The “Rocky” Series: A beginner’s guide (part IV)

Rocky Balboa (2006) and the Creed franchise (2015 – )

After his fall from superstardom, Stallone needed a reset. Aging action stars always reach a point where they look silly, but nostalgia is a powerful force – and the Rocky movies have never been short on nostalgia. He new that he had to revisit the Rocky character before he got too old to get in the ring. It’s hard to play a convincing boxer in your 60s. Rocky needed one last fight to redeem the sins of Rocky V – to end the series on a high note.

Of course, getting a middle-aged Rocky to put on the gloves again would take some finagling. So here’s the idea – a “computer” simulation (the 2000s! The future!) predicts that prime Rocky Balboa would beat undefeated heavyweight champion Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver) in a fight. Dixon (among the blander Rocky opponents, with the dumbest name) is seen as unproven. He has never fought against a real opponent. He has a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove himself. To prove his worth, he will take on . . . Rocky? The retired, aging former champion? Umm – never mind the specifics. They’re silly, but also superfluous. WE HAVE TO GET ROCKY BACK IN THE RING. He has to “redeem” the franchise. Who really cares under what conditions?

The movie’s not about that. The fight merely serves to bring the franchise full-circle – Rocky loses but proves his worth in the first film. It’s only fitting that he goes out in the same way. But the movie’s about aging. It’s more of a meditation by the filmmaker himself. There are times where we wonder if Stallone is speaking as Rocky or as himself. Rocky has settled into a life of running a restaurant – “Adrian’s,” named for his late wife (Adrian? Really? You killed off Adrian but Paulie’s still alive?). His relationship with his son is not much better than the last time we saw it – Robert (Milo Ventimiglia) has never felt comfortable in the shadow of the perennial peoples’ champ. Rocky is still a celebrity, and trots out to entertain his restaurant guests with stories of the glory days. But there’s a tinge of sadness to the whole affair. Rather, not a tinge – heaping piles? This is a sad movie about a sad man, struggling to reconcile his past with his present. He should have been more successful, he should have been a better father, and he wishes he still had Adrian. He visits her grave often – always to talk about his problems, how his day went, etc. She’s gone, but Rocky still needs someone who will listen to him.

Latter-day Rocky – and this includes the Creed films as well – is a man seeped in reflection. He exists in hopes that the experience he has accrued about life and boxing will rub off to a new generation. Stallone became obsessed with legacy as he saw the character of Rocky grow beyond his initial appeal; he developed beyond a boxer into a wise, weary man.

The Creed films are the reset button for the franchise, and Stallone relinquishing his grip on the creative reins. Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the man who takes up his father’s name as a challenge – a legacy to live up to. Rocky fully realizes his “student has become the teacher” arc by assuming the Micky role, mentoring Adonis on his journey to boxing greatness. Stallone also is only acting this time around, though he did help to write Creed II.

But the real story – the real journey that has finally come full-circle – is that of Stallone himself. Watching him walk into the Oscars ceremony knowing that, in 2016, he was nominated for an Academy Award for a role he originated in 1976… that was the story you can’t make up. I rooted for him, we all did. It’s somehow fitting he didn’t win. But he deserved the nomination at least. Stallone has, in his latter career stage, found his love for acting and character again. He shows colors and depth a man can only collect like scars. His career was not so much reborn through Creed, but fittingly re-formatted. Nobody was buying the action star anymore. Just after he’d put that to bed with Rocky Balboa and the climactic Rambo, Stallone dipped his toes once again into the action pool by founding the Expendables franchise. Sure, it’s a nostalgia-laced series about old warhorses suiting back up for “one last ride” (yadda yadda), but old Rocky is where Stallone should be. It’s the character he was always meant to play.

With Creed II, we see Rocky watch his story come even more full-circler than in Creed. Adonis beats the son of Rocky’s old foe – you guessed it – Drago! Oh, Rocky, Rocky – at least you haven’t lost that ridiculous touch. But Rocky sees his protege climb to the top of the boxing world. Heavyweight Champion. Will this finally be Rocky’s last ride? What more could be gained from exploring his arc? The son thing never panned out because it was always so vague and under-addressed. Surely we don’t need a whole ‘nother movie about Rocky making things right again with his son. And, though this isn’t a formal review, the Creed franchise has solid legs. It is building its own identity, while retaining the beautiful mix of cinematic silliness and heroic power of its parent series. Let’s see Adonis come out from beneath Rocky’s shadow – it’s what Stallone wants anyway. We’ve sent Rocky packing before to return to a quiet life in a snoozy Philly neighborhood. After Creed II… where does Stallone go from here? He’s only 72…

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