Escaping the shadow of one’s father is never as easy as slipping a punch, but time and again, many a young man thinks it can be done. He laces on those gloves to gain value from without instead of within and more often than not finds himself in a world of hurt.
When I was a kid, right around this time of year, somewhere between the donning of costumes and the gorging of turkey, a time before HULU, DVR, Netflix, channel 11 or some other basic television affiliate would put on a Rocky marathon, movies 1-4, as Rocky 5, 6, and now 7 (Creed) had not yet been made. By the end of the saga I had seen countless times, I could not tell whether the tears that stained my face were from joy or from sorrow, or a combination, as any powerful story, any passion, will allow.
Last night I saw the latest installment of the Rocky franchise, Creed, directed by Ryan Coogler, but unlike the Rocky’s of my childhood, Creed will not be included in any movie marathon.
Creed locks in immediately on Adonis Johnson/Creed, played by Michael B. Jordan (also in Coogler’s 2013 Fruitvale Station) and his too-earnest ambitions to be a professional boxer. We soon find out in a rushed, painfully spelled out message that Jordan’s character is on a vision quest to free himself of the shadow of his father—a man whom he never met. Of course his father turns out to be the now deceased Apollo Creed, probably the greatest fictitious boxer ever, next to Rocky himself.
The bastard son of Apollo Creed (Apollo had Adonis via an extramarital affair), Adonis quits his job, leaves his home, and seeks out (again, of course) Rocky Balboa, the very man who didn’t “throw the damn towel,” to rescue him from his shadow.
And if you thought such myth-making comes easy, after fighting Ivan Drago and, with him, the former U.S.S.R. in Rocky IV, the Italian Stallion once again finds his way to the ring—this time thankfully only as a corner-man.
You see there is a real logic going on here and some good old-fashioned quid pro quo but not much else. Just as Apollo trained Rocky for his re-match with the pain-predicting Mr. T in Rocky III, Rocky, still guilty even after toppling the Russian and communism itself, agrees to train young Creed.
This pairing is supposed to echo the relationship between Rocky, once a forgiving thumb-breaker and down-and-out pug, and the cantankerous, riddling-wise, half-deaf, Mickey—the father figure and trainer to Rocky, only that in Creed Stallone offers none of the zest of Mickey and Jordan, none of the emotional depth of Rocky. The result—not much chemistry. If it were not for Stallone’s affable humility and good-guy-ness despite a general lassitude, Jordan’s forced mean-mugging and stifled emotions would have had me make for the exit long before the credits rolled.
Marlon Brando’s acting teacher Stella Adler once said that in order to play ordinary men, an actor must have size. That is to say, it is easier to play a science-fiction hero that has a lot of bells and whistles to grab onto (although Fantastic Four didn’t turn out so hot for Michael B. Jordan) than it is to portray a flesh-and-blood man, perhaps doing extraordinary things, like a boxer. Michael B. Jordan may have the body and pugilistic skill to convince an audience he is a professional boxer, but he has little of the size an actor needs to play such a role.
Partly this is because the Creed character has no real adversary to act as a metaphor for his real opponent—himself. No Apollo, no Mr. T, no Ivan Drago. Just some pseudo-British champ with a paint-by-numbers anger problem named “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, played by real-life British cruiserweight Tony Bellew.
Coogler is too plain here—too forward, and even has Rocky mouth to the son of Apollo that he is really only fighting himself, no one else. That’s all fine and well but not very gripping. Telling stories should not be message for message’s sake alone: there needs to be pacing, subtlety, tension, and character development to successfully deliver that message.
If Mr. Coogler, a director all of 29 years old, continues making box office features, he would do better telling stories closer to home as I think he does in Fruitvale Station. Otherwise, he will just be a son lost in his father’s shadows.