When I first came across the trailer of Creed, in the very late summer, it was evident that I could not have maintained my Rocky virginity for much longer. Creed qualifies as the seventh Rocky movie, why getting to it cold? Unlike the North American territory, in which this movie was released in November, it was only going to hit the UK in mid-January... I figured I'd have plenty of time to catch up on Rocky.
Imagine my delight when I came across a pristine box-set of all six movies in a charity shop just before Christmas. What are the odds of finding a movie you want in a charity shop, let alone an entire series of six, precisely when you need it as well? This was serendipity at its best dear reader.
And so it goes that I will forever associate Rocky with Christmas 2015, for I started on the first one a few days before Christmas itself and... I haven't stopped playing these movies. Yes, you've heard, even now, a good five weeks later, I've got Rocky on a loop. I saw a preview of Creed last week and that itself continued to stoke my fire of fondness for these characters in ways I never thought possible.
This year marks the fortieth anniversary of Rocky, which was released in time for Thanksgiving in 1976 and goes on to follow the lives of our characters from mid-November to 1st January. The first time I watched the seminal movie, I don't think I even grasped it. I am used to boxing movies whose fight scenes are so technically flawless and realistic as to require yourself to wipe the spit of the actors off your face [Southpaw is a case in point]. To watch Rocky for the first time requires a recalibration of expectations in that respect but I must tell you that a potential disconnection from the story on first viewing has little to do with the stylised boxing scenes. The necessity to forego your assumptions is rooted in Rocky being a movie about a thoroughly good man, about getting the girl, about love played out on a boxing backdrop, not the other way round. While I spent Rocky getting acquainted with its surprising overarching theme [and with Stallone Speak too, it must be said], it wasn't until Rocky IV that I was irrevocably smitten with this character and his naturalistic, if not a little simplistic, world.
The other day I watched The Revenant and while I can tell you that it is an aesthetic masterpiece, I should also say that it severely lacks emotional involvement. Of course, I do think that to empathise with fur trappers in this age of animal rights activism (and I speak as a vegetarian so I feel it strongly) is pretty much an impossibility as a given, I mostly believe that The Revenant quite simply lacks emotion in the most straightforward possible fashion. Its landscape is sublime for sure but its detachment from its own characters, as well as from passing a moral judgment about them, makes it as sterile as the icy landscape in which it takes place. Rocky, and I refer to all of them here, Creed included, is the very opposite of that; Rocky is all heart.
I think that the crucial element that has allowed Rocky as a series to reach legendary status is its wonderful writing, all of it by Sly bar for Creed, which has remained thoroughly faithful to the character, potentially 'yet another bum from the neighbourhood', as we met him in 1976. While Creed was penned by Coogler and Covington, they evidently went to great lengths to remain true to Rocky as we know him, and especially so to the last of Rocky we saw ten years ago [in Rocky Balboa, 2006], when we find him bereaved and lonely but, crucially, not at all embittered by life. In Creed, we find him ever more lonely, but when he meets Adonis we once again witness his great generosity and good-naturedness which, to me at least, are the key characteristics of Rocky. Sly turns in such a subtle, complex and tender performance that it is no wonder awards are falling out of the sky for him and, as he himself said, it is a veritable miracle that after forty years as Rocky this is happening now.
As this is my online home, allow me a touch of over-indulgence as I tell the last few Rocky virgins amongst yourselves a few plot details [WARNING : contains copious spoilers] and I relay how I feel about the movies...
Rocky  : In which we meet our hero, the city of Philadelphia, his love interest Adrian, her short-fused brother Pauli, the legendary Mickey, his pets (Cuff, Link, Moby Dick and Butkus), and his rival Apollo Creed. This is one to watch over and over again, you'll miss so many jokes the first three times, you won't believe it. There are tons of legendary scenes in this one, from the ice-skating on Thanksgiving, to the first training attempt, from the second, in which he finally conquers the steps, to the fight with Creed. When the final bell rings, you won't even care who wins because as Adrian finally makes it to the ring ['Where is your hat?'], you know Rocky has won the girl. And that glorious freeze frame is the stuff dreams, male and female, are made of.
Rocky II  : In which Rocky starts off with newly-found wealth, marries Adrian, has a baby and is challenged to a rematch by Apollo Creed. And finally, just finally, we enjoy the victory in the ring we so longed for in the first movie. 'Yo Adrian, we did it'. And who cares if he cannot act in a commercial.
Rocky III  : In which Rocky is at the top of his game in every which way. I generally think of III as my favourite as I think it has absolutely everything going for it and then some: immense drama, great comedy, friendship, a thoroughly dislikable villain [Clubber Lang], a true sense of accomplishment, and Eye of The Tiger. Additionally, its brilliant training montage with Creed [now an associate and no longer a foe of Rocky] which culminates in an frolicking bromance in the sea is deliciously un-self-conscious and original, decades before Pineapple Express and I Love You Man celebrated straight males public displays of affection. If you've seen the Starsky and Hutch movie with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, you will know that they pay a wonderful homage to this great montage.
Rocky IV  : In which a new episode of Rocky's life exploits the expedient of the Cold War to great effect. Here the antagonist is the stoney-faced Ivan Drago who goes as far as killing Creed in the ring ['If he dies, he dies']. I find this Rocky exceptionally emotional and triumphant at the same time and I believe very strongly that it showcases the best training montage of any sports movie ever. If these exploits in the Russian snow replete with catchy tune, sexy beard and a six pack you could smash ice on does not get you to the gym pronto... nothing ever will.
Rocky V  : In which our hero loses all of his fortune and returns to the streets of Philadelphia as he knew them. Unable to return to the ring due to his health, he channels his passion towards training an eager youngster, Tommy Gunn, who betrays his trust. This is the most maligned Rocky movie of all, even though I must tell you that I don't feel that strongly about it. I like it very much that Sly plays opposite his son, the sadly departed Sage Stallone, and that the focus of the drama resides within the family. I also love it that in this movie the only Rocky fight we witness is not in the ring but in the street, in proper street-fighting style. And, frankly, I love it that the most annoying George Washington Duke eventually gets one.
Rocky Balboa  : In which we find our hero in a very different place from where we previously left him. Adrian has died of cancer, his grown-up son is at odds with his father's fame, the ring is a distant memory, he continues to run the Italian restaurant he established with Adrian half-heartedly but living in the past is exceptionally painful. VI is renowned for being the very best Rocky after the first one, replete with excellent writing and a triumphant return to the ring. But I must tell you, dear reader, that I find it extraordinarily difficult to watch: when the movie begins and Adrian has obviously passed on, I feel thoroughly bereft, each time as if I watched it for the first time. Sly's performance is so unaffected and so very real that I feel my heart is being trampled over time and time again. I quite simply cannot watch it without feeling like I did throughout Dead Poets' Society. And if you too have ever lost anyone you loved, you'll know what I mean.
Creed  : In which we get to our hero, still running his restaurant in Philadelphia, via Adonis Creed, the illegitimate child of Apollo. This isn't just a continuation of the series but also a homage to the first Rocky and, as Rocky itself, the character, this young Creed too is all heart.
I cannot recommend these movies enough and if you don't like them... well, there must be something wrong with you and I cannot imagine what that is!