Creed is the seventh Rocky movie. After the first five came out in a 14 year stretch, it was another 16 years until Rocky Balboa, and now 9 years from Rocky Balboa to Creed.
In a sense, it’s more of a spinoff than a sequel though. As indicated by the fact that Sylvester Stallone was nominated for numerous awards in the Best Supporting Actor rather than Best Actor category, Rocky is a significant character in the movie but not the main character. Creed is more the story of Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed.
In terms of how much this movie affected me emotionally, it ranks in the top 20%, and maybe top 10%, of movies I’ve seen. I wouldn’t say, though, that that’s because it is necessarily a remarkably good or remarkably powerful film, but more because the original Rocky was such an important film for me in my youth (as I wrote about in my essay on Rocky Balboa), and the Rocky character has ever since been one of the handful of fictional characters most emotionally significant to me.
You can think of Creed as, say, 70% the story of Adonis Johnson, from early childhood to the present, and 30% the story of Rocky since Rocky Balboa, bringing us up to date on where he is in life now as he moves deeper into his senior years, with, of course, those stories overlapping.
For me, the Adonis Johnson part is just OK. I didn’t hate it, and I thought it was reasonably well done, but it didn’t draw me in more than modestly. Had that been the whole story, had this been a standalone movie with no connection to the Rocky franchise, I doubt it’s a movie that would have had much meaning for me. A conventional, competent Hollywood movie, not a dud, but, again, just OK.
But the Rocky part of the story I found stirred up a lot of thoughts and a lot of emotions in me. That’s the part that hit me hard. Harder than I anticipated. Creed is only “sort of” a Rocky movie, but it’s the extent to which it is a Rocky movie that turns out to have mattered to me. As I say, I’m sure that’s much more due to my personal history with the series and the Rocky character than to anything intrinsic to the film.
I could imagine a 16 year old (which is the age I was the first time I saw Rocky) seeing Creed without any familiarity with the prior Rocky movies and being all fired up about Adonis Johnson and totally getting into that part of the story while regarding Rocky as at most a mildly interesting minor character. But for me, I was riveted to the screen for pretty much any scene with Rocky in it, and noticeably less engaged with the film during its other scenes.
The way the story goes, Johnson is born after Apollo, his father, dies (in the ring, in Rocky IV, by far the weakest of the Rocky movies). He grows up in poverty not knowing who his father is. He is frequently in trouble due to his predilection for getting into fights, until he is basically rescued from a juvenile facility by Apollo’s rich widow, who decides to claim him, inform him of his lineage, and raise him as her son in southern California.
So he experiences the extremes of both ghetto impoverishment, and then the wealthiest of upbringings with elite schools and white collar job opportunities and such. He becomes a yuppie (or buppie I suppose). Yet he never loses his urge to fight, so he pursues a part time prizefighting career south of the border in Mexico. It’s very small time stuff, and he does not reveal that he is Apollo Creed’s son.
He then makes the fateful decision—very much to the chagrin of his adoptive mother—that what is in his heart is not business, but to pursue boxing full time. He first seeks to join Apollo’s old gym but is turned down, though they are among the few people who know his identity. So he decides to relocate to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s old rival and close friend Rocky Balboa, to try to persuade him to oversee his boxing career.
The age thing is a bit tricky. If you do the math from when Apollo died, presumably this character is at least 30 or somewhere in his early 30s. That’s middle to late in the typical boxing career. But the story really is about a young fighter in the very early stages of his career. Even if we assume he fought for a few years rather than a few months in cow towns in Mexico he’d still most likely only be about mid-20s.
That’s probably why they don’t mention his age. For all intents and purposes this is a coming-of-age story about a kid learning about boxing, love, and life. They probably just didn’t come up with the idea for this movie in time for its story to cohere best with the earlier movies in the series. It’s best just to pretend Apollo died in the early ’90s or so for Creed to make the most sense, or I suppose better yet just to ignore the age factor entirely.
Anyway, Rocky is reluctant at first to have anything to do with Johnson. He’s had opportunities to remain engaged in one way or another in boxing and chosen instead to leave it all in his past. Now he just lives a quiet life of semi-retirement, running his bar-restaurant Adrian’s (which seems to always be empty or nearly so).
But ultimately, of course, he gives in to Johnson’s persistence and agrees to guide his career. He becomes a father figure to Johnson as Johnson advances toward a title shot. Johnson picks up a girlfriend along the way, a singer who is slowly going deaf.
Johnson’s story is largely a rerun of Rocky’s story decades ago. Rocky is his Mickey, the old, wise trainer that he initially clashes with but gradually becomes close to. The singer is his Adrian. There are the training scene montages set to music, the back-and-forth action in the ring as he and his opponents take turns pummeling each other so he can show not just that he is a skilled boxer but that he has extraordinary guts. Things are set up to encourage the audience to root for the scrappy unknown underdog.
It’s just that this time around Rocky is black, he’s of a different generation, and the soundtrack of his story is hip hop. That’s one reason, I suppose, that Johnson’s story didn’t particularly connect with me (the way it well might with certain other filmgoers): it’s culturally distant from me.
Then again, it’s not like Rocky himself—with his working class urban ethnic milieu—is all that close to me culturally. I think the bigger reason the Johnson story failed to connect with me more than modestly is precisely that it was a rerun. I’ve seen this same kind of story done too many times in the previous Rocky movies—and done better, especially in the original Rocky.
Frankly I was rooting for Johnson to lose, to show cowardice or some lack of character, to betray Rocky, anything to deviate from the underdog hero shtick. That would have been a gutsier, more interesting movie. Set it up so everyone thinks they can spot the formula and know roughly how it’s all going to play out in conventional, feel good fashion, and then take it in a completely different direction.
But I want to step away from the only mildly interesting Johnson and get back to Rocky, since, as I say, it was as a continuation of Rocky’s story that Creed reached me emotionally.
Putting it as simplistically as possible, I take it what the filmmakers are trying to convey is that Rocky is depressed because he has nothing to live for, that Johnson comes along at just the right time to bring him out of his doldrums by letting him have a second boxing career vicariously, and that they happily ride off into the sunset together in an ideal mentor/protégé, surrogate father/surrogate son relationship toward the next sequel. (Said sequel is already in the works from what I’ve read, tentatively planned for a 2017 release.)
Here’s the thing, though. For me, the sad Rocky is portrayed convincingly and movingly (I can see why Stallone has won awards for this performance and was nominated for others); having him be rejuvenated feels nowhere near as real, but more like an obligatory move to generate a Hollywood happy ending. As I was walking to the parking lot after the film—and ever since—I wasn’t all charged up by all the triumph and inspiration loaded into this film; I felt pensive. I couldn’t get out of my mind this vision of an old, tired Rocky.
As I think about it, I don’t know that I would really call it depression or sadness though. There’s actually a peacefulness to him. Yeah, realizing that all the high points of his life are in the past and that he’s now just kind of waiting to die is a downer, but it’s not something he’s panicky about or overwhelmed by. It’s more like he’s accepting of it, stoic. It’s like, “Yeah, my life’s pretty much over, but that’s OK. It was a great ride, I fully appreciate that, and there’s nothing I particularly need to add to it this late in the game.”
Rather than a depressive kind of “giving up on life” thing, it’s more of an Eastern religion non-attachment to life, a realization but also an acceptance that life and all we value in it is temporary and that his is wrapping up.
One of the things I noticed from early on is that his dry wit is less in evidence. My first thought is just that they didn’t write his quips as cleverly as in the past Rocky movies, but then it felt to me more like he’s old and tired and just is less apt to make the effort to come up with the sharp line.
He seems quieter in general, just kind of shuffling through life more as an observer now than a dynamic, center-of-attention personality.
Certainly there’s a loneliness to him, even when there are people around. Some of that is that they’ve killed off so many of the main characters over the years. But in the past it always felt like Rocky was a happily gregarious sort, that whichever characters he happened to be interacting with most in a given film were just the tip of the iceberg, not his whole life.
But while in Creed, as in the earlier films, he’s totally at home in his Philly neighborhood, and seemingly always surrounded by people who know and like him, this time around there’s more the sense that he isn’t connected in a significant way to any of these people, that all those familiar characters who gradually died off really were all he had.
Mickey and Apollo died fairly early in the series. His son isn’t dead, but he’s out of the picture. (There’s a brief reference to him in Creed, as Rocky comments that they have almost no relationship anymore, that his son lives in Vancouver with a girlfriend and they talk once or twice a year in a perfunctory, superficial kind of way.) Most of the other folks he had significant connections with for a time—like Tommy Gunn—are long gone. In Rocky Balboa it looked like the grown-up version of little Marie, now with a son, was going to be someone important in his life moving forward, but there’s no evidence she’s still around.
Obviously the devastating loss was Adrian, who died between Rocky V and Rocky Balboa. Devastating in a way, but even here, like I say, Rocky’s at peace with it. Yes, she left a huge hole in his life, but you don’t see him crying miserably, banging his head on the wall in despair, whatever. Instead he regularly goes to her grave, alone, and communes pleasantly with nature and her spirit, calmly telling her what’s going on in his life and such.
The latest loss is Paulie, who we find out died between Rocky Balboa and Creed. And that’s maybe an even bigger deal than one might have expected. There’s the sense that after the death of Adrian, Rocky didn’t put much effort into bringing new people into his life, and let most of his existing relationships fade, with the exception that he and Paulie became ever closer and ever more dependent on each other. Adrian’s death was the biggest blow he ever took in life, but Paulie’s death is the one that truly left him alone.
And really these folks were never replaced. There weren’t other friends and relatives and such waiting in the wings who happened not to have prominent parts in earlier movies but did have prominent parts in Rocky’s life. Once these key people were gone, he had only his memories remaining.
One might respond that, yes, that’s the set-up for Creed, but that the whole point of Creed is that Rocky’s loneliness and detachment from life are then erased by the emergence of Adonis Johnson in his life, that he’s the replacement, he’s the new relationship, he’s the one who gets Rocky passionate about life again.
But even though I’m sure that’s what the filmmakers intended, and even though I assume the sequel(s) will only go further in that same direction, it’s not what I took from this film. It’s not what I see in his eyes. What I see is a resigned Rocky, but one who is willing to come back to a very modest degree. What I imagine is a calm, wistful Rocky with the hint of a bemused smile, saying “Yo kid, you don’t need to save me. I’m finally at peace with my life and with all I’ve lost. I don’t expect you to understand that, probably not for a few decades. But what the heck, if you want me to connect with you for a little while here and help you out, I’ll tag along and see how it plays out.” But nothing fundamental has changed. He’s still accepting of the idea that his life is over, but if somebody’s really pushing him it’s no big deal to him to maybe have one more little adventure on the way out.
I read something a long time ago by Norman Mailer about aging, about how the older you get, even as you go downhill and you know defeat is inevitable, it’s all about fighting the toughest rearguard action you can.
But that’s not a necessary or universal attitude. Not everyone feels compelled to rage against the dying of the light. Some reach a point of peaceful acceptance such that they are willing to go gentle into that good night. Not to hasten the end necessarily—it’s not a suicide thing—but to accept it with dignity.
Rocky Balboa for me was largely a nostalgia movie. It was a pleasant time reconnecting with a cherished old friend from the distant past, reassuring myself he’s still around and still his old self, having some laughs together and trading old stories.
Creed is returning to that friend and finding him old and reflective, causing me to be reflective. Reflective about life, relationships, changes, endings. It’s not as fun, it doesn’t feel as good, but it took me to a deeper place.