Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone
Nearly 40 years ago, Hollywood gave us one of the most popular underdog stories of all time: A small-time boxer from Philadelphia who gets a shot at the world heavyweight title. On screen, Rocky Balboa rose to fame. Off it, so did one of Hollywood’s modern-day stars, Sylvester Stallone.
But how do you sustain that success? How do you make sequel after sequel that brings people back to theatres? Rocky works because it’s more than a sports film franchise. Sure, there’s training, fights, loss and victory. But it is the drama of human frailty, and the ability to succeed in spite of it, to “get hit and keep moving forward”, that makes generations identify with it. He’s the little guy who becomes the champ; he falls in love with an awkward girl; he makes a fortune, and then loses it; he befriends a rival, and fights to defend his honour; he loves his son, but they have a strained relationship.
Yet, after an almost-too-old-to-box Balboa made yet another comeback in 2006, we thought it was surely over. So did Stallone. Until a young writer-director, Ryan Coogler (his debut feature film, Fruitvale Station, won Best First Film at Cannes 2013), convinced him to return.
It’s life imitates art at its best.
In Coogler’s film, a young Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan), Apollo Creed’s (Rocky’s first opponent) illegitimate son convinces a reluctant Balboa to train him. Coogler, the fan who saw Rocky as a kid, has a universe of references to work with. For the most part, he uses them well.
Young Johnson has shades of a young Rocky, pestering him the way he’d once pestered Mickey (late Burgess Meredith) to train him. He asks about the outcome of his third fight with Apollo (which Rocky III ends with). The overall story, too, fits the underdog-versus-champion template.
To Stallone, who didn’t just play Rocky, but also wrote the stories, the character comes like second nature. The fedora’s still there, but there are reading glasses under it. He still talks to Adrian (his wife), telling her about his day, though the conversation takes place before her grave. And after some unkind words to Johnson, he chides himself like his younger self would.
At no point, though, does Rocky overshadow Johnson, who’s coming to terms with father’s legacy, and a troubled childhood. In establishing his back story (Creed opens with a young Johnson in juvenile prison) and in giving him the spotlight lies Coogler’s strength. But he invests so heavily in it, he’s not left with enough time to build the pre-fight prep, which is also essential to the template. In that lies Coogler’s weakness.
As Johnson runs through the city with stunt bikers for company, mimicking Rocky’s run, and as he steps out to fight in stars and striped shorts, Coogler sacrifices subtlety for the plainly obvious.
But it is a walk through Rocky Museum. And some exhibits have detailed notes, while others you need to figure out.
Watch trailer here: