Sylvester Stallone knows most of Rocky Balboa’s famous fights would have been stopped by a real-life referee long before the battered and bloodied fictional heavyweight champion rallies his will to win.
Sylvester Stallone also realizes many people who only know boxing from his ”Rocky” saga might believe his beloved sport really looks like a Rocky movie all the time.
That’s why Stallone has always insisted that the ”Rocky” films acknowledge the heavy cost of boxing, even amid the cathartic ring victories that have turned the character into an icon.
”I do feel responsible, because I see the brain damage,” Stallone said in a recent interview. ”I see the harm. No one walks away unscathed.”
The ”Rocky” series continues this week with the release of ”Creed,” writer-director Ryan Coogler’s reimagining of Rocky as a reluctant trainer for his oldest rival’s son, Adonis Creed.
Coogler and Stallone maintained the Rocky series’ delicate balance between depictions of hyper-stylized, brutal fighting and that acknowledgement of the dangers and damage inherent in boxing.
”I have this conversation with my wife,” Stallone said. ”(She’ll say) `This is so brutal. How can you condone it?’ Well, a lot of these men, they don’t sing, they don’t dance. They’re not intellectuals. This is what they do, and when it’s done properly, it’s the most incredible, graceful, beautiful, violent ballet. It’s something that’s just in certain men.”
Early in ”Creed,” Rocky tries to talk Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) out of fighting at all. An illegitimate son rescued from foster care by Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis gives up a steady white-collar job and a well-to-do lifestyle in Los Angeles to train in hardscrabble Philadelphia.
”You want brain damage?” Rocky asks Creed. ”You’re better than this.”
The ”Rocky” saga’s balance between boxing reality and cinematic showmanship was a challenge eagerly accepted by the 29-year-old Coogler, who pursued Stallone for a year to get the chance.
Coogler’s first film, 2013’s ”Fruitvale Station,” brimmed with slice-of-life realism and delicate touches. Coogler shows impressive versatility in his move to a big-name action franchise, but says he kept in mind the humble persona in which Stallone’s sometimes superhuman Rocky was always grounded.
”Something we always talked about is that (Creed) has to earn his way,” Coogler said. ”This dude doesn’t want to be handed something. He wants to go out and get it. So we knew there was going to be a bunch of fights in this movie, and each one has to feel different. Each one has to tell the story of what that fight is, and therefore dictate the style.”
Jordan had his own appreciation of Stallone’s view of boxing after a year of training to look like a light heavyweight contender. He filmed with real boxers including Andre Ward, Tony Bellew and Gabriel Rosado, getting hit with his share of accidental punches amid the cinematic choreography.
”Honestly, what these boxers go through mentally and physically, man, it’s ridiculous,” Jordan said. ”As boxers, your hands are wrapped up most of the time. You can’t do anything yourself. You need somebody to help you. That’s the cool nuance about people who we think are so manly and masculine.”
Coogler added more than a new screenwriting voice to the ”Rocky” series, which had been written entirely by Stallone and directed only by Stallone and John G. Avildsen. Coogler also brings the fights to dramatic new life with staging and imagination that don’t skimp on reality or theatricality.
An early bout in Tijuana is staged in a claustrophobically small ring that emphasizes Creed’s solitude. Later in the film, Creed’s first fight in Philadelphia is presented in much grander scope – a virtuoso display of big-picture filmmaking.
Coogler shot the entire Philadelphia fight in a single take, including the entire pre-fight walk, two rounds of action and every exchange in between. The unbroken showcase puts the audience in the middle of a boxing match in a way the first six ”Rocky” movies never imagined – which was Coogler’s goal all along with every aspect of ”Creed.”
”The story of that first fight in Philadelphia, which is so important to us, is the idea that Adonis has finally got what he wants,” said Coogler, a receiver at Sacramento State before attending film school at the University of Southern California. ”And when you get what you want all of a sudden in life, it’s cool and it’s scary, because then you’ve got no more excuses.”
But Coogler had no desire to entirely abandon the boxing theatricality for which the series is known, particularly in the grand finale expected in any Rocky film.
”It has to build to a crescendo so we earn a final fight that delivers on what people want when they buy a ticket for this movie,” Coogler said. ”It has to deliver on a certain spectacle.”