Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Rocky/Creed Saga (1976-2018)


Self-Reflection is threaded through the whole narrative: 
"That's the toughest opponent you're ever going to have to face" is the Rocky franchise Credo (Latin for Creed).

"All eight films remain firmly optimistic about relationships, life, and possibility. They are emotionally honest, frequently looking in the mirror."

After watching eight Rocky/Creed films over ten days, nothing stands out more than how affectionately these characters are written. They are deeply loved by the writers, actors, directors, and fans. Even when an episode is lacking (or just plain awful), characters like Paulie or Duke or Bianca can remind us why we are still watching. Every character has their own fight, contending with disabilities that often mirror our own. Taking the time to visualize these qualities is also a strength of the series. The streets, housing, gyms, stairways, pet shops, meat factories, ice skating rinks all reveal something of their inner lives. Paulie wears his emotional poverty, Adrian her shyness, Apollo his ego, Mickey his heart, Bianca her hearing loss. And of course, Rocky and Adonis are both clothed in their fear and insecurity, often looking both strong and weak in the same image. It seems impossible to disguise vulnerability in the Rocky universe.

"I'd like to kill the freaking guy who broke this mirror" says Paulie, himself fractured and sharp.

Each of these individual deficits are also opportunities for connection. Rocky defines it this way:
Paulie: [talking about Adrian] You like her?
Rocky: Sure, I like her.
Paulie: What's the attraction?
Rocky: I dunno... she fills gaps.
Paulie: What's 'gaps'?
Rocky: I dunno, she's got gaps, I got gaps, together we fill gaps.
Thousands of books have been written on relationships and "intentional" community, but Rocky's summation doesn't require a PhD in idealism, only honest intuition. They meet each other's needs. It's how the characters survive, how they love, and why they fight. Through conflict, failure, forgiveness and grace, they become community, and eventually family. Even into the first Creed, "If I fight, you fight" becomes the mantra between Rocky and Adonis. Rocky wrestles through cancer, grief, and loneliness. Donny needs a trainer and a father figure to believe in him. Together they fill gaps.

All eight films remain firmly optimistic about relationships, life, and possibility. They are emotionally honest, frequently looking in the mirror. Whether a Rocky/Creed film was released in a cynical, optimal, or (currently) nihilistic era, they stay true to their humanity. The series never embraces self-pity politics, but holds securely to self-reflection (and maybe surprisingly to some, spirituality).

Resurrection Athletic Club

The first image we see in Rocky (1976) is a Christian icon of Jesus offering the Eucharist. The shot (above) pans down to a sluggish Rocky boxing with Spider Rico at the Resurrection Athletic Club in Philadelphia, PA. The image of Christ hovering over Balboa stands as a prophetic invocation. Rocky will soon learn to contend with possibility, mystery, and fantastic opportunity. Like Christ, he must suffer through the pain of being himself, sharing in communion with messy, imperfect folk who believe in him. From faith and blood comes his trial. One where true victory happens through losing. A baptism of sweat and determination purposed for connection, not conquest.

1 Corinthians 4 says "We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies." This reflects the Death & Resurrection of Christ in Balboa's "losing to win" theme. It's his "dark night of the soul" journey as populist formula. This dark night experience is found in many traditions, religious or otherwise, including modern Depth Psychology (Jung). Industrial and technological based cultures in the West often reject or resist this baptismal (dying to self) process, correlating with the rise of anxiety, depression, and mental health disabilities. This secularized resistance also exacerbates the breakdown of communal traditions, loss of elders, and modern mid-life crisis. Enter Rocky Balboa in 1976. "It’s no wonder Rocky won the 1976 Oscar over All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver, and Bound for Glory — all liberal melodramas that expressed post-Vietnam, post–Civil Rights, post-Watergate cynicism. Rocky was the people’s candidate." (White) Maybe the people just needed a viceral reminder of the "knocked down, but not destroyed" narrative that still offered Hope through suffering.

This theme of death & resurrection became the essential Rocky formula/liturgy, where various forms of loss or losing must be experienced before any kind of winning can happen. In Rocky III, Clubber Lang tells everyone he is going to crucify Balboa. In Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI), his final fight is described as the last supper, with Spider Rico reading "It is not by strength nor by might, but by His Spirit that we have already claimed victory". In Creed II, Rocky takes Adonis to the desert for fasting and training (mirroring IV's wilderness). He tells him he must go through Hell (Apollo said the same to Rocky in part III) to be prepared for Viktor Drago. While running through the desert, Adonis collapses on the road, Rocky whispers "get up kid", and Donny dramatically rises. A baptism by fire.

Adonis in the desert, confronting his demons.

Stallone's Catholicism is ultimately more hopeful than the "Catholic Guilt" found in Hitchcock's "wrong man" theme or Scorsese's raging bull/gangster in turmoil. It's what allows his characters to expose their insecurities, confront their fears, and contend with something bigger than themselves. They are willing to look in the mirror. They are able to submit to forces they can't control. In Rocky II, Rocky spends most of his time chasing chickens or praying in hospitals. Mickey is impatient with both, but he has a great moment of fore-giveness with Rocky in the hospital chapel. He says, "This guy (Apollo) don't just wanna win, you know, he wants to bury ya, he wants to humiliate ya, he wants to prove to the whole world that you was nothin' but some kind of a freak the first time out. He said you were a one time lucky bum! Well now I don't wanna get mad in a biblical place like this, but I think you're a hell of a lot more than that kid! A hell of a lot! But now wait a minute, if you wanna blow this thing, if you wanna blow it, then damn it I'm gonna blow it with ya. If you wanna stay here, I'll stay with ya. I stay with ya. I'll stay and pray."

Mickey homilizing in the chapel.

Creed II offers a similar sentiment through Ivan & Viktor Drago. An unexpected surprise that I barely noticed the first time I saw it. After the second watch, I realized I wanted to see an entire film about the Drago saga. By sidestepping the current Trump era politics, the Dragos become real people. Their story plays quiet, told visually with emotional nuance seen mostly in their faces. [Spoiler] Though once designed to be superhuman, Ivan is now capable of making the regular human, empowered decision to "throw in the towel" (recalling and/or reconciling Rocky's regretful inaction from IV). This choice is layered with humility, grace, and forgiveness. It's his version of "if you wanna blow it, I'll blow it with ya". He doesn't leave Viktor's corner in shame. They stand together in their own "lose to win", rectified narrative.

Some of the Viktor Drago sequences in Kiev resembled Henry Cavill in "Man of Steel".
Strong visual literacy & direction. I definitely wanted more of those images.

This is an outstanding legacy created by Stallone & Coogler (cue Gonna Fly Now). Who knew the saga would continue on like Wu-Tang? Rocky & Creed have built a cinematic universe. For that I'm grateful. Apparently Stallone has said Creed II is his last rodeo, but I am inclined to be skeptical. Regardless, Michael B and crew are heavyweights themselves now, and I am already anticipating a Creed III. From early childhood I have watched these films with my father, and now with my own children. None of us are boxers, but we have our own battles. It helps to see them reflected on screen with such dynamism, character, and A-1 quality.

Ryan Coogler measures strength with vulnerability in Creed.

Definitive Ranking (Worst to Best):

8.Rocky V: My 6th Grade 1990 self thought this was the best Rocky. It had Tommy Gunn, Rocky Jr (the same age as me), the old neighborhood, and a Hip-Hop soundtrack with Hammer and Rob Base. (I had a walkman that automatically flipped the cassette. It played on repeat over several seasons of Super Tecmo Bowl that year.) It seemed like this was probably the last Rocky based on the Elton John Measure of a Man montage at the end. It was emotional, and I already loved feeling part of a legacy. So it's too effing bad that the movie is actually a disaster. It's undisciplined, overstuffed, poorly written, talks too much, lacks visual composition, and is generally off-balance. But it does have it's quotable moments, and a few building blocks for Balboa and Creed. (V is the first to reveal that Rocky grew up with out a father) Anyway, I'm glad the saga didn't end in '90, and I still enjoy the brief nostalgic feelings.

7.Rocky II: The first of the series that Stallone directed. Not sure if it was the new director or the new DP or both - but the disciplined, exceptionally composed images of Rocky I are nowhere to be seen. It feels more like '70s television than cinema, and it's too long. But it accomplishes it's goal, while building a deeper chemistry between Mickey and Rocky.

6.Creed II: For a film in the Trump era with a Black director, Black protagonist, and Russian villains, the narrative is refreshingly non-political. Choosing to focus on the characters and their relationships is the strength of the film, making me again wish the Dragos had their own movie. Overstuffed like V, but much more disciplined filmmaking. It pulls from at least three Rocky films, requiring more than one watch to appreciate. A great addition to the franchise, leaving plenty of room for more.

5.Rocky III: The film is most notable for subverting Reagan Era machismo stereotypes. Rocky grieves for Mickey. He gets real/vulnerable with Adrian about his fear (one of my favorite scenes of the whole series). He also submits himself to Apollo's training and teaching. They share an intimate moment (below). Mr. T pities the fool. Eye of the Tiger lives on as an inspired 80's tune. Our high school marching band performed it every football game for a decade or more. It was embedded in our small town zeitgeist. Iconic 80's cinema.

4.Rocky Balboa: A rarity in franchise cinema - a sequel primarily about grief, bringing the series back full-circle to loss and reconciliation. Strong visual compositions, classic Rocky life lessons, and Spider 'got religion' Rico combine to make a unique portrait of fighting through life in a post-9-11 world. Not the self-parody that the nihilist critics suggest. Instead an incredibly mature film that takes itself seriously, rejecting self-pity, embracing vulnerability and intuition.

3.Creed: Arguably the most 'American' film of the 2010s decade. Like the first Rocky, it undermines the surrounding politically divisive narratives. A story that invites us to fight along with these beloved characters who are searching for purpose & meaning from the past & present. Ryan Coogler brings his humanizing narrative abilities (as seen in Fruitvale Station) to the Rocky franchise. He generously creates a sensitive portrait about an assertive, determined young Black man and a depressed, stubborn old White dude struggling to redefine family and community in 2015 USA. Lovingly conceived, sharply executed, and emotionally piercing. Not to mention - the most dynamic (and realistic) fight scenes of the whole franchise!

2.Rocky IV: Visually dynamic, but politically misunderstood in the same vein of Springsteen's Born in the USA. Rocky's journey into the Russian desolate wilderness challenged American arrogance & greed as much as Soviet technology & progress. Balboa's soul is at stake, and "into the wild" he goes. There is No Easy Way Out. He learns that Change is possible through this (micro) inner discipline. Hope is the winner in this fight, not nationalism.

1.Rocky: Not just the best film of the series, but one of the all-time greats in American Cinema. In a post-Sixties depression, Rocky pushed back against the raging Exorcists of it's time, winning some awards along the way. In my research, no one person or reason stands out as to why it works so well. Many of those involved point to Stallone's screenplay as the foundation, but it was their mutual respect and communal effort that brought it to life. Like any great film, it is a story told with constructed, formal images that are layered with meaning that reflect the characters, their struggles, offerings, failures, and victories. A masterpiece that has truly 'gone the distance'.