The original Rocky was a small movie. Its legend began when out-of-work actor Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay over a weekend, sold it to a studio on the condition he would star, and triumphed at the box office and the Oscars, where the film was named Best Picture over such formidable competitors as All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver and Bound for Glory.
That wasn’t enough for Stallone, who insisted on turning Rocky into a franchise that eventually included five sequels. With each entry, the story got broader, and the characters more exaggerated, until we couldn’t remember why we liked the character. The original Rocky was never really a movie about boxing. It was a fantasy about dreams, redemption and courage that happened to take place in a ring.
So I cringed when I heard Stallone planned to revive Rocky at the movies just after he brought the story to Broadway as a musical. What, possibly, could he do with the character that had not been done? How could he make us care again so many years later? And how could the film walk that fine line of reminding us how much we like the original while giving a new narrative air to breathe?
Much to my surprise, the new installment – named Creed after Rocky’s original opponent – is surprisingly fresh, well conceived and carefully executed. Without trying to recreate the simplicity of the original, it dares to tell a new story in a spirit and rhythm that feel comfortable. And, after scoring big at theaters, it’s just right to savor at home on the small screen.
We know, from the first images of a young boy getting into fights that, someday, he may step into a boxing ring. When a concerned lady intervenes, we can picture her, someday, watching him box. Years later, when this man heads to Philadelphia to find his destiny, we know someone he may meet. And, when old boxing hero Balboa begins to coach the young Creed, we know the film will likely include a climactic sequence in the ring just like every other Rocky movie.
As easy as it may be to guess the plot, there’s more to Creed than meets the eye. While the film contains elements we expect (including strains of the original Rocky music and a visit to the top of the stairs of Philadelphia City Hall) the issues work. A young man with boxing in his blood wants to avoid a sense of destiny. But his father was a legendary fighter. And, because this is a movie, the son must confront his identify before the credits roll.
What elevates the film beyond the expected is Michael B. Jordan’s performance as the young Creed. This actor, so moving in Fruitvale Station, makes us believe in the conflict the character experiences and the redemption he seeks. He expertly creates a vulnerability that makes the young Creed accessible, relevant and memorable. Stallone, recreating Rocky Balboa in a performance nominated for an Oscar, makes us remember why, 40 years ago, his movie ruled the theaters. And why, today, the formula still works.
- Content: Medium. This return visit to one of our favorite movie characters provides the framework for a new chapter in a familiar story.
- Entertainment: High. The movie works best when it doesn’t try to remind us of the original film. Being original can be more effective than being familiar.
- Message: Medium. As endearing as the original film was in 1976, the new chapter captures our interest and attention and offers a sound moral.
- Relevance: Medium. This opportunity to experience how moviemakers revisit a favorite story can be worth the time, especially when watching at home.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. The challenges the characters face, and the truths they share, can make for meaningful conversation.
(Creed is rated PG-13 for “violence, language and some sensuality.” The film runs 2 hours, 13 minutes.)
4 Popcorn Buckets
How Movie Sequels (Try to) Recreate the Original Magic
While Creed may not, technically, be a sequel to the original Rocky – of which there were five sequels in the original franchise – the new film does strongly suggest the look and feel of the first film as it picks up on the story many years later. Here’s how a few other sequels have tried – with a range of results – to recreate movie magic.
Funny Lady (1975)
After winning an Oscar for playing Broadway star Fanny Brice in the original Funny Girl in 1968, Barbra Streisand had little interest in making this sequel. But producer Ray Stark – Brice’s son-in-law – had other ideas. And he had Streisand under contract to make one more movie. So the two returned to the theatrics of the star’s story to carve out a narrative with its own charm and rhythm. And, as much as she may not have wanted to make the movie, Streisand delights.
The Color of Money (1986)
After not winning an Oscar for playing a pool shark with an edge in the original The Hustler in 1961, Paul Newman received an offer he couldn’t refuse from director Martin Scorsese. What about picking up on the character of “Fast Eddie Nelson” as he teaches the art of pool hustling to a new generation? While the new movie does not recreate the tone or feel of the original, it did win Newman an Oscar. And that was long overdue.
The Evening Star (1996)
After winning an Oscar for playing the larger-than-life Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment in 1983, Shirley MacLaine dares to return to the role in this sequel created by Robert Harling, the writer of Steel Magnolias. While the new movie has its moments – and MacLaine has a great time revisiting the role – it can’t recreate the magic of the original. Where Terms was charmed, Star feels labored; where Terms made us cry, Star can make us cringe.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
This one still mystifies. After creating the ultimate movie romp with Raiders of the Lost Ark, director Steven Spielberg made us wonder if forgot to watch that film before making this installment. All the fun that defines the original disappeared; in its place Spielberg inserts contrived situations and exaggerated characters. Rumor has it that Spielberg himself was so disappointed with the outcome that he decided to make a third installment, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Some movies need to stand on their own. Director Peter Bogdanovich created an American classic with his moving interpretation of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show in 1971. He should have left well enough alone. But he decided to return to North Texas to revisit his characters in this ill-conceived sequel that almost erases our memories of the original. Stick with that first film, a beautiful movie that perfectly captures a moment in time.
Thanks to the Hollywood archives, we can easily revisit some of the attempts to recreate movie magic. And some work out better than others.
See you at the movies.