It may be time to start considering the Rocky series as the quintessential film series of the Baby Boomer generation. The Rocky saga charts a Baby Boomer’s life from getting his life together in his late 20s (Rocky and Rocky II), entering his time of greatest productivity and global impact at the apex of his life (Rocky III and IV), working on his relationship with his family and his child in particular (Rocky V), finding purpose in retirement (Rocky Balboa), and passing along what he’s learned to the next generation (Creed). Rocky’s story is a story of America’s principal generations in conflict and cooperation with each other, and it has been from the beginning.
Rocky was trained, originally, by a crusty member of the Greatest Generation – “Mickey” Goldmill. Burgess Meredith, the actor who portrayed “Mickey,” was born in 1907, served as a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII, ended up on the Hollywood Blacklist after being deemed an “unfriendly witness” by the House Un-American Committee, and regained prominence in the 1960s and 70s as “The Penguin” on the Batman TV series and then as “Mickey” in the Rocky series. Meredith brings that life experience to his portrayal of Mickey. Mickey’s beef with Rocky in that first acclaimed Rocky movie is that Rocky isn’t living up to his potential, a Greatest Generation critique of the Boomers if ever there was one. Mickey helps Rocky come into his own.
Rocky, from that first film through the current entry in the series, Creed, contends with the things the Baby Boomer generation contends with – first racial reconciliation, then the perils of fame and fortune, and finally Rocky evens wins the Cold War. After Mickey dies, Rocky gets help from other Boomers, finding strength within his own generation to chart a way forward.
Beginning in the (unfairly) maligned fifth film in the series and carrying through Rocky Balboa, Rocky seeks reconciliation not with other racial or ethnic groups, but with his son and other members of his son’s generation. “Robert Balboa, Jr.,” “Tommy ‘Machine’ Gunn,” and “Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon” are all members of Generation X. Like Gen Xers complaining that nothing they do ever matches up to the achievements of the Boomers, each of these young men rail against Rocky (with words and fists) explicitly because they feel overshadowed by him. Rocky’s lecture to his son at the mid-point of Rocky Balboa is archetypical of what a Boomer would say to a Xer:
I’d hold you up to say to your mother, “this kid’s gonna be the best kid in the world. This kid’s gonna be somebody better than anybody I ever knew.” And you grew up good and wonderful. It was great just watching you, every day was like a privilege. Then the time come for you to be your own man and take on the world, and you did. But somewhere along the line, you changed. You stopped being you. You let people stick a finger in your face and tell you you’re no good. And when things got hard, you started looking for something to blame, like a big shadow. Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! Now if you know what you’re worth then go out and get what you’re worth. But ya gotta be willing to take the hits, and not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody! Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that! I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens. You’re my son and you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, ya ain’t gonna have a life. Don’t forget to visit your mother.
Now in Creed, Rocky takes a Millennial under his wing. Adonis Creed is the son of Rocky’s original rival, Apollo Creed, and also a boxer (go figure). He needs a trainer, and he comes knocking on Rocky’s door asking for help. Rocky is hesitant at first, preferring to wallow in his losses. First he lost Mickey to a heart attack, then Apollo in a fight, then Adrian to cancer, now Paulie, and even his son now lives across the country—humorously enough in that Gen X stronghold, Seattle—and rarely sees his dad. (Actually, Sylvester Stallone’s son, Sage, who played Rocky’s son in Rocky V, died tragically of heart disease in 2012, so I think Rocky’s son’s absence here after being such a integral character in the previous two films is a kind of memorial to Sage.) But just as Rocky’s grit gave Mickey a twilight-years breath of new life, so Adonis’ drive sparks something fresh in Rocky.
In many ways, Creed is a remake of Rocky. All the story beats are there. Scrappy upstart boxer making his way in back-room clubs? Check. Hesitant trainer? Check. Love interest? Check. Shot at the title as a marketing ploy? Check. The possibility of a “win” even if our fighter loses the fight? Check. Creed has everything Rocky had.
In all honesty, I would have enjoyed Creed just as much—maybe more—if Rocky wan’t present at all. Michael B. Jordan (“Adonis Creed”) and Tessa Thompson (“Bianca,” our ersatz Adrian) are both electric screen presences, and their chemistry is fantastic. Thompson has one of the best sets of eyes in Hollywood. She can go from angry to amorous in a heartbeat and make you believe she means every emotion. Jordan has an easy charisma that gets you in his corner before you realize you there and keeps you hungry for just a bit more of his presence. They’re a wonder together.
While director Ryan Coogler does include a few visual call-backs to the series’ past, his style is overwhelmingly his own. I love the various Rocky movies’ cinematography. Rocky is full of now iconic shots, I’ve long considered the shots from ringside in Rocky III and IV to be among the most beautiful in cinema history, the lighting during the street fight at the end of Rocky V makes the entire film worth watching, and Rocky Balboa pushed the series into a contemporary visual space. Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti conduct Creed’s fights in innovative ways – employing a flashy long-take in Adonis’ first, major fight and spicing up his final fight with brief, expressionistic flourishes.
Rocky’s narrative is compelling in this film as well. Creed takes Rocky in natural and resonant directions. His presence in this film isn’t unwelcome even if it does feel distracting and superfluous at times. It’s just that the film livens up considerably when Coogler shifts the focus back to Adonis and Bianca. Perhaps this bodes well for the continuing Creed saga.
Yes. the saga will no doubt continue. One generation gives way to the next. As long as the filmmakers tasked with continuing the franchise try to keep the series grounded in the contemporary reality of the audience, we’ll likely be treated to good Rocky, or rather, Creed films, for a long time to come.
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