Sylvester Stallone wrote the movie Rocky in 1975 after watching a Muhammed Ali fight. He sold the script, and smartly negotiated his way into playing the lead, despite not yet being well-known. In 1976 the movie Rocky was released, and introduced the world to Rocky Balboa, underdog boxer from Philadelphia. Rocky was an enforcer for a local loan shark, and widely considered a ‘bum’. He has some local fights and suddenly finds himself with an opportunity for national exposure when champion Apollo Creed decides to give a local contender a chance to face him. Creed believes that he will easily defeat Rocky. Rocky meanwhile, finds a new trainer in Mickey Goldmill, a new girlfriend in a pet store clerk named Adrian, and a new friend in her brother Paulie. When the fight finally happens, Rocky’s determination to keep fighting surprises the cocky Creed, and the fight goes the full 15 rounds. The fight finishes with both on their feet, and as Rocky calls out for Adrian, Creed is announced as the winner.
It’s definitely one of the best sports movies of all time, and won three Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director (for John G. Avildsen), and Best Film Editing. It also spawned six sequels (six!). My personal favorite of those is 1985’s Rocky IV, notable for several reasons: the introduction of Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, and the in-ring death of Apollo Creed when he refuses to allow Rocky to stop his fight with Drago.
Honestly, I haven’t seen the last few Rocky movies, I just didn’t have the interest. The critical reception was more lukewarm as the sequels wore on. In 2013 as Director Ryan Coogler was working on Fruitvale Station with Michael B. Jordan, he kicked around the idea for another movie in the Rocky franchise, dealing with Apollo Creed’s son needing training from Rocky. Stallone; at first skeptical, eventually agreed to join the project, after Coogler explained the story to him.
The story centers around Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, a troubled kid in a youth facility when he is found by MaryAnne Creed. She knows he is the result of an extramarital affair that her husband had. She takes Adonis in, and helps him get his life together. However, fighting seems to be in his blood, and he self-teaches himself to be a boxer, taking many fights in Mexico while trying to get taken seriously and get a trainer in Los Angeles. Frustrated that no one at Delphi Boxing Academy in Los Angeles, where his father trained, will take him on, he quits his job and goes to Philadelphia to look up Rocky Balboa against MaryAnne’s wishes.
Rocky is hesitant to get back into boxing. He’s old, tired and broken – having lost everyone he loves. Eventually, he agrees to start training Donnie, using the same non-traditional techniques that Micky used with him. While training, Donnie strikes up a romance with the lovely Bianca, who is a local singer-songwriter, who just happens to live in the apartment below him. Donnie gets the opportunity for a fight with a local pro-fighter, and does very well – catching the interest of world champion Ricky Conlan’s camp. Conlan is about to head to prison, or, you know, ‘early retirement’. Conlan’s camp offers Donnie a fight, but by now word has gotten out that he’s Creed’s son, despite he and Rocky trying to keep that under wraps so Donnie could make his own name. They demand he use the name ‘Creed’ in the fight.
There are a few ups and downs and some personal drama between Donnie and Rocky, and between Donnie and Bianca – which is all very predictable. In fact, even the final fight between Donnie and Conlan is predictable, but what absolutely elevates the movie from what could have been cheesy predictability is excellent execution.
Coogler and Jordan work exceptionally well together, that was proven in Fruitvale Station. What surprised me was how well Coogler handled everything else in the movie. The training sequences are interesting and fun – which is tough, because they could have become either typical or boring. In fact, the running-down-the -street sequence, where Creed is surrounded by bikers and the strains of the original Rocky theme are heard, could have been off-putting and cheesy, but instead – becomes very emotional and triumphant.
Philadelphia again is almost another character in the movie, and Coogler does a great job making the city part of the story. Another set piece that I loved was the fact that the final fight takes place at St. Goodison Park in Liverpool – it’s the football stadium where Everton plays – Stallone is a huge Everton fan. They shot some crowd scenes during halftime at a Everton/West Brom game in January. It provides for a full stadium of really rowdy fans!
- I was expecting Michael B. Jordan to be excellent; he’s been excellent for a while and definitely has an Oscar in his future. It might not be for this movie, but he should be nominated. He completely pulls in the audience as a man who is desperate to build his own legacy and prove that he is not a mistake. Yes – this should completely wipe out the memory of Fantastic Four, which was not his fault - he was the only watchable part of that movie.
- I was not expecting Stallone to be as excellent as he was. Now 69, the same age that Burgess Meredith was when he played Mickey in Rocky (does that blow your mind?), he absolutely needs to be nominated for best supporting actor. His portrayal of Rocky at this point is so touching and accurate. He’s a man who is broken and alone, and has basically given up. Minor spoiler (minor because it’s in the trailers): there is a moment when he gets sick, and faces his diagnosis with stubbornness and sadness, knowing that the treatment did not help his wife, and unwilling to go through that for himself. His relationship with the son of his friend is what pulls him back from the brink, and Stallone’s performance is elegantly subtle. Not really two words I ever thought I would use to describe Stallone.
- Tessa Thompson, previously excellent in Dear White People, was also excellent in this. She easily could have fell into the ‘girlfriend’ role, and while there is some of that here, she takes the opportunity to give a layered performance that elevates Bianca to more important than just the ‘girlfriend’. She also gets to take Donnie for his first Philly sandwich.
- Phylicia Rashad plays MaryAnne, and while she was not MaryAnne in the original Rocky movies, she does an amazing job in this of a woman who is bound and determined to love Adonis despite himself. She tries desperately to keep him away from Boxing, since it did cost her her husband, but once he makes the decision, she does send him the iconic red/white/blue trunks that Apollo wore.
- Tony Bellew is a British professional boxer who plays “Pretty” Ricky Conlan. Not being all that familiar with him, I’m not sure he was ‘acting’ or just being himself – either way, it was pretty convincing!
- Graham McTavish plays Tommy Holiday, Conlan’s handler, who really does all the talking/thinking for Conlan when setting up the fight. He’s the one who demands that Donnie Johnson change his name to Adonis Creed, so that the name will carry some weight in the fight.
There are a lot of real-life boxers and ring folks in the movie, and that really does help lend some credibility to the fight sequences. The movie is surprisingly fun, uplifting, charming, and well-crafted. Go see it – yes, the fight at the end is brutal, and yes, it goes all 12 rounds. And yes, you can probably guess how it ends, but none of that matters, because the experience is so entertaining! I’m a little sad there was no Carl Weathers in the movie, but in all fairness, he did die three sequels ago. I suppose he could have appeared in a dream sequence or flashback. We’ll just have to hope that Stallone will put him in the next Expendables. In terms of what he thought about this movie, he’s been overwhelmingly positive in his reviews, and posted “Apollo Creed is dead, long live CREED!”
9 out of 10 – I really loved it, which caught me by surprise. Gained points for working in the iconic Rocky training song. Lost points for the suspicious placement of the ‘eye-closed’ prosthetic on Creed at the end of the fight…I’m not sure that was quite right. Gained points for the steps scene at the end – fantastic.
Bonus Video 1. Carl Weathers on Arrested Development, so hilarious.
Bonus Video 2. Chronicle, a little found-footage style movie about what would happen if teenagers got super-powers…yes, it’s exactly as terrifying as you think, but Michael B. Jordan is great.
Bonus Video 3. Cast Interviews!