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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

NEVER DOWN FOR THE COUNT

NEVER DOWN FOR THE COUNT
 
Last week, I reviewed my low points (Spectre) and satisfactory entries (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) from 2015’s movie franchises. There were a number of other franchise blockbusters from Terminator Genisys to Jurassic World to Star Wars—which was clearly the biggest, most high profile, most profitable 2015 franchise entry. However, Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World didn’t egister on my personal radar and, as I’m only a casual Star Wars fan, the excitement generated by The Force Awakens left me mostly unaffected…It was a fun film…I’m glad the hardcore fans enjoyed it…But one viewing was enough for me…
 
So, in the spirit of self-centric exposition, I now share my personal choice for the hardest-hitting franchise entry of 2015, which has nothing to do with dinosaurs, unstoppable machines with artificial intelligence, or X-wing fighters and Death Stars. The film, which moved me unashamedly to dampened eyes on several occasions, while stimulating a major release of endorphins by delivering the perfect high of goosebumps and emotional thrills carried one name—Creed.
 
Using Mr. Peabody’s WABAK Machine, we first need to return to 1976 and a little film that believed it could go the distanceRocky. Deftly detailing the underdog story of a boxer on the last train to Palookaville capriciously matched against the heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky touched something deep inside the American psyche. In the film’s emotional epiphany, Rocky realizes he can’t win, but he is determined to go the distance. This difficult, but possibly achievable goal tapped into the subconscious, but core desire of the everyman trapped in an everyday mundane life. 
 

Filmed in a record twenty-eight days with a paltry $1 million dollar budget, Rocky ultimately grossed well over $100 million. The movie poster's tagline—His whole life was a million-to-one shot—emphasized the lowly, simple-minded status of the working-class hero, a good-natured individual who lacked basic intelligence, but displayed gutsy, optimistic perseverance while fighting for his dignity. 
 
Sylvester Stallone was immediately inseparable from his onscreen Rocky persona. In an underdog story to rival Rocky’s fight fiction plot, Stallone fought for his original screenplay (after 32 previously rejected scripts) and insisting on starring in the role the studios wanted to fill with Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neil, or James Cann. 
 
When the studios were finally swayed by Stallone’s intractable belief in himself, they did so without much support or enthusiasm. However, in true Rocky fashion, confronted by giant opponents—All the President's Men, Network, and Taxi Driver—and against all studio odds, Rocky garnered ten nominations and three Oscars, including Best Picture, and a franchise was born.
 
The first four Rocky sequels were hits and misses with the critics, but winners with the public. Rocky spoke to us—reflecting our own impossible struggles. As the lines between the hype of real world fights and fictional boxing movie fireworks blurred, the fiction of Rocky became truth...
 
 
While Star Wars fans often disparage the three Star Wars prequels, Rocky fans reserve most of their ire for Rocky-V. While, I personally have a soft spot for this problematic Rocky outing, I completely understand how it appeared to bury the franchise in a pauper’s grave. But anyone who believed Rocky-V would put the Rocky franchise down for the count never understood the lesson at the heart of every Rocky movie—It’s not how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
 
I always get choked up whenever I hear Rocky passionately deliver the full Shakespearian soliloquy: 
 
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It is a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. 
 
But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward. It’s How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.  
 
Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth. But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not point fingers and blame other people. Cowards do that and that ain’t you. You’re better than that!
 
Rocky-V was the equivalent of Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, Ivan Drago, and Tommy Gunn all ganging together to beat Rocky to the canvas. Rocky-V left the film franchise bloody and broken…The critics and naysayers were convinced of their victory…The franchise couldn’t possibly get back up…Cue Bill Conti’s iconic brass intro to Gonna Fly Now (the Rocky theme)…But it did…Like Rocky himself, the franchise rose from the ashes of defeat on guts alone—and it was ready to deliver an extra-large serving of Rocky-style whoop-ass!
 
In 2006, sixteen years after Rocky-V seemed to put the franchise down for the count, Rocky Balboa lifted the film series off the canvas one last time to deliver a knockout punch. Anyone who ever doubted the power or sincerity embodied by the character of Rocky—whose statue in Philadelphia  has always been a touchstone and a pilgrimage destination for the faithful—got a fist in the face and a very loud, “Take that!”
 
From the very start of Rocky Balboa, the transition back to the beating heart of the original Rocky rings clear…The undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, Mason The Line Dixon cannot get a fight with any challenge who the public considers worthy.
 
When a controversy over a video game simulation between Rocky, the former champ, and Dixon (based on an actual Rocky Marciano-Muhammad Ali video game simulation) ends with Rocky victorious via TKO, Dixon needs an actual match to regain respect. The thread of the audience’s suspension of disbelief is pulled tight, but Rocky fans are completely forgiving because they know what’s coming next.
 
The set-up is ridiculous, but we don’t care. We depend on Rocky never backing down—if he does, we are all lost. No matter how old he is, Rocky is going to punch his way into an inspiring training montage and the key element of the original Rocky—the hopeless underdog against the undefeated champion—is ready to play out again. 
 
Rocky Balboa (not Rocky VI, because apparently the studios didn’t think Rocky fans could count higher than five or figure out Roman numerals beyond V) restored the luster and returned the franchise to its glory days by adding a fitting, perfect, ending…
 
It was over…Done…Rocky and the franchise had gone the distance, exiting the ring with head held high and Bill Conti’s music swelling tears in all our eyes…
 
But then it wasn’t done…
 
Somebody, somewhere, had a rejected boxing movie script, which could have been the storyline for Rocky Balboa, but had thankfully never risen to the level of consideration. However, with the success of Rocky Balboa, this script now promised an easy payday—and the embarrassment of Grudge Match became a reality…
 
Of course, nobody connect to Grudge Match would ever admit to a Rocky connection. Just because it starred Sylvester Stallone as a retired boxer finally agreeing to a rematch with his greatest opponent (Robert DeNiro) why would anyone connect it with Rocky
 
Sure…okay…right…
 
Imagine what would have happened if Rocky and Apollo Creed had never agreed to a rematch until they were both over the hill and you have the whole misguided premise of Grudge Match and why it is essentially—if unofficially—Rocky 6.5.
 
Grudge Match was not pretty—more parody than homage. The bad taste it left in the mouth of critics and Rocky fans alike demanded recompense. But wasn’t it far too late? Wasn’t Rocky over, done, finished? 
 
Are you kidding me?
 
This is Rocky we’re talking about…The hell with going the distanceRocky was ready to fight back, to even name the round for the knockout—and the name of the round was Creed
 
In a major change from the Stallone written and directed Rocky entries, wunderkind director Ryan Cooglar takes control of Creed in both capacities. What is even more interesting is Cooglar brought Creed to Stallone as opposed to Stallone wanting to do another Rocky film and seeking out Cooglar to direct. Why is this important? It means Creed was Cooglar’s vison from the start…Cooglar’s love of the Rocky franchise was clear making his commitment to Creed personal…Cooglar had a complete understanding of what makes Rocky tick and exactly where the story needed to go in order to become compelling to a new generation.
 
The storyline for Creed is a natural next step—Adonis Johnson is boxing champion Apollo Creed’s bastard son. Adonis never knew his famous father, who died before Adonis was born, and is resentful of his linage. However, boxing is in his blood, and the ring is the one place where he can release all the anger he carries. Forced by circumstances, he seeks out Rocky, asking the retired champ to be his trainer. The rest of the story is quickly apparent—Rocky will be reluctant…Rocky will see much of Apollo in Adonis…Rocky will give in…Rocky will train Adonis…A fluke of circumstances will give Adonis a title shot…Adonis will be a huge underdog facing certain destruction in the ring at eh hands and fists of an undefeated champion…
 
But Creed is not content to settle for this simple storyline. Like Adonis and Rocky before him, Creed has heart…There is more here than cliché, there are humanistic, heart rendering twists, which not only add to the luster of the Rocky franchise, but show Sylvester Stallone—Rocky himself—to have more depth, more heart, than he has ever been given credit. Any and all nominations and awards given to Stallone as a result of his performance in Creed are more than deserved.
 
Creed does everything right. The film touches all the legacy points Rocky fans expect, while also bringing a new legacy into reality. When the strains of Bill Conti’s original Rocky theme are finally allowed to blast from the theatre speakers, the audience is wound so tight they invariably burst into spontaneous applause…and from that moment on, throats tighten, tears well, hearts thump and chills reign in the emotions of every Rocky fan.
 
Creed is not the perfect ending for the Rocky franchise…It is the perfect beginning…
 

 

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