seen @ Cinemart Fiveplex, Forest Hills, Queens
When Creed first began doing gigs around their hometown of Tallahassee, Florida, grunge rock had started to become played out. They had to settle for playing in family restaurants. They played mostly cover songs, but all the while they were writing original material for what would eventually become their 1997 debut record My Own Prison, which they initially released on their own Blue Collar Records label. According to manager Jeff Hanson, fourteen labels had passed on the band, until representatives from Wind-Up Records came to Tallahassee to hear them perform -
Just kidding. Wanted to see if you were paying attention.
You thought it too, didn't you? The first time you had heard about Creed, at some point the thought probably ran through your head: "No, dear God, please not another Rocky movie." In fairness, though, and this is something I don't think gets brought up whenever people talk about the Rocky movies: this has got to be one of, if not the longest-running non-genre franchise still active.
Think about it. Rocky's not a superhero, he's not a secret agent nor the captain of a starship; he's not a supernatural serial killer or even a standard action-adventure hero. Relatively speaking, he's an ordinary guy, whose stories are firmly entrenched within the real world, and his story is still being told forty years after his debut, in this age of CGI fantasia. He hasn't been rebooted, either. We've seen him age, and we've seen the world around him evolve too. Say what you will, but you can count the number of modern American film franchises like Rocky on one hand and have change left over.
Rocky is an American folk tale, the vision of the filmmaker who has embodied him all these years: Sylvester Stallone. Yes, I say filmmaker: producer, writer, director and actor, that's Sly. It's easy to forget, after so many years of testosterone-fueled action movies and regrettable comedies (has he finally outlived Stop or My Mom Will Shoot? I think he has) that Sly, in his way, is as much an auteur as Jarmusch or Lynch or Lee. Well, okay, maybe not quite like those guys... but it's clear that of all his screen personas, the Italian Stallion remains closest to his heart. Perhaps that's why he keeps coming back to him.
Not that the evolution of the character has been easy. With the first sequel, and on throughout the 80s, the movies, little by little, became more cartoonish, more good guy-bad guy. The original film had that element too - I'd argue it's almost impossible to avoid in a movie about boxing - but it was so very human at the same time.
Rocky was born at the crossroads of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. Amidst such momentous change that damaged America's self-image, along comes this blue collar cinematic hero who's totally unpretentious, a stand-up guy - the anti-Nixon. Small wonder audiences embraced him the way they did, and though the best Rocky can achieve in the end is a Pyrrhic victory, in the wake of the long, frustrating struggle that was Vietnam, it was enough for America.
The subsequent movies turned him from a man into something more resembling a symbol. Yes, friends and family would die, and he'd have trouble adjusting to fame and fortune, but once the obligatory training montage began, and Bill Conti's iconic score kicked in, all that mattered in the end was the fight - and this time, Pyrrhic victories would not do. Rocky represented American exceptionalism in Ronald Reagan's 80s. Communism? Terrorism? The war on drugs? They were just opponents to be knocked out.
Time began to take its toll on Rocky eventually, and it became harder to justify getting him back in the ring, not that they didn't try. Sly was still in good shape, and in real life, George Foreman was still fighting in his forties, so why not? Still, after six movies, it seemed as if everything that could be said about the character had been said. He had come full circle and was just a man once again. Then along comes writer-director Ryan Coogler and Creed - and with him comes an awareness of the subtext that no one likes to talk about when it comes to Rocky: the aspect of race.
The phrase "great white hope" is commonly associated with boxing, and historically, it was used in connection with the first black boxing champion, Jack Johnson, a fighter too good for white audiences of the day to tolerate for long - hence the desire for a white fighter to take Johnson's place. It's common knowledge that Apollo Creed, Rocky's great rival turned confidant, was inspired by Muhammad Ali, a black champion who, like Johnson, challenged the status quo and made the powers that be nervous because of who he was and how he behaved. While I don't believe Sly created Rocky as a great white hope - he has said he wrote the screenplay after watching an actual Ali fight against a white opponent that unexpectedly went fifteen rounds - nothing is made in a vacuum. It's not hard to interpret the Rocky films from this perspective, but that's not what Creed is about.
The story of Adonis Creed has some parallels to Rocky's, but it's quite different overall because of the legacy angle, which at heart is really about a young black man growing up without a father, something I'm sure Coogler was quite aware of when he wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington. Donnie boxes partially as a means to connect with the father he never knew, but it's Rocky who ends up becoming a surrogate father to him. What could have been a simple cash-in flick that "reboots" the Rocky concept for a new generation ends up, in Coogler's hands, something deeper and more meaningful - and props to Coogler's Fruitvale Station star Michael B. Jordan for another outstanding performance. And how about that sequence in the middle where an entire two-round fight was shot in one take? That was fantastic!
Funny thing, as I watched Creed, it reminded me, at times, of The Force Awakens. Sly, like Harrison Ford, is once again portraying a character that's been around since the 70s (!), acting as a mentor to a younger character who feels a longing for absent family members. I had thought that what happens to Ford in TFA would also happen to Sly, but it doesn't, which was a pleasant surprise.
So now, after forty years of embodying this great character, Sly once again gets Oscar nominated for his efforts, and I think this time he has a pretty good shot of winning. That would be a magnificent moment indeed if he wins, because he was genuinely good in Creed. I don't believe this Supporting Actor nomination is purely out of sentiment. Pity Jordan didn't get nominated as well...
So what's next? I think it's a safe bet that there will be a Creed 2, however, given how this one ended, it would seem that there's only one way for a potential Creed 2 to play out. Still, Coogler is too talented a director to settle for following in the footsteps of Rocky II. Hopefully, any sequel he, Jordan and Sly may make will have a different direction.