It ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how many ‘Rocky’ movies you can take
‘Creed II’ is No 8 in the Stallone franchise. We salute its refusal to throw in the towel
Pardon us while we plunder boxing cliches for evidence that the Rocky sequence serves as an effective metaphor for itself. It has, from time to time, become a washed-up bum – brawling for nickels in midnight dives – but it has always slugged its way back into the big time. It slumped off into retirement and spent nights staring mournfully at ancient welts on more ancient knuckles. Yet it kept being lured back to the bloodied canvas. As it reaches a triumphant eighth episode with Creed II, which comes out this week, we salute its refusal to throw in the towel when the going gets tough. We can keep this up all night.
There are longer-running movie franchises (although not many). The first James Bond film, Dr No, was released in a corner of the past so impossibly distant that even your current correspondent had yet to be born. Other franchises have earned more money. The Rocky films will be happy with their $1.4 billion purse, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe knocks it to the floor (yes, we’re still doing this) with a haymaking $15 billion. A few elder franchises have been more consistent; although we may have affection for Rocky IV and Rocky V, few would argue for their objective magnificence.
Beginning in 1976 with John G Avildsen’s Rocky, the films have, however, done a better job of following a strong narrative spine over a long period than any sequence in Hollywood history. Star Wars jumps forwards and backwards; it heads into spin-offs. Although the recent James Bond films have linked their continuing story – Quantum of Solace began where Casino Royale ended – for most of its duration the series comprised largely discrete units. The Marvel Cinematic Universe winds its yarns so tightly that some episodes make little sense if you haven’t seen the preceding chapters. In contrast the Rocky chronicles play like an enormous soap opera that stays generous to any punter entering partway through. Tied to a movie version of contemporary American history, it takes us from post-Watergate disillusion through cold-war discontents to the current uncertainties. The unlikely victory (or stalemate) achieved in the last round provides constant reassurance. The warm presence of Sylvester Stallone reminds us that certain schools of heroism never fade.
Pundits have been using the language of boxing journalism about the films since Rocky beat its way to the top during the dying days of Gerald Ford’s American presidency. The temptation was irresistible. The film concerned Rocky Balboa, a has-been slugger, who got a freak chance of a title bout and bravely lasted the distance against the champ. Rocky was a low-budget potboiler – Stallone knocked off the script in three days – that went on to become the highest-grossing picture domestically of 1976 and beat All the President’s Men to the best-picture Oscar.
The sequels were not well received, but they had a marquee integrity that nobody would associate with, say, the follow-ups to Jaws. They also carried on interesting conversations with themselves. Apollo Creed, the African-American loudmouth who gave Rocky his chance in the first film, ended up as a pal and inspiration to our hero. Rocky’s romance with the introverted Adrian (Talia Shire) had a sweetness that Charlie Chaplin would have appreciated.
The films kept nagging at the mainstream. Rocky III, one of the better sequels, secured its place in pop history by generating Survivor’s still unavoidable Eye of the Tiger. The agreeably ludicrous Rocky IV reduced the cold war to a battle between Rocky’s blue-collar Philly individualism and the steroid-pumped Soviet automaton that was Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago. It was ludicrous, but no documentary on cultural responses to the cold war would be complete without mention of Rocky IV.
What really set the Rocky soap opera apart from other long-lived film series was its impressive, staggered reawakening in the current millennium. Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, from 2006, in which the widowed hero gets coaxed into a novelty bout, was the most satisfactory film since the first episode, 30 years earlier. Stallone played it low key. The Belfast actor Geraldine Hughes had a lovely role as an old chum whom he once directed away from danger.
A whole nine years later Ryan Coogler’s Creed, in which Rocky trains Apollo’s son Adonis, was better still and tempted a few apostates into suggesting it might be the best Rocky film yet. In a reversal of the film’s usual structures, Stallone entered the Oscar race as favourite for best supporting actor but unexpectedly lost out to plucky young (well, not young, but younger) Mark Rylance on the night.
Creed II, which finds Adonis taking on Drago’s son, follows very satisfactorily. It may not be quite as good its immediate predecessor, but it is a better film than Rocky IV. The pictures certainly deal in a degree of wish fulfilment. African-American characters get on famously with white characters. There is little hint of corruption – and no warring title bodies – in this version of world boxing. But the emotions are more satisfactorily earned than in any similarly long-lived sequence.
The films are now a bit different (less jokey, less jingoistic). They are also the same (heroic, at home to the fable). Most impressively, they are still here. You could say much the same of the United States.
Creed II opens on Friday, November 30th