This film is a sequel. It is in fact the seventh in a series that started with Rocky (1976), which was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won that top prize as well as Best Director for John G. Avildsen. It was recognized for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Best Writing. The four films that followed were not recognized in those categories again. Rocky III was nominated for Best Original Song for the now iconic “Eye of the Tiger,” but that was it. This film could and should change that.
Coogler should definitely be nominated for his writing here, along side Aaron Covington. At the start of the film and all throughout, I asked one key question, and that question is why is the protagonist doing what he’s doing. In other words, why is he fighting? Why is he stepping into the ring and risking his life when he could be doing anything else and anything else more successfully? It’s a question that isn’t new to the Rocky films, but the answer, the two answers that Coogler has are literally a knockout.
The answers go to what is most beautiful and most moving about Coogler’s screenplay, and that is the idea of family. Sylvester Stallone reprises his role as Rocky Balboa, the famous and legendary, heavyweight boxer from Philadelphia, nicknamed the Italian Stallion. He became well-known for his fight against champion Apollo Creed in the first film. Apollo who became like a brother to the Philly beefcake died in Rocky IV. By the fifth film, Rocky’s wife had died and by this film, Rocky’s son has moved away and all other people close to Rocky has passed, so he has no family.
Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle and Fantastic Four) was recently directed by Coogler in the critically-acclaimed Fruitvale Station. Instead of playing a real-life person with a lot of family, Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo who was sired out of wedlock and apparently as a result of an affair. He wasn’t acknowledged because Apollo died in the 1985 film, which is presumably the year that Adonis was conceived and born.
He’s first seen in Los Angeles, 1998, battling in a juvenile prison. He looks as if he’s 12 or 13. He’s taken out the prison and adopted by Mary Anne Creed, played by Phylicia Rashad. Mary Anne is the wife of the late Apollo. She takes him in and is able to provide him a better life, but she’s not able to heal the psychological wounds that have already been inflicted. In many ways, he feels as if he has no family either and as if he’s not yet worthy of one.
Adonis, nicknamed Donnie, goes to Philadelphia to change that. Ostensibly, he wants to become a professional boxer and enlists Rocky to be his trainer. However, what develops is more than just a trainer-trainee relationship, or even a mentor-mentored relationship. What develops is almost a father-son dynamic. In fact, almost instinctively, Adonis starts to call Rocky “uncle.”
Adonis is black and Rocky is white. For decades now, there have been plenty of African-Americans who have had Caucasian parents either by blood or marriage, so it’s not unusual. Jordan dealt with this somewhat in Fantastic Four where he also had an interracial, family member, but in that film there weren’t enough scenes in the final cut that sold that interracial relationship. Here, the bond between Adonis and Rocky is built beautifully, often using the classic Rocky montage-technique, but Coogler allows the two to breathe and exist in the same frame, and the audience to feel that bond.
Stallone was nominated for Best Actor for Rocky. Here, he settles into the role that Meredith Burgess had in 1976. As a result, he will probably be placed in the Best Supporting Actor category. His role here though is probably just as substantial as in any of the previous films and that’s because Coogler gives him something substantial to play, something which brilliantly builds and honors what came before. Rocky might not be fighting in the ring, but he is fighting something, and it might be his best fight to date. Stallone picks it up and runs with it, so to speak, and nearly 40 years later, arguably gives an even better performance than even in his first time around.
Jordan greatly bounces off him. I didn’t appreciate several of Jordan’s choices in Fruitvale Station, but there are so many moments here that didn’t feel forced or Jordan over-acting. Jordan certainly rises to the challenge of living up to his character’s name. When in nothing but boxing shorts, Jordan does look like a Greek god. When put in the ring, it looks as if he does his own stunts. He makes you feel his blood and sweat, which should garner him a Best Actor nomination as all the buzz surrounding Jake Gyllenhaal in Southpaw should be transferred to Jordan.
Coogler’s direction should also be recognized as it does help to bring out, if not boost this performance. He plays with choreography to make boxing seem like dance or a physical education that at times feels rhythmic. The use of the long, continuous take is one that has become in vogue, much like the use of shaky or handheld camerawork was a decade or so ago. Recently, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Cary Fukunaga have utilized the long, continuous take to great effect and have been honored for it. Coogler should immediately be added to that list of honorees. His long, continuous take, which takes us right into the ring and into the personal spaces of two dueling men, as their fight plays out in real time is gutteral and powerful, and is almost an endurance test for Jordan.
Coogler’s direction should also be recognized for all the things he does to fill out the world here. He drops us in Philadelphia and gives us such a great sense of the environment and the people in it. This includes an amazing singer from North Philly named Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson (pictured above with Jordan). Bianca could be called this film’s Adrian, or Adonis’ Adrian, but that might be a bit reductive. She is her own person with her own issues, and Coogler allows Thompson to inhabit her as such.
There’s Ritchie Coster who plays Pete, a boxing trainer who wants to use Adonis and the fact that he is the bastard son of Apollo to make money promoting new fights. There’s Tony Bellew who plays Ricky Conlan, a British boxer whose manager sees Adonis as a threat or a challenge that has to be met. Coogler allows them to inhabit them and give them some depth as well, particularly in the case of Bellew.
It’s rare that a sequel, especially the seventh in a franchise can be so excellent. Arguably, this past year or two is proving that late entries in franchises can be better than early entries. Many raved over Mad Max: Fury Road, which is the fourth entry in that franchise. Many raved over Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, which is the fifth entry in that franchise. I raved over Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is the ninth entry in what’s called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and just as I thought that Marvel film was one of the best of the year, I think the same of this one.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 13 mins.