Ryan Coogler, the director of the new "Rocky" spinoff film "Creed," wasn't even born when "Rocky" came out in 1976. For that matter, he wasn't born when "Rocky II," "Rocky III" or "Rocky IV" came out either.
Still, for as long as he can remember, Sylvester Stallone's perennial-underdog boxer Rocky Balboa has always had a special meaning to him — because Rocky has a special meaning to his dad.
"My dad and I were always really close growing up and, since I was really young, he would make me watch 'Rocky' movies," the director, 29, said on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. " 'Rocky II' specifically — that was his favorite movie. If I had a big football game, he'd have me watch 'Rocky II.'"
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A generational baton pass for the much-loved boxing series, "Creed," which opens Wednesday, finds an aging Balboa reluctantly training a rising young fighter named Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his former rival Apollo Creed, even as he battles his own cancer diagnosis. Arriving nearly a decade after the "Rocky" franchise seemed to reach its end with 2006's "Rocky Balboa," the movie has been met with early critical raves and is expected to pack a strong box-office punch, a testament to moviegoers' enduring affection for the Italian Stallion and the indomitable "Eye of the Tiger" spirit he represents.
In a world in which reboots, sequels and spinoffs are typically the product of bottom-line-minded studio groupthink, "Creed" has an unusually personal back story, one befitting a franchise that has always been about heart, determination and beating long odds. And it all comes back to Coogler and his dad.
In 2011, Coogler was finishing film school at USC when his father, Ira, a probation officer, became stricken with a mysterious neurological illness that left him nearly unable to walk. Knowing how much his ailing dad loved the "Rocky" movies, Coogler began mulling over a way to bring back the series as a kind of father-son story, with Rocky serving as the mentor and paternal figure to Apollo Creed's son.
With no pull in Hollywood, Coogler — who had yet to shoot a single frame of what would become his debut feature, the drama "Fruitvale Station" — figured the idea would never get off the ground. "It was almost like fan fiction," he said. Still, he started working on a script with his friend Aaron Covington and eventually scored a meeting with Stallone at the actor's office.
The "Rocky" star didn't exactly jump at the idea. "I could tell Sly was like, 'This kid is out of his mind,'" Coogler said. "But I was like, 'It's all good. At least I got a picture with him that I can show my dad.'" (Coogler's father was found to be suffering from a severe vitamin deficiency and is doing much better.)
Stallone, who had written all six films in the "Rocky" series and directed four of them, had a hard time wrapping his head around Coogler's out-of-left-field pitch. "I always found — maybe it's a component of human nature — that when a radical idea presents itself, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is to reject it," said the actor, who is 69.
That's not to say Stallone couldn't appreciate where Coogler was coming from. He had been a virtual unknown before being launched to worldwide fame as Rocky Balboa. "It was almost like looking at me when I was pitching 'Rocky,'" Stallone said. " 'What have you done?' 'Well, I was the fourth lead in "The Lords of Flatbush." You might have heard of it — we did $200 at the box office.'"
'A leap of faith'
Over the years, Stallone had occasionally toyed with the idea of reprising the Rocky character but never in the context of another boxing movie.
"I thought that if Rocky ever did anything again, it would be almost shades of Elia Kazan's 'A Face in the Crowd,' where he gets involved in low-level politics by accident," the actor said. "A fire hydrant doesn't work, a streetlamp blows out and he keeps complaining and someone goes, 'If you think it's so easy, why don't you run for government and get it fixed?' I thought that would be an interesting arena. But the fight game? No."
Then in 2013, Stallone saw "Fruitvale Station," which starred Jordan and premiered to critical acclaim at that year's Sundance Film Festival, and began to reconsider Coogler's idea. With some trepidation — Rocky, after all, is his baby, the thing he's known best for in his career — he agreed to sign on to "Creed." "It was a leap of faith," he said. "What Ryan was taking on was quite a lot for his second time out. You're going against a tsunami of skepticism."
Indeed, as the popularity of boxing has waned over the decades, some may wonder whether the nearly 40-year-old franchise has the resonance it once did. But Jonathan Glickman, president of the motion picture group at MGM, which oversaw the production of "Creed," was willing to bet that the "Rocky" series still connected with younger audiences. (Warner Bros. is handling worldwide distribution of the $35-million MGM/New Line film.")
"How confident were we? Pretty confident," Glickman said. "The cultural impact of the 'Rocky' franchise is felt all the time. My kids played 'Eye of the Tiger' in their assembly when they were in the school band. You hear 'a Rocky story' referenced constantly if you watch sports. It's so huge I don't think anyone could really miss it."
"I was born in 1986, and 'Rocky' was always around," Coogler said. "There were these things that existed for us as millennials, like 'Star Wars.' 'Rocky' was like 'Star Wars' for the underdog, like 'Star Wars' for the street."
Though some of the later "Rocky" films had grown a bit cartoonish, with "Creed," Coogler was intent on returning the franchise to the gritty, character-driven feel of the original 1976 film, which won the Oscar for best picture. Unlike so many zero-to-hero sports movies since, "Rocky" had ended on a surprisingly bittersweet note, with Balboa losing his title bout to Creed but proving himself a worthy contender. "That ending is complex — it's not A or B," Coogler said. "It's something in between, which is how life is. That's what makes it so beautiful."
Balancing nostalgia with a contemporary aesthetic, Coogler set "Creed" in Rocky's hometown of Philadelphia and infused the soundtrack with hip-hop tracks. " 'Rocky' has a major place in hip-hop culture," Coogler said. "There's a famous [Puff Daddy] song that came out when I was young called 'Victory' that uses 'Going the Distance' from the 'Rocky' soundtrack, and Biggie [Smalls] raps over that beat like it was meant to be rapped over."
Jordan, for his part, had always been aware of the "Rocky" franchise but dove into it in earnest only when he began preparing for "Creed." "It was cool to take on this character with such deep roots," he said.
From his first meeting with Stallone, the older actor began showing Jordan the ropes, not unlike Rocky with the young Creed.
"We were talking about famous boxers and historical boxing fights," said Jordan, 28, who underwent a grueling program of training and diet to get in shape for the film. "Sly was showing me how to deliver an on-screen punch and he hit me in the chest kind of hard." He laughed. "He's still in shape."
As a die-hard "Rocky" fan, Coogler sprinkled "Creed" with loving homages to the earlier films, but nothing could replace having Stallone on the set. "He's got this wealth of knowledge because he's played this character for decades," Coogler said. "I remember in the script I had Rocky wake Adonis up with water. Sly was like, 'I don't think Rocky would do that.' I said, 'So how would Rocky wake Adonis up?' He said, 'He'd probably play him old records.' So I went back and rewrote that scene and it became something great."
With Oscar prognosticators speculating that he could land a supporting actor nomination for his understated performance, Stallone is basking in Rocky's unexpected resurrection. And should "Creed" spawn a new franchise, he says he'll be there, perhaps not slugging it out in the ring, but in the corner, lending his hard-earned wisdom.
"Rocky's story is a fait accompli but Creed's journey is just beginning," Stallone said. "Is he going to make the same mistakes I did? To be part of that is pretty interesting because it opens up different things that never were presented before." He gave a lopsided grin. "So, yes, Rocky would like to keep punching."