My mother took me to see “Rocky.” I was 8 years old and it was a big deal to see a PG movie. She took me and my best friend, Richard Lewis, to our small, cramped theater in Manchester, Vermont. I had no concept of the story, but Richard and I ran out of the theater on a high, throwing punches and jumping up in the air.
From that moment on, Rocky Balboa was a large influence in my life. I got a gray sweatsuit, an Everlast boxing bag and listened time and again to Bill Conti’s motivational score. I found the fictional pugilist heroic and inspirational, and invested time and energy into Sylvester Stallone’s entire career. The character of Rocky Balboa has been with me through 42 of the 50 years of my life, which is staggering. Sure, it turned campy and “Rocky V” was downright bad. But the others all had redeeming and enjoyable qualities — and the surprisingly effective “Creed” in 2015 introduced the new character of Adonis Creed and featured Stallone’s best performance in years. Audiences and critics responded favorably, as it grossed nearly $175 million on a budget of around $40 million.
The characters return later this month with “Creed II” (opening Nov. 21), and it lines up well with the resurgence of boxing that we’ve seen over the last two years. I recently caught up with the series’ producer, Irwin Winkler, one of the most successful movie minds of the last 40 years, about the longevity of the franchise he helped create.
“I had doubts about doing ‘Rocky Balboa’ because ‘Rocky V’ did not do well — it wasn’t fresh or innovative. We wanted to pack it in,” Winkler said. “But Sly wrote this script, ‘Rocky Balboa,’ and said, ‘Let’s do this, it’s the last one.’ His script was really, really good and we had to peddle it around, because we couldn’t get anybody to finance it, believe it or not, until MGM ultimately took it over.”
The 2006 film grossed $156 million and Winkler felt the character study was complete. But “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler aggressively pursued Winkler and convinced him to continue the storyline with a fresh spinoff focusing on Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, Adonis. “It struck me that he came from a world that was very different from mine, and he was coming from a place that would give the ‘Rocky’ franchise a whole new attitude and a whole new look — generational, racial and motivational. I liked the idea a lot. So did Sly. And we decided to go ahead and it worked very, very well.”
The ‘Rocky’ character … was always interesting. With Michael B. Jordan, we found a terrifically interesting character in ‘Creed’ and are following him.
I told Winkler I was very surprised how good “Creed” was, and he quickly responded, “It was good. Quality comes through. It was a good script and the performances were great.” But again, he wasn’t sold on a sequel. “Sly came up with the idea. I don’t know if you can call it a sequel. It’s more of a continuation, where Creed has really accepted his position as a boxer, but he’s still not a champion. It’s so much about relationships, parents and children.”
There is the return of Ivan Drago, seeking redemption from “Rocky IV,” and the introduction of his son Victor. There’s the story of Adonis and his mother, father Apollo, and his new daughter, and even Balboa and his estranged son. Winkler is proud of “Creed II” and credits 30-year-old director Steven Caple Jr.: “It’s as good as any other movie in the whole ‘Rocky’ franchise.”
Can the franchise continue? “As long as we can come up with good characters,” he said. “The ‘Rocky’ character Sly developed and played was always interesting. With Michael B. Jordan, we found a terrifically interesting character in ‘Creed’ and are following him. As long as we can keep the characters interesting and innovative, we’ll keep the audience interested.”
With global grosses of $1.4 billion for the seven-film series, “Rocky” is a long way from the raw days shooting on the streets of Philadelphia in 1976. “We had no money,” Winkler recalled. “There were a lot of actors that we wanted that turned us down because we couldn’t pay them. We chose Burgess Meredith for Mickey because he was willing to work for nothing. And we chose Bill Conti for the music because he was the cheapest guy around.” In pre-production, Winkler said, “We thought it was a nice little movie, nothing special.” Asked if he had any idea “Rocky” would become a global sensation, or influence an entire generation, he laughed: “I didn’t think we’d be making a ‘Rocky II.’ And here we are, still going 40 years later.”
Winkler is not alone. Count me, and certainly my mother, just as surprised that we are still following the underdog saga of Rocky Balboa.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.