A fun, reverential re-do for the #BlackLivesMatter Generation or just another needless cash grab pandering to identity politics?
By: Jimbo X
It's one of the great celluloid debates: are the Rocky films, inherently, racist?
It's a long-standing conviction, to be sure. Over at Bro Bible, author Neil Bulson described the theory in 2012 about as succinctly as I've heard anyone put it:
"The Rocky movies are, like Hoosiers, basically a white man’s fantasy. Every single one of them is built around the white man triumphing over the black man, who is basically used throughout the series as a symbol for everything that’s keeping the white man from getting his piece of the pie."But is that really the underlying subtext of the franchise?
Now racism - as we should all be keenly aware of by now - is a word with a peculiarly malleable meaning. At heart, however, most definitions of racism entail two things: a conviction that one kind of people are generally inferior than other kinds of people and the belief that those allegedly inferior people deserve less humane treatment because of said "inferiority."
With that conceptualization of "racism" in mind, when we look back at the past six Rocky films, it becomes a bit of a stretch to cite any of them as furtive or overt celebrations of Aryan supremacy. In the first (and best, naturally) film, the movie firmly addresses that Rocky is an inferior pugilist compared to a number of ethnic fighters. And as Mickey states, it's not affirmative action keeping Rocky down, but his own sloppiness and unwillingness to listen to others.
The 1976 original introduces Rocky getting his ass kicked by a Hispanic boxer. Later on, he ends up getting kicked out of the gym so a black boxer all of the trainers agree is better than Rocky can hone his craft. And of course, Apollo Creed battered and bruised Rocky for at least 10 of the 15 rounds in their first tilt - and had the climactic bout in Rocky II gone the distance, the Muhammad Ali doppelganger likely would have won another facile decision.
It's not really until part three that we can even discuss the idea of the Rocky mythos being anti-black (or pro-white.) In this installment, the Italian Stallion loses his belt to a trash-talkin', street-brawlin', perpetually angry African American (shame on you if you don't know who I'm talking about, fool) and decides that the only way to win his belt back is to travel to L.A., seek the tutelage of Apollo and more or less learn how to fight black (complete with plenty of high-larious insensitive remarks from comedic relief wino Paulie.) However, the film ends on something of an "ebony and ivory" moment, with Rocky and Apollo putting their differences behind them and starting a legitimate - if not a tad homoerotic - friendship. Then Sylvester Stallone started doing a lot of cocaine, so the next installment had super powered Russians and talking robots in it.
While the much-maligned Rocky V had a white antagonist (who later died from AIDS), the real villain of the movie is George Washington Duke, an obvious Don King expy. While some have argued that the casting represented some kind of anti-black-businessman sentiment, the general consensus in the boxing world is that everybody - white, black, Hispanic and Asian - hate Don King for turning the sport into a clusterfuck of nightmarish financial finagling, thus ensuring mega-fights never happened, boxers remain "locked" into training camps and nobody really had any ability to go out there and make money for themselves anymore. In that, Duke more or less represented corporate interests killing boxing, with the concluding street fight a metaphor for the now obsolete boxing business practices of yore. In Rocky Balboa, the eponymous character was never posited as the equal of African-American challenger Mason "The Line" Dixon (played by real life boxing champ Antonio Tarver, if you didn't know.) Rather, that movie was about Rocky coming to grips with the loss of his wife, coping with widowhood and using a virtually meaningless amateur boxing match as means of physically triumphing over his own sorrow. Tarver's character was never meant to be someone you hated; he was just someone who was there, and at the end of the day, he still kicked Rocky's ass.
In none of the Rocky movies was it ever postulated that the white man was a superior athlete. In fact, in virtually all of the Rocky movies, the black fighters are depicted as far more dedicated, talented and motivated people, whose abilities - physically and mentally - far exceed those of Rocky and it is only through Rocky's near-impossible ability to withstand head shots (and a tremendous amount of puncher's chance) that he's ever triumphed over the likes of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang to begin with.
Unsurprisingly, Creed - essentially the seventh film in the Rocky saga - is a bit of an apologist take on the character. Here, Sly Stallone's iconic pugilist is little more than background noise, periodically peering out of the shadows only to display his brazen ignorance of modernity (at one point, he is perplexed by what "the cloud" is) and impart his old white guy wisdom and on the series' new central character, Adonis "Donny" Johnson, who as fate would have it, just so happens to be one of Apollo Creed's many illegitimately sired offspring (where do they come up with such outlandish, stereotypical plot points, huh?)
Donny is portrayed by Michael B. Jordan. He's the guy who played the Human Torch in that god awful Fantastic Four movie nobody wants to remember. He's also the star of Frutevale Station, a critically-acclaimed 2013 movie you haven't seen that was also directed by Creed auteur Ryan Coogler. In a lot of ways, this Creed is the exact opposite of Balboa; despite having a rough start, drifting in and out of juvenile halls, Jordan's character is ultimately adopted by Apollo's widow, who affords him a life of luxury and - dare I say it, privilege - in the hills of Hollywood. Alas, even though Creed, Jr., has a cushy job and a college education, he just can't stop himself from wanting to punch people unconscious, so on the weekends, he treks down to Tijuana and beats up on Mexicans for a couple of pesos. Eventually, the call to brawl becomes so deafening that Creed - who spends most of his free time watching clips of the first Rocky movie on YouTube - decides to quit his well-paying job and train as a boxer full-time. So he goes down to his daddy's old L.A. gym, beats the shit out of one of the world's top boxers but then he gets his ass kicked by the world's top pound-for-pound boxer, an uncontrollable Chav from Liverpool (boy, I wonder if that's the last we see of him?)
This goads Creed to travel to Philly, where he seeks the training of a certain Italian-American pugilist. Of course, Rocky wants no part of it, but after Jordan tells him he's the secret love child of Apollo Creed, he kind of changes his tune. Since Paulie has died since the last movie, Rocky gives Creed his room, complete with his old porno collection. Rocky purists, however, should be pleased as punch that Rocky's turtle from the first movie remains alive and well.
So, Balboa teaches Creed, Jr. the fundamentals and he wins a fight against this one Hispanic kid that also trains at the gym. It garners him a lot of attention, but oh shit, it also means everybody in the world knows he's Apollo Creed's son now, and he doesn't want to live in his daddy's shadow. However, it also nets him a championship bout in Liverpool against "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, the same guy that whooped his ass back in L.A., so maybe it is not that bad of an arrangement.
Then it's subplot city. Creed meets this one DJ girl, and she's slowly going deaf and he goes to watch her perform and he almost gets killed by a rapper. Then Rocky takes Creed to an even grosser, slimier gym so he can learn to really fight like a European (sort of a weird role reversal from Rocky III) and we learn Rocky has Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and since that's what killed his wife he don't want any chemo and Creed has to convince him to seek treatment because if he doesn't he'll probably die and nobody will be there to corner him for the big U.K. bout. Oh, and there's a cameo from the guys from Pardon the Interruption, and fucking STITCH from the UFC joins Creed's camp.
It's all a lead-up to the big rematch, and it's a hell of a barn burner, I tell you what. Without giving away the ending, let's just say there is a lot of blood on the canvas in this one, and any time you have large, moderately overweight women in the back row jumping out of their seats and screaming "that's right, hit his ass!" you know you're watching a damned fine cinematic brawl. And the final, final scene is a pretty nice homage to one of the most iconic scenes in the pantheon of Rocky movies, but like I said, I ain't going to spoil it for you.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one. I think Coogler may have set out to make some kind of political statement, but early on he probably realized, "you know, I'm making a fucking Rocky movie, let's cut the political shit and just make something entertaining with a lot of faces getting rocked in slow motion." And in that regard, Creed excels. Without question, the fight choreography in this one is exceptional, containing two of the absolute best boxing sequences I've seen at the movies in a long time. Creed's first pro fight is a dizzying achievement of modern film-making, a super up-close, uninterrupted two-round donnybrook essentially captured in one take. The grand finale is equally awesome, from Creed's slow, first-person perspective walkout to "Hail Mary" by Tupac to the absolutely killer later round montages incorporating Bill Conti's immortal strings (although one REALLY has to second guess why Jordan's recollections of a father he literally never met becomes his driving impetus when it looks like all hope is lost.)
Of course, some of the nods to the older films come off as cheesy. Probably the worst offense is a segment in which Creed barrels down the streets of Philadelphia, while being escorted by a gang of motor-bike ridin' locals, as Stallone flails his arms from outside his second story window like a retarded Muppet. I mean, I guess it's something you have to do in a Rocky movie, but with anybody other than Balboa hisself doing it, it just comes off as self-parodying.
Probably the weakest link in the movie, however, is the casting of Jordan as Creed's love child. To me, he never really came off as a "real" fighter. As his love interest in the flick actually says in the movie, he just doesn't look "street" enough to be a scrapper. Even after he gets all swoll and stuff, I'm just sitting there like, "yeah, he can't take an actual punch." His acting chops are versatile, to be sure, but toughness is something you can't fake. Stallone looks tough. Wesley Snipes looks tough. Carl Weathers definitely looks tough. Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, just looks like a guy you had in your college algebra class. Still, he's able to parlay that dorkiness into some pretty memorable moments - including the most hilarious scene in the flick, where he gets pre-fight - and pre-shits - jitters.
Stallone really doesn't get to do too much. Basically, it is him just mumbling and saying a bunch of prole philosophy platitudes, but as a foil to Jordan's more modernistic alpha male, the character still works. Granted, it's nowhere near as emotional as his performance in his last go at the character in 2006 - which really should have garnered him an Oscar nod - but he nonetheless brings a nice bit of familiarity to the fray ... it's just that, at times, that familiarity becomes a bit too familiar.
As far as pathos and connecting with the characters, I didn't feel as invested in Creed as I have the previous flicks. However, it's certainly a more visceral and authentic film than parts 4 and 5, with action scenes that rival the best the series have ever witnessed. As a spiritual successor to Rocky Balboa, it suffers a bit, but as a standalone movie, it holds up on its own rather well. Granted, its hard to accept a boxing movie with Rocky Balboa only serving as emotional support, but once you do, you'll find this one to be a hell of little popcorn offering.
Heading into the picture, my worst fear was that it was going to be a needlessly politicized reboot that merely used the established Rocky iconography as a referential palette. Thankfully, Coogler and Co. decided to steer away from the cinematic activism and attempt to forge their own trail in the wide-open Rocky cosmos. While the film isn't perfect - trust me, there are more than a few groan-inducing moments - as a whole, it does a commendable job paying respects to the previous six flicks without ever feeling like a halfhearted try at emulating what has already proven to be successful. It's similar enough to give you the good kind of nostalgic feels but dissimilar enough to make you appreciate it on its own terms. That, and like any good Rocky movie, it makes you leave the theater wanting to kick somebody's ass - indeed, I almost uppercut an usher on my way out to the lobby.
In short? Creed is a really, really good mass-consumption movie. Let's just hope that, alike its Rocky forerunner, it too doesn't become bogged down in a marsh of wholly unnecessary - and increasingly by-the-numbers - sequels.
THREE TOFU DOGS out of FOUR.