give you the strength to fight any number of personal crises. You can apply it to nearly every one of our emotional or psychological wounds.
And that’s the beauty of this enduring character: Rocky no longer needs to fight to inspire us. We’re no longer cheering him on - he’s now squarely on Adonis’s and our side, whispering in our ears, telling us how great we can all be if we’re just willing to bear down, do the hard work, and fight through the pain and disappointment life punishes all of us with. Like he tells his estranged son in Rocky Balboa, “It’s not how hard you can hit. It’s how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” That’s clearly not about boxing at all...
Fortunately, with Creed 2, an absolute blast that ties Adonis’s evolving story to the fourth Rocky film (in which his father is killed in the ring by the Russian juggernaut, Ivan Drago), the Rocky saga just keeps moving forward with the same invaluable lessons for a new generation. In fact, counting the new Creed movie, there are now a total of eight Rocky films: and these new movies have earned inclusion in the franchise in their own right, but mostly because Rocky is still there informing the soul of the stories.
You know, if you went through each one of these movies and edited together all the scenes where Rocky has something to say, you’d have a nice little blueprint for how to be a good man and a decent human being. Stallone can make 20 more of these movies for all I care. It’ll be a sad day when the 72-year old’s not around anymore to guide the spirit of his creation. But, like the Stallion says, “It ain’t over til it’s over.” Thankfully, Creed 2 is a wildly entertaining reminder that it could do all of us a little good to go another round or two with this guy in our corner.
Johnny DiLoretto is a longtime broadcaster, media personality and performer; co-host of the long running, Cinema Classics, host of the currently on hiatus, Not So Late Show; and the director of community relations at Central Ohio’s original NPR station, WCBE 90.5 FM.