As a child of the '70s and teenager of the '80s, it's not a reach to say that Rocky Balboa was one of the four or five most important fictional characters of my film-watching formative years. I cried (tears of joy) when he conquered Apollo Creed at the end of Rocky II. I cried (tears of remorse) when fate continually robbed Rocky of his best friends and mentors — trainer Mickey and trainer/converted foe Apollo in Rocky III and IV, respectively. I cheered jubilantly when Rocky singlehandedly ended the Cold War by defeating Ivan Drago and avenging Apollo's death at the end of Rocky IV.
Hell, I even happily endured Rocky Balboa's awkward attempts at transitioning to life after boxing, his downward spiral back to the old neighborhood in Rocky V (yes, I was the one person who sort of enjoyed that movie) and his clunky return to the ring in Rocky Balboa (the de facto Rocky VI). So while the seventh installment in the Rocky franchise, the Ryan Coogler-directed Creed, is ostensibly centered around Michael B. Jordan's brilliant portrayal of Apollo Creed's illegitimate son, an upstart boxer who goes by Adonis "Donnie" Johnson, a performance I'll get to in a minute, for me, a 46-year-old for whom Rocky has felt like a family member, Creed served the dual purpose of finally righting the wrongs of the previous two Rocky installments.
Perhaps it's appropriate that the movie was released on Thanksgiving weekend, when the Christmas cards begin to roll in from old friends with their updates on life in Anytown, USA. Before Facebook, this is how we got our updates on 90 percent of our friends, right? Well, Rocky Balboa sure as hell isn't on Facebook. (At one point in the movie, Jordan's character refers to the iCloud, and Balboa looks at the sky and, utterly confused, mutters "Huh, the cloud?") So for longtime Rocky fans, Creed is your Christmas card from Casa de Balboa.
The updates are predictably sad for a character who has dealt with continual loss throughout his roller-coaster ride of an existence. This time, it's Paulie, the brother of Rocky's late wife Adrian, who has passed away. Rocky's only offspring, his son Robert, has moved to Vancouver and the two don't seem to talk much. Being Rocky Balboa's son in Philly apparently isn't as great as it sounds. In short, Rocky Balboa is a pretty lonely guy.
Quick sidebar: One real-life sad "Easter egg" in the movie comes when Johnson asks about Rocky's son, and he picks a picture up off the dresser of Balboa play-boxing with a young "Robert." The picture is actually a real-life photo of Stallone play-boxing with his late son Sage when Sage was a young child. Sage actually played Robert in Rocky V, and died of heart disease three years ago at age 34. It was a subtle moment that encapsulated why it's so hard for people in my age bracket to separate Actual Stallone from Fictional Balboa.
Back to Balboa's place in the world. Rocky still owns and runs a restaurant (appropriately named "Adrian's") in the old neighborhood to keep busy. However, now he's dealing with his own dire health issues. In short, other than the daily grind of merely being, Rocky Balboa doesn't have a ton to live for. Pretty sad Christmas card, right?
Fortunately for Balboa, along comes Johnson, the pugilistic dynamo who is somehow trying to escape the shadow of a father he never even met and who most of the world doesn't even know is his father. Apparently, around the time that he was getting ready to get bludgeoned by Ivan Drago, Apollo Creed had an affair, and the end result was Adonis "Donnie" Johnson. Johnson's mother died when he was young, so his early years were spent in rough juvenile centers, where he fought A LOT. Like father, like son.
Eventually, when he's a teenager, Apollo's widow, Mary Anne, played with a compassionate elegance by Phylicia Rashad, selflessly adopts Johnson so that he can grow up in the world of privilege his biological father left behind in Los Angeles — big house, plenty of money, nice cars. Fortunately for all of us, Johnson also likes to box, and when the only place he can get matches on the West Coast is in a seedy joint in Tijuana (where he is a sparking 15-0!), and when every gym in L.A. shuns him because Mary Anne doesn't want him to box, Johnson has no choice but to go to Philadelphia and introduce himself to Balboa and ask if he'll train him.
From that point on, Johnson's arrival in Philadelphia, the movie is a fantastic interweaving of Johnson's development as a modern-day Balboa-esque character, and the long overdue correction on just how the "Rocky Balboa" character should age.
First, on the former, Jordan is scintillating in his portrayal of Johnson, who eventually embraces the shadow his late father cast over him and goes with the name "Adonis Creed." Jordan's dialogue in every scene is so easy and free-flowing, you forget that this movie probably has an actual script. He's that believable. The neo-Creed character, like a young Rocky, has a love interest he meets in the neighborhood, an aspiring singer named Bianca (Tessa Thompson) who is dealing with progressive loss of hearing, who serves as Johnson's "Adrian."
Like the early Rocky Balboa character, Johnson, who is revealed to the world (via TMZ!) to be Creed's illegitimate son, is eventually chosen as a tomato can for the world champ, a British brawler named Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), to show off his skills. As you can imagine, the fight goes a little differently from the way Conlan plans. The parallels between modern-day Creed and Balboa's early years are nostalgically sprinkled throughout the movie — chasing chickens as a training method, running through the streets of Philly, old-school Mickey nuggets of advice ("women weaken legs"), even the grotesque shiner the younger Creed suffers in the finale at the hands of Conlan.
In a movie series in which Balboa's character has made ill-fated attempts at training the next "Rocky Balboa" before, he finally gets redemption training the son of his greatest foe and best friend ("same guy," as Rocky pointed out one time in Rocky IV). Not just redemption, but something to live and fight for in the face of illness, which brings me to the part of this movie that you 35- to 50-somethings will find most satisfying — Rocky Balboa, the movie character, FINALLY gets an appropriate transition from boxer to mentor.
It was supposed to happen in Rocky V, when Balboa trained Tommy Gunn, who eventually turned on him and made Rocky realize that his family was the most important thing, blah blah blah. The problem with that movie, among many, was that the whole storyline was hokey, and the Rocky character in that movie could barely fend for himself mentally. He was a CTE-addled dope. It was a sad ending. And then in the sixth Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa, everything was just plain awkward and unrealistic, with a sixtysomething Balboa returning to the ring to fight the world champion.
As it turns out, the formula for satisfaction was pretty simple — turn Rocky into Mickey, Rocky's erstwhile trainer and "angel on his shoulder" throughout this saga, in life and in death. In previous Rocky installments, the beauty in the Mickey character was that he dominated scenes without cannibalizing the other characters. That's the code that Coogler (and scriptwriter Aaron Covington) were finally able to crack for Balboa in Creed.
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It's what Stallone himself couldn't figure out in writing Rocky V (actually, one of about a thousand things that he couldn't figure out in writing Rocky V) — if Rocky Balboa wasn't going to be winning titles or conquering Russian giants, then we'd rather he just fade into the background gracefully and let others step up. Hell, that's what the Balboa character himself seemingly wants, considering he has to be practically begged into training Gunn and, now, the younger Creed.
In the end, perhaps ironically, Coogler and Covington give us what Stallone, who wrote the previous six Rocky films, couldn't — closure. And for those of us who grew up with Rocky Balboa, that may be the greatest Christmas present of all!
Now if you'll excuse me, this child of the '70s and '80s is gonna go wait by the mailbox for his Christmas card from the Skywalker and Solo families. I hear it's arriving in the next couple of weeks.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.