VHS Revival goes twelve rounds with a franchise reboot worth remembering
‘80s nostalgia. To persons of a certain age, those words are enough to leave you weak at the knees, or at the very least imbued with a deep sense of longing. The ‘80s may have been a tough time politically and financially, particularly for those working classes affected by globalisation and the dismantling of trade unions, but for those of us wrapped in a cotton cloud of neon culture, those days will never be matched. When I think of the 1980s, I think of the rise of MTV. I think of the colourful extravagances of professional wrestling, the cultural marketing revolution that gave us the likes of Transformers and Masters of the Universe. I recall the rise of synth music, of the home video game console, of lunch boxes, the BMX and a hundred other fads that encased me in the sweet bubble of commercialism, but most of all I think about movies.
Nostalgia is relative, and for some the ‘80s may have represented a creative decline, but compared with today’s commercial antics it was a veritable goldmine of originality. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Robocop, The Evil Dead, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid – all movies that made a huge impact on me as a youngster, and all movies that have been subjected to the modern studio reboot. They even made Lethal Weapon into a TV series for Pete’s sake, a series that depended largely on the next level chemistry of its leading men. At first it was difficult to not get excited about the prospect of being reunited with genre classics in some way, shape or form, and even now it’s hard to resist a peek, but it wasn’t long before we grew wise to the real purpose of this sudden wave of period nostalgia, and our current sense of intrigue is largely based on just how lazy and cynical the next money-spinning venture will be. For studios looking to make a quick buck, there’s nothing safer than a reboot because most of the work has already been done. Thanks to our undying connection to long-cherished characters, marketing and advertising costs are slashed, the buzz surrounding those movies is self-fulfilling, and ticket sales are almost guaranteed.
Because of this, laziness becomes intrinsic, and what we get are second-rate retreads that offer very little value. Those movies range from below average to terrible. In fact, a 21st century reboot that is necessary or worthwhile on any level other than the financial is a rare thing indeed. Gone are the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing or David Cronenberg’s The Fly – movies which set out to improve on the originals and did a mighty fine job of it. This is the nature of modern capitalism and is also indicative of a society whose attention span has plummeted due to a plethora of modern gadgets that have left us staring into the information void. Everything is based on convenience in today’s world. We have too much choice at our fingertips, everything is quick and disposable and as a result of lesser value. It won’t be long before theatres close their doors entirely.
Bianca: Hey Donnie, you moving?
Adonis Johnson: Yeah I’m going to be living with my uncle for a little bit.
[Referring to Rocky]
Bianca: That’s your uncle? He’s white!
When I think ‘80s, I also think Rocky Balboa. Sure, the original Rocky was released in 1976, but The Italian Stallion’s battles with the likes of Clubber Lang and Ivan Drago are fundamentally ‘80s, and though the original franchise would peter out with a first-round whimper, history told us that things would not end well. When rumours of a Rocky reboot reached me in 2014, I was hugely disheartened. By that point, the nostalgia revolution had shown its true colours, and to think that Rocky Balboa – a character whose unlikely rise warmed the hearts of millions – was set for the commercial wringer was a disconcerting prospect to say the least. Of course, Rocky had already made a return in 2006 with Rocky Balboa, a movie that did a decent job of putting a smile on our faces. It was far from perfect, but some were expecting much worse, and what it did was tap into an element that all great Rocky pictures are built upon: our affection for the Balboa character.
Nevertheless, seeing a 60-year-old Rocky returning to the ring was somewhat beyond the realms of plausibility, and the movie would largely depend on our existing feelings for the character. It was a decent in-ring swansong, the kind the character deserved after 1990’s woeful Rocky V, but ultimately it was a round too far, and the kind of movie that doesn’t hold up to repeat viewings. With the details of the latest franchise entry yet to reach me, I was somewhat disturbed by the thought of yet another bout of geriatric fisticuffs. I mean, did they really expect us to believe that Balboa had another comeback left in him?
The first thing that struck me about 2015’s reboot was the title. The Rocky saga had been done to death, buried, resurrected and restored to purgatory as a bucket of blood, sweat and tears that was positively overflowing, and the thought of Sly returning to the ring just two years shy of his 70th birthday did not paint the most pleasing picture. So when the equally iconic name Creed emerged, my interest was immediately piqued. Apollo Creed was famously killed in the ring by Russian man mountain Ivan Drago in one of the most shameless examples of Cold War propaganda ever committed to celluloid, so it was inevitable that it would be a movie about his son with Rocky as his mentor. That was all well and good, but with Apollo’s two children having lived a life of luxury, such a narrative seemed to lack the underdog potential synonymous with the series. Fortunately, those at the helm had something of a surprise in store.
Creed did refer to Apollo’s son, but not the one we all expected. Instead, Creed would be the story of Adonis Johnson Creed, an illegitimate lovechild who would grow up in Youth Detention Centres. It was a bold move, the kind that threatened to sully the reputation of the larger-than-life Apollo, but it set the tone for a movie that, much like Adonis, sets out to make a name for itself in the correct way. That’s not to say it distances itself from the heritage of the franchise – that would be senseless – but instead of depending on what went before it chooses wisely, resulting in a beautifully judged extension of the Balboa legend that is never less than respectful. There are so many cute nods here, but unlike Rocky Balboa it never seems forced. After Adonis quits his day job and goes in search of his father’s most famous opponent, we are immediately drawn to all those landmarks that made Balboa’s humble rise so authentic; stoking the fires of a legend long-retired, but one who still means something to the rough and tumble streets of Philly.
Rocky Balboa: Apollo? Yeah, he was great. Perfect fighter. Ain’t nobody ever better.
Adonis Johnson: So how did you beat him?
Rocky Balboa: Time beat him. Time, you know, takes everybody out. It’s undefeated.
There are the obvious landmarks on show: Mighty Mick’s Gym, the 72 stone steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Rocky’s training route, but there are also instances that recall memorable moments from the series – when Rocky warns Adonis that ‘women weaken the legs’, only to later fix his protégés relationship with new beau Bianca, understanding the importance of a good woman. Perhaps the most satisfying reference comes during Adonis and Rocky’s first meeting when the youngster asks about the famous behind-closed-doors fight between Rock and Apollo from Rocky III, one that Rocky reveals was won by his long-time friend and rival. Smartly, the movie relies more on parallels, allowing us a sense of nostalgia that is earned and meaningful. Rocky is initially unwilling to get involved with Adonis and boxing in general, in spite of the efforts of supposed friend Pete Sporino, who wants Rocky to train his son and betrays The Italian Stallion when he opts to train Adonis instead, who initially goes by the name Johnson. In some ways, the vultures looking to exploit the Creed name echo those responsible for the plethora of reboot cash-ins that have polluted the industry in recent years, and it immediately lends Creed a legitimacy that many of its peers are sorely missing.
Other parallels come from the trainer/trainee dynamic. Both characters are suffering from loss and repressed emotions. Rocky is so used to being alone since the deaths of those closest to him that he has become a little too comfortable in the shadows, visiting the graves of the deceased for the occasional chat, and when he is first diagnosed with the early stages of cancer the chance of joining them seems preferable to fighting the illness, not only because he has witnessed the darker side of treatment first-hand, but because he simply has no reason to stick around – or so he initially tells himself. Like all the best teacher/student relationships, Rocky and Adonis give each other purpose, each inspiring the other to face their own personal battles, but there is an extra dimension to their unlikely axis. When Adonis gets an unexpected shot at the title thanks to the kind of backdoor opportunity that the lowly Balboa received when facing Creed’s father for the world title, Rocky has to precipitate the boy’s training, and in doing so calls on the lessons of his greatest opponent. Here, Rocky is an extension of Apollo, and, consciously or not, Adonis seems to seek him out with this in mind. Similarly, Rocky’s flesh son is absent from his life due to the pressures of being a Balboa, and in Adonis he gets a shot at parental redemption. Ultimately, he finds something that is worth fighting for.
Adonis Johnson: A great fighter once said, “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
It’s a wonderful approach, and an added in-ring realism only contributes to the movie’s charm and sense of freshness. Rocky was never really about boxing per se, it was about characters and relationships, and once again the in-ring action is at a minimum. Creed is also more concerned with the journey, and in terms of action it is the perquisite training montage that takes centre stage, the kind that offers just enough of the old and new to make the movie as much about Creed’s journey as Rocky’s. As a kid, I was always in Arnie’s corner when it came to the question of who the greatest action star was, but in recent years I’ve gained a much deeper respect for Stallone. Nobody projects boyish humility quite like him, and it was through the Rocky character that he was first able to channel this strength. Here, his performance is heartfelt, and you get a sense of just how much respect and admiration he has for his most famous character. In Creed he lives and breathes Balboa, and in doing so solidifies himself as much more than just an action star, embracing a character who can no longer rely on muscle or physical feats that go above and beyond. As much as Adonis is allowed to take centre stage here, Creed reserves the movie’s most famous landmark for the character who first scaled it, only this time Rocky doesn’t run up those steps, he hobbles up them, and in many ways it is his greatest ever achievement.
Though the finale pales in importance to the journey, the original Rocky can seem a tad dated during Balboa’s showdown with Apollo, something that Creed is able to improve upon thanks to the medium’s evolution as a whole. In many ways, the battle between Adonis and undefeated champion ‘Pretty Ricky Conlan’, here played by real-life boxer Tony Bellew, is more reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, particularly when the lighting dims and the crowd dissipates as our two warriors zone in on each other, but realism is just an added bonus. More important is the feeling of togetherness and sense of community that the finale ultimately inspires. As with Rocky all those years ago, you will Creed on until the very last moment, you throw every haymaker, you feel every blow, and when the Rocky theme finally bursts into life it is more than justified. In the end, Creed has earned the right to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his peers, much like the movie itself.