There’s something about the Rocky films that just makes them goose-bumpingly good. Yours truly might not be struggling to breathe or falling over his own body weight, but I can assure you sports have never been my thing. The only thing I learnt from P.E at school is how to pre-plan an excuse and executive it convincingly. Not the skill set my teachers had hoped for I’m sure, but it’s done me a damn sight more use than learning to kick a ball
What I mean to say is sports have never been my cup of tea and I make no apology for it. My father mistakenly believed it was the essence of a man and while skill and physicality might inform sporting capability, they are nothing without a fierce analytical and strategic intelligence. That’s as true in real-life as it is on any pitch and I know enough sportsmen, sportswomen and sports fans alike to know I’m right.
What makes the Rocky saga special is that it strikes the perfect balance between the two. Emotional intelligence and characterisation are the marrow of a story that uses boxing as its vehicle. It’s about a man trying rise to and exceed his and others’ expectations, staking his claim in life and in the ring and refusing to ride the rapids of adulation and disregard from pundits. He does it, as Sinatra said, his way. It’s all about what Rocky believes he can do.
For me personally, Rocky Balboa is not only the greatest instalment of the series but a masterful film in its own right. Like the first film, it is deeply meta, reflecting the trials, tribulations and vision of writer and director Sylvester Stallone’s own life. Rocky, largely consigned to glory in living memory, stills feels he has something to give. Stallone’s action heydeys were long over by 2006, but like his acclaimed character he feels he has more to give. Free from the need to make a reputation, it wasn’t about winning or losing it was about proving to himself he could do it. The fourth Rambo followed in 2008 and then The Expendables (which fully embraces his action star reputation along with a full ensemble cast of other action heroes).
“But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward” is as good a proverb for life as any French philosopher might provide. Rocky Balboa is the epitome of the emotional depth of the series and of the monomyth: the concluding part of the cycle of heroes where they come back for one more fight. It has heart, it has a challenge, it is wholly against the odds and it sits side by side with The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall and Mr Holmes and a plethora of others which see the hero come back for one more round. Sometimes it might be a little mushy, a little explicit when nuance would have been required, but Balboa is Stallone’s biographical case in point. If Winston Churchill saved us all at the age of 66 in 1940, it’s absurd to think that ‘over the hill’ is a fixed line. It took Sylvester Stallone to remind us that age is arbitrary. Think about that for a moment.
So in this spirit, Creed appears to be a cause for hope. The first and particularly the second trailer promise both a continuation and a new chapter. The underdog story lives on in the natural home of Apollo Creed’s son, but as on-screen and in life it is about passing the torch on. An ailing Rocky mentoring Creed might be a little obvious, but, as I’ve always said, the idea that emotional depth needs to come packaged in Shakespearean prose is a snobbish absurdity. Find me someone who didn’t smile when Rocky got a standing ovation at the end of the last film and I’ll find you a multicoloured unicorn. In fact, find me someone who didn’t have a tear in their eye with Rocky’s final “Yo Adrian, we did it” by her graveside and I’ll dress up as one.
Collective sighs greeted the news that the new film wouldn’t focus on Rocky but on Creed’s son, Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan. The character’s name alone was so literal I think I banged my head on a table. Yet, from the trailers and the promise that Stallone’s character plays a prominent and not just a cameo role, there is real potential. If the new film can keep the emotional punches on par with the boxing ones; the story taut and deliberate and not just another sports film, it stands a wonderful chance of being a welcome contribution as the seventh addition to the Rocky pantheon.
Sports drama is very different to sports film, and the Rocky series is the definitive example of the former. While Stallone is neither directing nor writing (that challenge has fallen to Ryan Coogler) he is producing, and you have to have enough faith that an actor of his accomplishment who birthed the franchise would be protective enough to ensure the quality was up there.
I’ll say this now: If they kill Rocky it would be a cold bastard move, but it would make the final fight memorable. They did it with Mickey, and you had the excellent third instalment. But my gut feeling tells me that yes, the torch will be passed over, but they won’t overlook the chance to turn the film into an exploration of a father-son dynamic as much as a mentor and his protégé.
On a personal note, the Rocky films occupy a special significance because they always bring my brother and me together to enjoy them. Not that we need an excuse to have a pint or ten, it’s just good that they’re first and foremost entertaining films that offer something for everyone.