What’s it say about me that my two favorite films of 2015 are sequels to movies from 1976 and 1977?
Obviousness aside, The Force Awakens, the long-awaited next installment in the Star Wars franchise, and Creed, the next Rocky movie nobody was clamoring for, would seem, on the surface, to have little in common, aside from the fact that I thought they were the year’s best, “best” being a relative term, meaning the ones I liked best, so, really, who gives a shit? I only know, leaving the theater produced furtive little feelings, euphoria and joy, I didn’t get following any other movie. Despite one film being a intergalactic space opera and the other a boxing movie, the two films share remarkable similarities. And since it’s the end of the year, all lists are arbitrary, and everyone loves fucking lists, here is a fucking arbitrary list because I need something to write about.
Since (inadvertently) ruining the ending of Breaking Bad (sorry, Kevin), I am a hyper-sensative about spoilers, forcing me to go a little more abstract than I’d like with a movie review, but not being a dick is important.
The Story Began 40 Years Ago / Seven Is a Lucky Number
Which is insane if you think about it. That is forty long winters, my friend. Part of the appeal of Rocky and Star Wars is in their familiarity. The tropes, Joe Campbell, power of myth, hero with a thousand faces, that kind of shit. Even before all the analysis, Rocky and Star Wars were already cultural phenomena. Although Rocky’s story has always been rather predictable. Such is life with only a win/lost/death outcome. There’s not a person … of a certain age … who doesn’t recall the big bang produced a long time ago by a galaxy far, far away. It was the movie everyone saw in 1977. Not unlike The Force Awakens, number 7 in the series, this year. Creed, the latest Rocky, is also number 7. Which probably has next to do with nothing except when you do a shit-ton of speed, you develop this weird affinity for coincidence and numbers that don’t exactly go away. Same as pervy sex stuff. Don’t do speed; it’s a bad drug. Still. it is a little weird that something so fundamentally appealing could’ve been planted in the mid-70s, enough that studios are willing to shell out billions to churn out sequels (although I am guessing Creed was less of a risk). Rocky was never intended to be a serial character like James Bond, and the world of Star Wars, well, who can explain the appeal of a giant shaggy dog man and James Earl Jones’ voice behind a black mask?
Both Pay Tribute While Reinventing the Saga
When I planned on writing this post, I was going to choose which movie was better. Though I loved both, only one gave me that punch to the gut when I walked out the first time, Creed. (I’m a frustrated boxer at heart). But there were extenuating circumstances. I saw the movie alone, after visiting my pain management doctor (yes, my bones are still disintegrating), with lower expectations.
There were like 10 people in the entire tiny theater. Quite a different experience from when I saw The Force Awakens. For that, we had to buy tickets months in advance, camping out early like a rock show, to get good seats. When I left TFA I was more shellshocked than anything. As I wrote last week, I had waited 33 years for that movie. It was too much! A little like when you want a girl so bad and you finally get her and it’s over in 38 seconds. I couldn’t really focus or enjoy anything (I am a huge Star Wars guy). But I went and saw it again on Christmas Day. This time, I could relax, see the movie for a movie. The little things that bugged me the first time (sticking too close to the original) were softened, and the new things being said, more pronounced.
Creed is the story of Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of former champ Apollo, Rocky’s first opponent from 1976. Here “Donny” seeks out Rocky to train him. Simple enough premise. We’ll get to why the filmmaker and star deliver such a knockout shortly. And unless you live under and rock and/or are one of these people who “don’t own a TV,” you know the deal with the new Star Wars. But like Creed, here the baton has been handed off to a new generation. In both cases, there is an appeal to the past with a nod to the future (we can expect more Creed-based films. Though thankfully not more music. Because the band sucks).
Passing the Baton by Tapping into What Made Franchise Great (by Passing the Baton) Pt. I
Star Wars nearly died following the dreadful prequels. Given our penchant for all or nothing in the Star Wars world, it’s easy to get sucked into overselling how bad the prequels are. But, no, they really are that bad. I love to take contrarian positions. I thought The Dark Knight Rises was the best in the trilogy, thought True Detective Season 2 was better than 1. But I can’t defend the prequels. They are just awful (although they could’ve been saved with some good editing). Watching Force Awakens, you are reminded just how bad because TFA gets it so right. It’s amazing that someone like George Lucas could create something so special to so many, and yet still have no fucking idea what made it so great. Thank God for Disney. TFA is great because George is gone, and the franchise is now in the right hands: namely, that of the fans.
Sylvester Stallone isn’t quite as culpable. Stallone has always been an odd artist, responsible for so much crab. I can’t begin to list all the Stop or My Mom Will Shoot offenses. Yet … the man gave us Rocky, which might just be the most American story every told. While the Star Wars universe is never-ending, Rocky is just the one story: a man rises from nobody to take a beating and show he has the heart of a champion. (Maybe it’s wishful thinking.) How many times can you tell that story in an original, refreshing way? Well, really just the one. And then there was Rocky II, III, IV, V, and VI (although it was called Rocky Balboa, technically.) I loved Rocky III as a kid. But it’s not a good movie. IV is comic book Cold War propaganda, and V is just fucking awful. Unlike George Lucas, Stallone still knows what makes Rocky great; he simply fell victim to flogging dead horses. Surprisingly Rocky Balboa (Rocky VI) is a damn good movie, so much so that I dreaded when I heard they were making Creed. RB was a great note to go out on. But Creed is, well, way better.
Passing the Baton by Tapping into What Made Franchise Great (by Passing the Baton) Pt. II
Having the men who started it all relinquish control proved paramount to both these films’ success. George simply had to go or Force Awakens doesn’t get done. Or rather it gets done but we get more racist lizard men and dancing teddy bears. Creed offers a more compelling narrative. The movie needs Stallone–no one else can play Rocky–but by not writing, not directing, not starring (Stallone is a supporting actor in this one), we get a fresher retelling, and maybe by not shouldering the entire burden Stallone was freed up to actually act; this is his best performance since probably Copland. Both Force Awakens and Creed draw from the same nostalgic well, but of the two Creed feels more original. Although if you break down each film, Creed is even more of a Rocky remake than FA is a Star Wars retelling.
It’s hard to discuss movies without spoiling. But it’s easier with Creed because there is only one boxing story. The only outcome in question: does he win the big fight or lose the big fight (thus winning by losing)? That’s it. There’s the Raging Bull biopic but that’s a totally different animal. It’s all about the journey getting there. Ryan Cooglar (Fruitvale Station) was just the man to drive this bus. He tapped into what made the original Rocky so fucking good, stripping away the bloat and cheese that made such a mess of the middle in the series. For his part, JJ Abrams had both the easier and harder job. The latter because TFA was the first in what is slated to be a bazillion-dollar franchise. Fuck this up, you are not working in Hollywood anytime soon. But by this point I think most Star Wars fans would be able to make a good Star Wars movie. Like the Summer of George, just do the opposite of Lucas. Orphan fulfilling destiny, call/refusal, journey, devastating event, overcoming in climactic finale, check. No holding anyone like they used to “by the Lake on Naboo.”