By Steven Rea
The Philadelphia Inquirer
For Sylvester Stallone, it was déjà vu. There he was, a few Fridays ago, at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, having a proclamation read to him by the mayor. Mayor Michael Nutter was declaring Nov. 25 “Creed Day” in honor of the new movie Creed, which stars Stallone as some mug named Rocky Balboa, and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson, the son of Rocky’s best pal, boxing legend Apollo Creed.
In “Rocky III,” released in 1982, Stallone stood in pretty much the same spot, gazing out over the city skyline, being saluted by an actor (Gene Crane) playing Philadelphia’s mayor.
“Every once in a while, a person comes along who defies the odds, who defies logic, and fulfills an incredible dream,” this other movie mayor said before unveiling the bronze Rocky statue that still lures tourists to the Art Museum steps. “On behalf of all the citizens of Philadelphia … it is with tremendous honor that we present this memorial, which will stand always as a celebration to the indomitable spirit of man. Philadelphia salutes its favorite son, Rocky Balboa!”
“Creed” hands off the gloves to a new underdog, Adonis Johnson. Jordan, who starred in “Fruitvale Station” and played quarterback Vince Howard in two seasons of “Friday Night Lights,” has the title role. Adonis comes to Philadelphia from Los Angeles, introduces himself to Rocky, who’s shuffling around down at Adrian’s, the South Philly restaurant he named after his dear, departed wife. It takes some persuading, but Adonis persuades Rocky to train him. The kid wants to be a champion.
“Creed,” directed and co-written by “Fruitvale Station’s” Ryan Coogler, brings the classic Rocky formula into the new millennium. Adonis meets a singer/songwriter, played by Tessa Thompson, who takes him to Johnny Brenda’s and the Electric Factory. Yes, he runs along the Schuylkill River, and down the middle of the Ninth Street Market, but he also takes his morning sprints through Kensington and Fishtown and North Philly.
In one-on-one interviews and in the news conferences Coogler, Jordan, Stallone, and Thompson held while they were in town, they talked about the Rocky legacy, about “Creed,” and about convincing Stallone that, yes, it was a good idea.
Coogler: The story came together in my head right around the time I was prepping “Fruitvale Station.”
I was finishing up film school, I was back in the Bay Area, and my father, who was a Rocky fan his whole life and who had passed his love for those movies on to me, he got sick. And when he got sick, that threw me for a loop. I had to help my dad do things I never imagined that I would have to help him do. It gave me the idea to tell a similar story with his hero, with Rocky, and to introduce this new character, the son of Rocky’s rival-turned-best-friend, Apollo Creed.
Stallone: I said no, no, no. It was such a struggle to get the last Rocky done – “Rocky Balboa” — and I was so happy with the conclusion of the Rocky story that I thought, “We don’t need to go any further with it.”
And I just dismissed Ryan’s idea, but … he was very adamant about it, he came back a year and a half later — and then I thought, “You know, my story is told, but there’s a whole other generation out there — two generations since Rocky started — and their story has not been told.”
FATHERS AND SONS
Coogler: The Rocky (films) had that in their DNA — fathers and sons, trainers and fighters, and I think the sport of boxing has that.
It’s a sport that’s so contradictory. You have these really strong guys … they’re in the ring all by themselves, they’re in these gloves where they can’t even use their hands — they couldn’t get themselves a drink of water if they wanted to … . So it’s a sport where you need to lean on other people.
And you see fighters who had this bond with their trainers. We saw it with Mike Tyson and Cus D’Amato, we saw that with Rocky and (Burgess Meredith’s) Mick. It’s a very special bond, and we wanted to capture that.
Stallone: The clock is ticking.
Any day, nature can flip the coin on us and take away our health … . I’m going to be 70, I feel good, I’m working, but I have friends, fellow actors, who — some of them have passed away, some of them aren’t working because of their health, or because they can’t get the roles.
In “Creed,” Rocky’s got a lot less time ahead of him than he has behind him. There aren’t too many positives about getting older — it’s the law of diminishing returns.
Stallone: I started skipping rocks in the Schuylkill when I was 12 years old … . This city has been very good to me, for sure.
Coogler: We were very into this idea of the new meeting the old.
So, when Adonis runs on the Schuylkill, that doesn’t look like the section of the Schuylkill that Rocky ran on. It’s got these solar panels along the bridge and all this new construction everywhere … because, for me, that’s Philadelphia. It’s the new and the old at the same time … . I always liked Philadelphia.
I haven’t told anybody this, but the first screenplay that I ever wrote, the first legitimate screenplay, Philadelphia was the original setting … . It was one of the first places I ever went to on my own. I got recruited for football in high school, and I went for a recruiting visit to the University of Pennsylvania, and really fell in love with the city … . So, when we were preparing to shoot “Creed,” I moved here early.
I lived here for six months, I asked a lot of questions of the locals. I wanted to show more sides of Philadelphia. For the people who thought they knew everything about the city, here’s some more. It’s such a rich place. You can make a hundred movies in Philadelphia, and all of them would feel different.
Jordan: When we finished the boxing sequences, the fights, which we did at the start of production, I was exhausted. I was done, physically tapped out, I was sick. I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed and go to work … and Sly told me that the exact same thing happened to him. After he finished his fight scenes, his body quit on him.
As soon as you’re finished, it’s like your body’s going, “Mission completed.” You hurt. You ache. Your head is throbbing. You can’t stand up — and you got hit a few times, for real.
Stallone: You can’t be in a Rocky movie and not get hit. I got hit. Dolph (Lundgren) got hit. Mike got hit.
Jordan: Yeah, I took a few punches.
Stallone: There are some boxing movies, I don’t care how well they’re made, there are actors who just are not convincing. I’m not going to name names, but you know who they are. They can look the part, but that’s not half of it.
It’s on the actor. You’ve got to be believable, inside and out. You’ve got to believe.
Coogler: I tend to like them all — I can’t get enough of them. The obvious ones, “Raging Bull,” the Rocky movies, of course, “Body and Soul” with John Garfield, that’s beautiful. “Ali” with Will Smith … . But I still haven’t seen “The Champ,” even though Sly keeps telling me to watch it. He’s shown me scenes from “The Champ.” But it’s a little too sad for me. I’m starting to get sensitive these days, and real sensitive towards movies with kids in them, so I don’t know if I can watch that.
THE ROCKY FAMILY
Thompson: We have this idea, as Americans, that you can pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and if you try hard, you can persevere and succeed.
And while there is some truth to that, the thing that’s missing from that equation is the people that help you (get) there. This is not something you do alone. And that’s something that you get to see in “Rocky.” You see that, without Adrian, he couldn’t have done anything that he does, without his friends, without Apollo.
I hope that we capture that spirit in this new Rocky world.
ROCKY THE ICON
Thompson: Rocky is such an important part of American film iconography.
Jordan: I saw “Rocky” for the first time when I was in high school. I watched it with my father. I felt like Rocky was a real person.
It’s like he is a real person — he’s become part of our lives, our culture.
Stallone: I couldn’t have dreamed this up. There’s no way, if you had told me back in 1976 that this character that came out of my head was going to become associated with the City of Brotherly Love in such a mythic way — I would not have believed you … . I’m stunned that here we are on the seventh one.
But, really, it’s “Creed 1.” Rocky is done. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a whole new series.