Technically a knockout
Never been a big fan of the Rocky movies. Stallone's career-making sports drama--the little picture that did good, that wore its heart moistly on its sleeve, that strained for likable to the point of unbelievable (a loan collector with a heart of gold?)--is just too, I don't know, comfortable with the notion that an inarticulate schlub's dreams can come true (last time I bought that canard it came with a singing cricket). Mind you I like boxing movies: liked how Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull unfolded its premise (boxer enters the ring to punish himself for real and imagined sins), liked how Robert Rossen's Body and Soul (with script by Abraham Polonsky) threw a melodramatic light on the whole corrupt system of the sport, the equally inarticulate schlub in that film finally digging in his heels and proposing himself as existential hero ("Everybody dies!"). I like the way some of the more thoughtful films attempt to pry open the sport's darker danker corners; Rocky and its sequels alas don't do corrupt systems: "really don't matter if I lose this fight...cause all I wanna do is go the distance..." Battered spud wedges deep-fried and drowned in cheese, please, hold the hot sauce.
Which is why you wonder at the news that Ryan Coogler was willing to do a sequel of sorts. Coogler's first feature was the startling Fruitvale Station, about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III--as powerful a cry of anger and frustration over the Trevyon Martin case as one might ask for; with a debut like that, what can a filmmaker do for follow-up?
Turns out Coogler would take a beyond-tired movie franchise and shake it--hard--till the cobwebs fly. Focusing not on Rocky but on a former opponent's illegitimate son Adonis 'Donnie' Johnson Creed (Michael B. Jordan), Coogler sketches the features of an Angry Young Black: the sweet-natured Balboa may refuse to hurt the people he's suppose to collect money from but Donnie has demons to exorcise, he struggles just to keep himself out of trouble. Over his head looms the impossibly large figure of world heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, channeling Muhammad Ali)--Donnie feels he has to succeed in his father's sport without being known as his father's son. Standing by Donnie's side is the bowed figure of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), his father's most famous adversary and later good friend, come out of retirement to act as surrogate coach and mentor.
It's all every bit as corny as the first movie (the quality of succeeding installments deteriorating at an accelerated rate); what sells the project is the texture Coogler manages to add, thoroughly frying the mush till it turns crispy--the hip hop music (from Meek Mill and Future among others), the sparing use of Bill Conti's score (for most of the picture we hear a lonely distant horn, as if the series were but a faded memory), the edgy acting acting, the gritty Philly streets as captured by French cinematographer Maryse Alberti (she did not just fiction features like Todd Haynes' Poison and Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler but also documentaries like Terry Zwigoff's Crumb).
Coogler manages to sneak in a few body-blows of his own: an early boxing scene eschews the usual handheld rapid cutting of most fight flicks and follows Donnie (Michael B. Johnson) as he charges, circles, retreats, feels his way around the ring, applies what strategies Rocky manages to yell from the sidelines, responds to his opponent's fusillade of fists with his own half-skilled assaults--all in a single intricately choreographed shot. A ballsy breathtaking sequence that shows the fluid evolving form of a fight: how a gambit might work or fail to work, how luck can go with you then against you and vice-versa.
Jordan has grown remarkably from his early appearance as a wide-eyed drug-dealing youth in the first season of The Wire, later the unwittingly doomed Oscar in Fruitvale Station. From gangly to bulked, awkward to graceful, here you believe he has a chance at being a contender; later when things start to pile up before the big fight (as it does in most sports movies) you believe he strains under the heavy psychic burden. Stallone seems to have gone the other direction: from lead star in hit movies he has shrunk himself down to aged character actor--perhaps not as eloquent or quick-witted as Burgess Meredith's Mickey in the first movie but with some of the cautious elegance, the careful movements suggesting fragility that (after so many hamfisted attempts at drama in his celebrity career) finally seem poignant.
That Donnie will find validation and adopt the name of Creed isn't really in question, not in this kind of picture; the real suspense is whether or not Coogler, who showed promise in his docudrama, can elevate this material to the level of art. The verdict? No, but like Donnie (and Rocky before him) Coogler comes measurably close; I'd go so far as to say this is the first Rocky picture I actually like. You can't help but respect the man for the effort.
First published in Businessworld 12.11.15