Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
When he emerges from the shadows into the dining room at Adrian's, well into the first act of "Creed," Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) looks tired and well above fighting weight. His gut is as broad as his shoulders, and most of his loved ones are dead. We see him in the graveyard with a bottle and a rose, offerings to Paulie and Adrian, or reading them the paper in a chair he keeps hidden in a tree. Later, he dances the way a dad dances, gives an incoherent toast, suffers stoically from disease. His ever-present fedora seems smaller than I remember and crumpled, like he keeps it in his pocket. The world knows him mainly through memory, and often he reminds me of my old man who, after years of raising hell, decided to quit shouting so much and donate his guitars to the church. They have the same jaw.
Adonis "Donnie" Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), who, like any great fighter, acquires many names, came of age with my generation, at the beginning of this century. He owns a tablet and has a Wi-Fi connection fast enough for streaming but hardly any furniture. He shadow boxes to YouTube clips of "The Dancing Destroyer" fighting "The Italian Stallion," back when Apollo Creed, his father, was the heavy and Balboa, his new trainer, the long shot. He takes a photo of Rocky's handwritten training regimen with his cell phone, stores it in the cloud.
Rocky looks up, asks, "What cloud?"
At first, in a moment of self-loathing, I thought that Donnie suffered from the generational affliction of believing he could achieve his goal simply by wanting it enough. The single-minded pursuit of glory sounds like the "anything" our parents told us we were all capable of, truth notwithstanding. But it's also the stuff of underdog movies, and at many points he proves to the audience that a boxer's life and a champion's laurels are his birthright, though he knows they are not a given. He is the son of a dead legend and his anonymous mistress, but chooses initially to fight under his mother's surname. He fashions himself after Manny Pacquiao more than Floyd Mayweather Jr. And while Apollo was a trash-talker in the vein of Muhammad Ali, Donnie's most macho affectation is blowing warm air into his hands.
For all this, I found it difficult to reconcile Adonis' singular vision of himself as a fighter, his need to fight and his violent past, with the sensitive disposition he shows with his love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). We know all too well that athletes who make a living from their strength and aggression can sometimes carry the violence over into their personal lives (see: Mayweather, Tyson, Ochocinco, Ray Rice — I could go on). And director Ryan Coogler's brand of realism had me expecting some show of force against her in a moment of crisis. But most representative of their dynamic is a scene in which Adonis speaks softly of the burden of his name as he untangles her long, lovely braids.
At first, Bianca is independent and driven, her musical success an example of productive engagement with the world, despite adversity. She motivates Adonis and serves as a spiritual guide when he first arrives in Philadelphia. But sadly, her prominence fades as the film approaches its climax. You wonder if hand-wringing isn't the fate of all who support the emotionally damaged, those with as many troubles as ambitions — Adrian was long-suffering, too. And driven men are reluctant to admit that the women they lean on exhibit a strength they crave but often don't possess themselves. Especially men smothered by the shadows of their absent fathers. In any case, the film would have benefitted from more of her influence.
Almost out of obligation, Rocky channels his own old trainer, Mickey, by imparting the wisdom that "women weaken legs." Adonis barely hears it, and anyway I've always enjoyed the sensation he is describing. Remember that Rocky's old man claimed he wasn't born with much of a brain, so he should develop his body, which he did. Adrian's mother always told her the opposite. This was date night, in 1976, as she skated and he ran on the ice alongside her.
From the faces of the unaccompanied 10-year-olds seated behind me, it's easy to imagine future franchise installments absent Stallone. In "Creed," the transfer of surrogacy, of mentorship, nears its completion: from Mickey to Rocky to young Adonis, the support system endures. And that is the role that sports, and sports cinema, serve. Many of us, brutes and bums and mamas' boys alike, crave validation, but prefer our encouragement couched in violence.