HOLLYWOOD, CA – The first movie review I read was for Rocky II. For eleven-year-old me, the movie was a transformative experience; the iconic theme song; catching the chicken; Adrian’s saying, “Win,” punctuated by the dramatic toll of a bell. And in the end, the final fight defined the word visceral to me before I even knew there was a word for it… so full of emotional peaks and valleys and enormous hay-makers whose only defense seemed to be simply absorbing them with one’s face. When both Rocky and Apollo went down at the same time, I literally gasped. When Apollo’s knee buckled, while Rocky willed himself to his feet at the count of ten, the excitement was so palpable there were dudes in the front row of the Oneonta Theater who jumped up and down on their seats cheering. I may have been one of them. I probably owe the thrill of that moment for my absolute love of the shared experience that only going to the movies gives you.
Then I got my Sports Illustrated that week, flipped past the cover featuring Hale Irwin, saw that Rocky II was reviewed, and eagerly sought validation of that experience…only the headline didn’t inspire confidence: Rocky II Suffers From Tired Blood. What?! Who is this hack, Frank Deford?! Not only did he call it “…repetitious and stale, nearly autistic.” (Try getting away with that comparison today!) Then lets the glib overtake him when he says, “…I would not call it Rocky II but Rocky Deja Vu.”
I only wonder what he thought of the Hangover sequels. Most egregiously he craps over the most seminal moment in the film when he says: “More’s the pity, when Adrian finally comes to, she suffers a horrible case of melodrama, immediately changing her mind about pugilism and saying only: ‘Win.'” Was Frank Deford even watching the same movie I was? He obviously didn’t have dudes jumping up and down in their seats and cheering “Rocky! Rocky!” It must have been this hatred of joy that doomed The National!
Of course Deford’s take is more defensible now that I’m a grownup sophisticate, though I definitely feel more sophisticated for having grown up on Rocky movies. Stallone got to have his cake in Rocky, eat it too in Rocky II, then went back into the kitchen and perfected a formula for mass production in Rocky III that nearly every sports movie since has cribbed from… including Creed, which opened strong this weekend, both at the box office and with the critics. If you’re on the fence about it, I thought it was well worth seeing on a big screen. It hits all the right Rocky beats; tough, corny, emotional, full of old-timey street corner platitudes, and damn it all, uplifting. But it also manages the tough trick of being its own thing. It’s definitely nothing that Frank Deford, or even Sylvester Stallone for that matter, would’ve envisioned for the franchise back when Rocky II came out, but sometimes even a film that looks to be “only a payday” can inspire greatness.
So good luck, Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (and Sly, as long as you can keep making those sad sack eyes, you’re golden)… may Creed get the chance to follow in Rocky’s footsteps and back up this auspicious beginning with a string of roman numerals of debatable quality. Perhaps young Adonnis has to fight for the title in the prison yard in Creed II; earning back his eye of the tiger to defeat an angry Ronda Rousey in III; and taking down the cheating top contender of ISIS in IV. Don’t worry about the reviews, the maker of the next generation of Rocky movie hasn’t even been born yet.