Creed II hit Irish cinemas last week, and the eighth instalment in the Rocky saga has received rave reviews.
Spoiler alerts seem redundant; with Rocky movies, there are no real surprises.
The protagonist in this chapter of the story is, once more, Adonis Creed.
Having gained the heavyweight title which his father once held, there appears to be no further challenges except the long shadow cast by his father, Apollo. The tragic circumstances of Apollo’s death at the hands of the Soviet fighter Ivan Drago still haunt Adonis.
When Ivan and the fearsome son whom he has trained arrive in the United States to challenge Adonis, there is no way that the younger Creed can decline this opportunity to avenge his father’s death.
Thus begins a quest which bears the hallmarks of any great Rocky film. Our hero is challenged like never before, and must summon within him the strength to overcome impossible odds.
Some fans were initially apprehensive about Creed II. In the first Creed movie, Sylvester Stallone took a step back from screenwriting, and the result was a fresh and more mature movie which reinvigorated the series.
This time around, Stallone co-wrote the screenplay, and it feels more like one of the earlier movies. In fact, it is even better.
Why are the Rocky movies so popular? Why has an ordinary Joe Soap from Philadelphia with a drooping face and limited vocabulary captivated audiences since 1976?
Rocky’s greatest appeal lies not in his exceptionalism but in his normalcy. When we first encountered Balboa, he was a struggling small-scale fighter, supplementing his income by working as a debt collector.
What talent he had been blessed with had gone unused, and so he wallowed in obscurity.
Many can relate. Very few, however, are given the chance to rectify matters, and if they were, who could grasp it in the manner that Rocky did in that epic first title fight against Apollo Creed four decades ago?
The hopelessness of his many struggles further endear this character to us.
Rocky’s opponents were bigger, stronger, more skilful or more aggressive. Yet none could withstand the Italian Stallion with the iron chin.
Indeed, Stallone’s own life resembles that of the fictional character who made him famous.
Stallone wrote the screenplay original movie, when he was just a failing stage actor who had starred in soft pornography just to make ends meet. Every Rocky fan knows the story of how, when penniless, Stallone was offered a vast sum for the Rocky script, on the condition that a better-known actor take the leading role.
Stallone declined the offer and continued to chase his dream, as any hero would.
Yes, this is fantasy. But it is a fantasy which every boy has engaged in at one point or another.
The boxing audience in the movie – and the real audience in the cinema – cannot withstand his charms. Every punch he throws reverberates through the crowd. We feel his pain when he takes a heavy blow and hits the canvass; we love him all the more for rising from it and continuing to fight.
Rocky movies are lessons in fortitude. Never give up. Always keep going.
“You, me or nobody is going to hit as hard as life,” Balboa told us long ago, in one of his more erudite moments. “But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward: how much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
True, not all of this is specific to Rocky. There is something about boxing that makes this sport so suitable for storytelling on the big screen. Many terrific boxing movies attest to this: Raging Bull, The Boxer, Million Dollar Baby, Cinderella Man, The Fighter.
No other sport can match the drama of boxing at its very best.
There is a profound courage involved in stepping in to the ring and great contests excite the inner pugilist in all of us.
And it’s not just filmmakers like Scorsese and Eastwood who have been drawn in by it. Hemingway loved boxing; Hunter Thompson’s writings on his fellow Kentuckian Muhammad Ali were some of his best work.
The appeal of Rocky, and Creed after him, is clear enough. But there is another element of this latest movie that is deserving of attention: the issue of fatherhood and how it affects all of the important characters.
Adonis Creed never knew Apollo, who was battered to death by Ivan Drago around the time he was born. Having followed in his footsteps, he is haunted by the lingering fear that he will never fully deserve the name ‘Creed.’
As he prepares to fight the son of the man who slew his father, Adonis has to cope with the challenge of becoming a father to a disabled child.
The ageing Rocky was in Apollo’s corner on that fateful night, and the guilt he feels over not throwing in the towel in time seems to have inspired him to be the father that Adonis never had.
Yet Rocky is also struggling with his own demons. His desire to protect Adonis is mirrored by his inability to connect with his own estranged son, Robert. For all his glories in the ring, he has failed as a father, and fears that Adonis might make the same mistakes.
The most interesting dynamic in the movie, however, must surely be the evolution and inner turmoil of Ivan Drago.
Rocky IV was made at the height of the Cold War, and the giant, steroid-enhanced and emotionless Ivan Drago was the perfect Soviet nemesis.
Thirty years after losing to Rocky in front of a Russian crowd, Drago is bitter and shows no remorse about killing Apollo.
His humiliating defeat cost him his reputation, livelihood and wife as well. In self-imposed exile in Ukraine, Drago lives vicariously through his son Viktor, and trains him mercilessly to be the brutal fighter that he once was.
No paternal love is evident, and Drago Senior’s affection appears conditional on Viktor achieving his potential as a fighter.
Thus, both fighters – Creed Junior and Drago Junior – are driven forwards by the desire to live up to their last names: each seeks to fulfill their father’s expectations, and each tries to make up for his father’s mistakes.
The fathers also learn, with Ivan coming slowly to the realisation that the son he still has outweighs all that he has previously lost. The Drago we come to know by the end of this film is still an adversary, but is no longer a villain.
When considering the importance of this theme within Creed II, it is worth reflecting upon how boxing has changed since Rocky was released in 1976.
Back then, heavyweight boxing was at its zenith. Muhammad Ali was undisputed champion, having knocked out George Foreman in 1974 and retained his title in cataclysmic battles with Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.
All of these men were household names, and their title bouts attracted the interest of hundreds of millions of fans the world over.
Though the sport still enthralls moviegoers, the decline in its reputation which has occurred since then has been dramatic.
There have been many causes. The establishment of multiple competing titles within each weight division has cheapened the value of each belt. Other sports have eaten away at audience figures too. In particular, the rise of Mixed Martial Arts has captured the hearts of those philistines who have a taste for bloodshed, but who lack even the slightest appreciation of style or finesse.
Another factor in the decline of American boxing which goes mostly unremarked upon is the appalling societal problems of drug addiction and crime in the inner cities: the nursing ground for so many of that country’s great heavyweights of yore.
African-American youths have been especially impacted upon by these trends – trends which cannot be divorced from one of the most devastating social problems of all: fatherlessness.
To become an accomplished boxer requires a phenomenal amount of hard work and self-discipline. For any young person to achieve prominence in this field is mightily impressive, and that achievement can usually be traced back to the support which he received at important points along the way.
The steady erosion of familial ties which has occurred across much of the Western world has chipped away at the social support infrastructures which would have been in place to help earlier generations to succeed. For a young man, in particular, the most important of these is surely a father to look to as a mentor and a guide.
Adonis has that, thanks to Rocky, and by the end of the movie, so does Viktor too. The tragedy of life today is that so many young men are lacking real-life role models to emulate. Their absence has cost so many young boys dearly, and when one thinks about the dearth of boxing great in recent times, it probably cost boxing fans dearly as well.
Creed II forces viewers to reflect on these issues, and if nothing else, it allows a new generation to look up and dream.
Roll on Rocky IX.