“If I fight, you fight”: Sly Stallone and the aged action star’s triumphant submission in Creed

Curator's Note

The training montage is a genre staple of the boxing film. It conventionally includes the labored transformation or building of the ‘underdog’ challenger’s body intercut with shots of the already-built body of the champion he seeks to defeat. It is particularly associated with Sylvester Stallone’s hypermasculine star image, defined by hyperbolic spectacle and ‘hard bodied’ muscularity (see Tasker 1993; Jeffords 1994), and his most iconic character, Rocky Balboa.

The training montage in Creed (Coogler 2015), the critically acclaimed seventh installment in the Rocky series, showcases Ryan Coogler’s abiding and resonant interest in the lives of young black men, as the illegitimate son of Rocky’s great friend and rival, Apollo Creed, strives to ‘become’ Adonis Creed (formerly Johnson) under Rocky’s tutelage. Coogler adds a third dimension to this genre trope, incorporating Rocky’s reluctant treatment for cancer, as the older man learns to fight again at the insistent behest of the younger black man: “If I fight, you fight”. Coogler’s homage reflexively mirrors and transforms the first Rocky (Avildsen 1976) through multiple generational and racial interdependences. The fates of sick ‘blue collar’ white man and fatherless young black man, aged 80s action star and energized would-be star, and writer-directors separated by four decades are more than shared; each can only ascend with (the support of) his other.

Stallone’s late career resuscitation, exemplified by the unexpected commercial success of his ‘new’ ‘geri-action’ franchise, The Expendables, cannily if desperately veils and displaces his (and the all-star 80s action collectives he assembles) diminished action capacities and aged ‘hard body’. Yet in the montage, Stallone, whose performance garnered an Oscar nomination, finally shows and admits the frailty of his aged action body – and the genre-star mortality this represents. In so doing, Stallone directly engages persistent vulnerabilities and anxieties as an actor, as a ‘commercial auteur’ (Holmlund 2014), and as an ageing/aged action star. Ironically, in relinquishing authorial control over his star image – Creed is the first of the series Stallone neither writes nor directs – he extends and enshrines its legacy. Unlike Rocky, in Stallone’s submission rather than stubborn resistance, he triumphs… and perhaps even makes us love him again.

Comments

Sean Redmond's picture

the fight

Lovely piece Glen, beautifully explored. I like the way you draw attention to the binaries and fusions here, and how the complexities of Stallone’s star image are replenished and moved forward. I wonder if you have thought about Stallone/Rocky as ‘off-white’ (Diane Negra) and Italian-American, which might complicate/confuse the way he signifies as a star-actor, and the way his role works in dialogue and tension with Donnie? The scene in his restaurant reminds me of the scene in Sal’s pizzeria from Do The Right Thing, and what heroes are allowed to be on the wall…whose fight is being countenanced here?

Glen Donnar's picture

Fights

Thank you Sean, especially for the reminder about ‘Do The Right Thing’.

Negra’s notion of Stallone/Rocky as ‘off-white’ is also valuable because it appropriately complicates Stallone/Rocky/Rambo as American-but-Other. Each is ‘American’ ideologically and aspirationally, but their heritage and place in society is invariably Other, Stallone/Rocky as ‘underdog’ Italian-Americans and Rambo as Native American/German.

As far as Stallone’s star image is concerned, I particularly like the way in which reinvigorating his star image (rather than merely extending it, as ‘The Expendables’ films arguably do) required a kind of submission at the same time as his character must reactivate his famed stubborn resistance.

Amelie Hastie's picture

legacies

What a wonderfully taut and dense post, Glen! You’ve managed to attend to so many rich ideas in this very rich film. I’m particularly drawn to your claim that “in relinquishing authorial control over his star image – *Creed* is the first of the series Stallone neither writes nor directs – he extends and enshrines its legacy.” I agree, too, that the collaboration, both tacit and overt, doesn’t suggest a re-placing of the original figure/author (Rocky/Stallone) with the new character/author, but rather shows an interdependence between them, one that both builds on and redesigns a legacy (a notion that Donny’s mom comments on with the gift of the Johnson/Creed shorts). And indeed, *Creed* builds on other legacies, too, as Sean suggests; I also thought about the “pictures on the wall” scene from Lee’s *Do the Right Thing* when I first saw “Adrian’s” restaurant. This is a film that enlarges not just the Rocky franchise or Stallone’s legacy; it also reveals both the expansiveness of black filmmaking/authorship and the sites that *Creed* reimagines (like the city of Philadelphia).

Glen Donnar's picture

Legacies

Thank you Amelie,

Yes, I am struck by the manner in which Coogler presents these ‘familial’ relationships - as Hannah and Rebecca will examine in more detail - including the maternal one with his adoptive mother. I like the way in which Donnie initially adopts Rocky’s position as he shadow boxes over footage of Rocky’s first fight with Apollo, but how he must again ‘become’ Rocky in his own final fight (also against a more experienced champion with a height and reach advantage) in order to become a Creed - and remain a Johnson.

The way the film reimagines Philadelphia is also fascinating. Rocky’s ascension is so idenitifed with the city, and his struggles equally figured in run-down, blighted neighbourhoods, but Coogler breathes new life into these same sites as (also) African American spaces while simultaneously highlighting their persistent (shared?) struggles and disadvantages.

Amelie Hastie's picture

Beautifully put, Glen! He

Beautifully put, Glen! He learns to fight from his dad in a way by watching the videos, but then takes on his dad as his opponent when he boxes against him. So smart of you to say he must become Rocky to become Creed while still being Johnson. I just love the complexity of this film and its very complicated understanding of shared experience across lines of age, race, and class. But then it manages to allow for the soecificities of age, race, and class to remain in each character as well. And honestly, I think Coogler just kind of takes Philly back as a site of black resistance and perseverance. In that way, it’s a lot like Oakland…

Hannah Hamad's picture

Intergenerationality

Really enjoyed reading your excellent post Glen. I particularly appreciate the attention you pay to the franchise’s new intergenerationality, a theme that was flirted with in the previous entry ‘Rocky Balboa’ but only rises to both narrative and discursive prominence here in ‘Creed’. And that’s just *one* of the richly detailed observations you make here :-)

Glen Donnar's picture

The absence of Rocky’s son,

The absence of Rocky’s son, and the pain evident in Rocky’s unsuccessful attempt to make light/positive of it, suggests that the older man’s decision to work with Donnie is motivated by two levels of guilt: one as Apollo’s trainer and one as a failed father (perhaps necessarily so, given the weight his fame would have represented for his son).

Rebecca Sheehan's picture

Johnson-Creed

This is a great piece Glen, many ideas to tease out. I was going to ask you to expand on your comment that Donnie has to “‘become’ Adonis Creed (formerly Johnson),” and see you have done this in the comments. Your formulation that Donnie has to become Rocky to become a Creed and remain a Johnson is interesting. I wonder here if there are possibilities for teasing this out further. Donnie’s adoptive mom sends him Apollo’s shorts (I’m assuming they were Apollo’s, or are they just the same design as the shorts Apollo died wearing?) for his big fight, with Creed on the front and Johnson on the back. He is so moved by this because they were his father’s shorts, but they also acknowledge his birth mother’s name, and in doing so, where he comes from—and by extension how far he has come.

I wonder too about Sean’s point of Stallone as “off-white.” Reading briefly through the intro to Diane Negra’s book, I agree with her point that white ethnicity comes to the fore when whiteness has lost its punch (my words, not hers). I might argue that Rocky as white ethnic in the 1970s doesn’t figure as “off-white,” but rather as white with some bite. I think that is part of the role of Italian-American anti-heroes in a string of 1970s films—enabling disillusioned white males across class and ethnicity to indulge themselves in some old-school patriarchy. I think the characters from the Godfather and Scarface (where Al Pacino rather than his character is Italian American) still have currency among young males. Rocky becomes whiter still in the 80s as he becomes wealthy, and also when he fights the Russian Drago on behalf of America. His hyphenated identity is basically erased in that film. Perhaps Rocky becomes more off-white as he loses his money, and with the kind of racial ventriloquism he performs by stepping in as Donnie’s father in Creed.

Finally, I’m interested in your point about submission for revival, or regeneration through submission. This overturns what Richard Slotkin identified as the “regeneration through violence” myth. Yet perhaps Creed gets to have it both ways, as Donnie performs that myth through his fight.

Glen Donnar's picture

Thanks Rebecca, so much to

Thanks Rebecca, so much to think about in your response. The film, Donnie and even Rocky (if we think of the cancer as a violence of sorts) certainly find ‘regeneration through violence., as you note. But perhaps the dominant aspect of Stallone’s star image and career has been a tenacious unwillingness to give in or admit defeat, even to the realities of aging and aging action stardom. Yet his stardom has been, more than extended, truly revived by this film and it required that he, first, give up control and, second, acknowledge the vagaries of age and mortality.

I think the shorts represent the three parents Donnie has. They are either commissioned (or altered) by his adoptive mother and include the father he never met and the mother we never meet. They represent the names (and people) that have made him and the names he has to earn and own (and I think he has to also learn to be proud to be a Johnson also, rather than use it to mask his father’s name).

And finally, I love your points about Stallone/Rocky’s whiteness, including how it may shift over time. Your observation on the continued currency of those transgressive, desperate Italian-American iconic characters is compelling, although Coogler’s declared love for the Rocky franchise also productively extends this point. And ‘white, with bite’ (and fight) is definitely a term you should expand on in future!

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