I have a confession: I love “Rocky IV.” I love it for the cartoonish ‘roided up Russian Ivan Drago. I love it for the flashiness that so aptly epitomizes the ’80s. I love that more than a third of its runtime is montage. I love that Rocky, with his slurred speech and swollen face, singlehandedly ends the Cold War by delivering a rousing victory oration about the values of being ‘Murican. I love it because it’s the definition of excess, the kind of movie that plays repeatedly on cable on slow Sunday afternoons.
I love the latest “Rocky” franchise installment, “Creed,” because it’s the exact opposite of “Rocky IV”: contemplative, emotional, slow, restrained. It’s a boxing movie where boxing serves as the vehicle to examine complex characters who deal with real emotions and real internal conflict. It’s a sequel that pays homage to its past, but it holds its own and could function as a completely standalone work where no one has ever heard of the Italian Stallion.
“Rocky IV” reminds me that movies don’t always have to be high art; they can exist solely for entertainment. “Creed” reminds me that high art and entertainment can exist as one; it reminds me of why I love movies.
What makes “Creed” so special very early on is a quiet scene where young Adonis Creed watches a YouTube clip of his long-deceased father, Apollo, fighting Rocky from one of the early “Rocky” films. The clip is projected onto the wall and blown up so Creed and Balboa appear large in stature. Though the footage looks grainy, the ferocity on the faces of the fighters remains clear. The amateur boxer Adonis, dressed in shirt and tie, watches for a moment, then rises and approaches the screen, as he begins to shadow the movements and punches of the fighters. At first, it seems touching — a son walking in the footsteps of his father. But Adonis isn’t mirroring Apollo, nor is he fighting Rocky — he’s fighting Apollo.
This image so perfectly captures the essence of the film: a son grappling with the legacy of his father, a legacy he didn’t ask for from a father that left him before he was born. Boxing is just the physical representation of this very personal conflict.
That’s why cinema is so fond of the boxing/fighting film. There is no greater exemplification of the personal struggle than the fighter’s quest for greatness; it’s boiled down and raw and brutal. Emotional tension can be felt, but physical confrontation — the crack of a rib, the spray of blood on the ring — these sounds and images resonate and boom. When these physical struggles mesh with and mirror the more emotional struggles, the audience becomes absorbed in the characters. Suddenly, their fight becomes our fight too. And in “Creed,” the emotions resonate so loudly because its fight is so personal and human.
Watching “Creed,” I felt like I sat ringside, cheering on our protagonist. And it wasn’t simply because the camera weaves between the fighters to create a 360-degree immersion, nor was it because of the surround sound that places the audience smack in the middle of the scene. It was because I cared — because I could relate.
Growing up, family and friends remarked how much I resembled (still resemble) my father: the same appearance, the same sense of humor, the same walk, the same voice, the same mannerisms — the spitting image of him. So for years I could only compare myself to him: was I as smart as he was when he was my age? Was I as personable? Was he stronger than me? Faster than me? What could he do that I couldn’t, and why couldn’t I do it, too? Up until this past April, I was studying to go to medical school in large part because my father did — not because he wanted me to, but because I was still competing with him, with his name.
But his name is my name, and names and legacies do not make an individual. They are inescapable and immutable, and they help shape an identity. But they do not define that identity. And at some point I realized that I am my father’s son and I bear my father’s name. But though he has profoundly influenced who I am, I am not my father.
And so, Adonis reaches the same conclusion by the end of “Creed,” though he achieves that catharsis through sweat and blood rather than self-contemplation. But his internal fight to define his own self-worth is universal; who among us has not compared himself to a parent, a family member, a friend or even a younger, more successful self?
This idea of names, the weight they carry in regard to one’s pride, is a powerful concept, far more powerful than an uppercut to the jaw or a quick left jab to the ribs. “Creed” plays up the concept in so many ways: by juxtaposing a young character with an absent but well-established, legendary figure and by contrasting an aging Rocky with constant reminders of his youth and success, but also by “Creed” ’s very existence as a sequel to one of the most beloved films of all time.
When a movie taps into all of these deeper levels — narratively, metaphorically, existentially — and still entertains as a crowd-pleaser, that excites as a sports picture, that moves as an interpersonal drama and manages to reflect in its characters a struggle universal but individual, then that film becomes something more, something worth remembering and cherishing.
I could never relate to “Rocky” the way so many did when it came out in 1976, but I understand “Creed.” I understand this struggle and this fight and this identity crisis. I understand the image of a young man shadowboxing a ghost. “Creed” is not “Rocky,” but it is my “Rocky,” the underdog sports drama I’ll think back on for years to come.