I had two gnawing fears when “The Latest Rocky Film” (otherwise known as Creed) hit the theaters. These anxieties were rooted in knowing only the basic premise: Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa trains the late Apollo Creed’s troubled son, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, played by Michael B. Jordan.
My first and greatest fear was that it would be a “white savior” film: Think Different Strokes with more punching. Rocky would rescue Adonis and be the great white father the troubled but gifted young black man always needed yet never had. In other words, we would see Michael B. Jordan reprising his role as Vince Howard in television’s Friday Night Lights, with Sylvester Stallone playing the role of Coach Taylor. That’s not necessarily a bad film—I loved FNL—but it’s tired and Caucasian self-congratulation for black success, especially in sport movies, has already occupied enough reels for one century.
My second fear was that Stallone, years since he did anything decent—Copland (1997)?—would deliver the kind of campy performance only John Waters could love. If Stallone was willing to spend decades in front of the camera as a caricature and make millions, good for him. But that’s not the way I wanted to see Rocky go out.
Neither of these fears, blessedly, came to pass. Before writing about why those concerns were pummeled like some “hurting bombs” to the kidneys, I must confess to being a lifelong Rocky fan-boy. I entered Creed having seen all six of the Rocky films a disturbing number of times, memorizing the lines, the fight sequences, and even—God help me—the lyrics to “In the Burning Heart” by Survivor. As a teenager, I even won a radio contest by watching the first five Rockys in a row without leaving the theater to go to the bathroom. My prize, a fake gold chain with a boxing glove on the end, turned my neck green. Despite the mint-hue around my clavicle, I never took it off until the necklace disintegrated into dust.
I loved them all. I loved the 1976 Oscar winning Rocky, which is really a gritty indie film down to its Hollywood/anti-Hollywood finish. I loved Rocky II, with the chasing chickens, sappy ending, and “Yo, Adrian, I did it!” which never fails to make me blink away the tears. I loved the utterly 1980s, flagrantly offensive Rocky III where Balboa learns how to fight with rhythm, or in the words of brother-in-law Paulie, like a “colored fighter” with the help of former nemesis turned blood brother Apollo Creed, and defeats Mr. T, playing a racial caricature out of a Jesse Helms campaign ad. I loved Rocky IV, which is effectively three music videos, a lot of Dolph Lundgren, and all soaked in writer/director Stallone’s red, white, and blue, andro-infused Cold War ejaculate. I even wrote a self-righteous defense of what is universally regarded as the worst of the Rockys, Rocky V, which most fans of the franchise pretend never existed.