“It ain’t about how hard you’re hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” These words were spoken by Sylvester Stallone in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, although the message has carried through all the Rocky films. This includes this year’s Creed, touted as a spinoff but in reality is the seventh film of the series. After nearly forty years of being told the exact same thing by the exact same character, (1) I’ve long since gotten the point, and (2) I’m officially sick of hearing it. Maybe it’s time for any future installments, and for inspirational sports dramas in general, to serve as a metaphor for a different life lesson. Personally, I would be very happy if the message shifts to fighting not being the answer.
Stallone returns as Rocky Balboa, who despite old age and retirement from professional boxing reluctantly decides to train Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, Balboa’s former rival/friend. Donnie is introduced as a child in a juvenile detention center getting into fights at the drop of a hat; although he was taken out of the system by Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) and raised as her own in a Los Angeles millionaire’s estate, he nevertheless grew up angry and ungrateful. Indeed, he quits his high-paying office job in one scene and takes part in a Mexican boxing match in another. And presumably, it’s an illegal one. So it seems he wants to be a boxer. For someone who resents living in his father’s shadow, and who hates him for dying before he was born, he sure is doing everything he can to be exactly like him, boxing wise.
How Donnie flew to Philadelphia and landed an apartment with no apparent source of income is something the film doesn’t bother to address. Most of the focus is on Donnie and Balboa – or, more accurately, their scenes of training together, which so neatly adhere to the unwritten rules of movies like this that they’ve long since stopped being engaging. Of course Balboa must behave like a wise elder in a fairy tale, training his overeager, cocky student with unorthodox methods and proverb-like bits of wisdom. The difference is that Balboa’s advice is streetwise. Some of it might have gotten across, but alas, Stallone has built an entire acting career on barely intelligible mumbling, and this movie is no exception.
It should some as no surprise that the film climaxes with a major boxing match, specifically between Donnie and a boxer from Liverpool – played by real-life boxer Tony Bellew, as if that should mean anything to general audiences. But before that happens, Donnie begins dating a musician (Tessa Thompson) who’s slowly losing her hearing and has resigned herself to that fact. It’s a decent enough subplot, if very predictable and obviously intended to echo the 1976 relationship between the Balboa and Adrian characters. And then we have Balboa’s personal life, which is interrupted by a turn of events I’m not supposed to give away. I’ll abide, but it really doesn’t matter; it’s such an overused narrative device that you can probably deduce what it is before even entering the theater.
There was a time when I would give the climaxes of sports dramas the benefit of the doubt. But at this point, I’m just tired of them. Regardless of whether or not the main characters physically win the match, they’re still developed in such a way that the overarching message, usually the same thing over and over again, is brought home, wrapped up, and neatly topped with a bow. The climax of Creed does exactly that, which is to say that it’s an anticlimax. Strange, that most audiences tend to smarter than the movies they watch and yet still have Pavlovian reactions to specific scenes; despite the fact that they pretty much already knew what would happen at the end of the last fight scene in Creed, that didn’t stop anyone from cheering and applauding.
How much longer will the same story be told? How many more times will Sylvester Stallone, who doubles as one of the film’s producers, insist on reminding us about moving forward even after taking so many hits? Hasn’t the message already gotten through? Does he really have nothing else to say? Creed is not an incompetent movie, but it is a painfully unoriginal one. It has absolutely nothing to say that we haven’t heard a thousand times before. It’s time to move on to something else. And while we’re at it, maybe we can stop promoting the idea that boxing is the only suitable metaphor for life. Not everything is about fighting back. Sometimes, it’s about joining ranks and being peaceful.