At the Cinemark
I sometimes travel with teams to events, and they like to play music in the van to pump them up at 7 a.m. to get their brain cells firing for 8 a.m. competition.
One of their favorite sunrise anthems is by Chumbawamba:
“I get knocked down, but I get up again.
You’re never gonna keep me down.”
Wash, rinse, repeat.
I’m surprised the “Rocky” films never adopted this song, because it pretty well sums up the whole franchise.
The Rocky road originated in 1976, with 30-year-old Sylvester Stallone writing and starring in “Rocky.” A Philly street kid falls in love with shy Adrian and fights his way to glory. This was a sweet romantic movie, that resonated far beyond the sports crowd.
The poster of this bloody boxing movie isn’t of a bruised face, but a silhouette of Rocky holding Adrian’s hand and walking away from us. That’s why we loved this movie, which beat “Taxi Driver” for best picture. For the record, Peter Finch (“Network”) beat both Stallone and DeNiro for best actor that year.
Who’da thunk that “Rocky” would beget seven sequels and that the franchise would sell more than $1.5 billion in tickets, worldwide.
The sequels were getting tired until “Creed” arrived, which took an unexpected turn by allowing Stallone to age and battle a potentially fatal condition, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Seeing our hero growing frail, and struggling to face his mortality was deeply touching. Yes, there was a boxing subplot, of course, but the power came from Rocky’s vulnerability. He should have won the Oscar, but lost to Mark Rylance for “Bridge of Spies.”
“Creed II” packs less punch, but the body blows it does land come, again, from Stallone, who is aging gracefully, and is not trying to hide the years. He’s 72 now, a very fine age by the way, and is avoiding the temptation to pretend he’s 50.
This time he’s training Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed, who was killed in a fight with the Russian behemoth, Ivan Drago. Drago’s son Viktor challenges young Creed to a revenge match – the son of the dead victim fights the son of the winner. Ivan is coaching his son Viktor.
For the record, Rocky beat Ivan Drago, so Revenge Part I had already been achieved. But young Creed wants to add his punches to the statement.
Rocky is coaching Creed, but resigns as Creed’s coach rather than see that first fatal flight exploited for money. The fight goes on anyway with a bizarre outcome – Creed is badly beaten, but wins when Drago is disqualified for illegal punches. So, Creed keeps the crown, despite being humiliated.
Creed slides into existential angst, even depression.
I would have loved an exploration of the cruelty of boxing, which crowns concussions with championship belts. But the focus is mostly on Creed’s fears.
Creed’s wife Bianca (Tessa Thompson) could have added more moral layers to this tale. They have a deaf child, and perhaps the dad should be encouraged to leave the ring to be a healthy father who raises a happy kid. That theme is touched, but dropped.
Rocky, too, has his own decisions. He could encourage the son of Apollo to quit, but instead he agrees to train him for this ultimate fight of redemption: son of dead man will try to beat the brains out of the son of Russian villain who beat the brains out of his dad – with Rocky in the corner.
Couldn’t we paint water lilies instead?
Still, the inner angst of all parties is a welcome dark thread in a boxing movie. Usually, the brutal sport is glorified, without much reflection on issues like Ali’s battle with boxing-induced brain injuries, for example.
That’s why Stallone’s mortality was so welcome in “Creed” and why the love story carried “Rocky.”
When the brain-bashing stops and reflection or the love begins, the movie gets up off the canvas. “Creed II” is saved by the interior dramas that rage inside virtually every character.
At least this time, there’s a more realistic exploration of the pain and the price of boxing.
Alas, we know where this is headed, angst or no angst.
All Rocky stories must end in the ring, to the beat of Chumbawamba.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
Post-fight note: On Wednesday, Nov. 28, Stallone announced he is “probably” retiring from the role of Rocky, because “my story has been told.”
Yo, Rocky. Yo.