THE OSCAR NOMINEE AND ACTION MOVIE LEGEND, ON ROCKY CONFRONTING HIS PAST IN CREED II THIS TIME HELPING A YOUNG BOXER FIGHT THE SON OF AN OLD ENEMY AND WHY THE GREATEST CINEMATIC SPORTS HERO ENDURES

BY JOEL KELLER

Forty two years ago, Sylvester Stallone was a 30 year old actor who had more or less played “the mugger,” as he’s often referred to his former cinematic self. He played “Subway Thug #1” in Woody Allen’s 1971 classic Bananas, robbed Jack Lemmon in 1975’s The Prisoner of Second Avenue, and played thug Stanley Rosiello in the 1974 film The Lords of Flatbush and the most dynamic role he had taken to that point was the brutish Machine Gun Joe in Roger Corman’s 1975 cult classic, Death Race 2000.

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But Stallone was also a screenwriter, and decided to create a movie that, as he told Deadline in 2015, was “about a guy…who wasn’t that smart, but he had heart. Man, I just started writing and writing, and I came up with this idea in about three and a half days.” He was inspired in part by Chuck Wepner, “The Bayonne Bleeder,” who had gone 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in a 1975 title fight, even though he was a tremendous underdog. It was through these influences that Rocky Balboa was born. Stallone insisted that he play the fighter himself, although there were better, more handsome, more famous young actors out there who would have jumped at the part. “At that time, it was the apex of very physical actors. You had Ryan O’Neal, who loved boxing,” he told Deadline. “Then you had Burt Reynolds, who was a real good college football player. Another tough guy, Jimmy Caan, [liked the Rocky role], and you had Nick Nolte. All these guys were prime suspects to play the character, and they’d all probably have done it very well. It was a miracle that it happened the way it did.”

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Despite being offered a six figure payout to give up the part, Stallone stuck to his guns, even though he was so broke he had to sell his dog. Rocky became a surprise hit in November of 1976; the film, made for just over $1 million, grossed $117 million ($500 million in 2018 dollars) in the U.S. alone. Stallone was nominated for Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay (the only other people who managed to achieve that in the same year were Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin). The movie also won Best Picture, up against Network, All The President’s Men, and Taxi Driver.

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Rocky became Stallone’s signature role. He’s played the down on his luck boxer in eight different movies in all, including the had Nick Nolte. All these guys were prime suspects to play the character, and they’d all probably have done it very well. It was a miracle that it happened the way it did.”

Despite being offered a six figure payout to give up the part, Stallone stuck to his guns, even though he was so broke he had to sell his dog. Rocky became a surprise hit in November of 1976; the film, made for just over $1 million, grossed $117 million ($500 million in 2018 dollars) in the U.S. alone. Stallone was nominated for Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay (the only other people who managed to achieve that in the same year were Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin). The movie also won Best Picture, up against Network, All The President’s Men, and Taxi Driver.

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Rocky became Stallone’s signature role. He’s played the down on his luck boxer in eight different movies in all, including the Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios’ Creed II, scheduled for a November 21 release and the sequel to Ryan Coogler’s 2015 Oscar nominated movie Creed, in which Stallone played an older Rocky training Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of Rocky’s old frenemy Apollo Creed, as he rises through the pro boxing ranks.

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Another young director, Steven Caple, Jr., takes over from Coogler for the sequel. This time around, he prepares Adonis to fight Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the son of Ivan Drago, the Soviet super boxer who killed Creed in the ring in 1985’s Rocky IV. Dolph Lundgren reprises his role as Ivan, who is training his son to be the same killing machine he was. Stallone co wrote the screenplay for the sequel, which dips more into the Rocky franchise than the original Creed did.

“Essentially, Rocky’s past has caught up to him,” explained Stallone in an MGM interview. “And Adonis is drawn into it, because the darkest moment in Rocky’s life is when Apollo Creed basically substituted for him [in a fight with Ivan Drago], and died. So now, this young fighter feels as if he should avenge his father. And I’m going, ‘My God, this is sort of Shakespearean… the sins of the father’ and so forth, and thought it would be an interesting melding of two generations. The old audience gets it, and the new audience is in for a new experience, because this young fighter, Florian, who plays Drago’s son, is quite a specimen.”

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Asked to further expand upon storyline synergies between the 1985 film and Creed II, Stallone explained that a necessity for both was casting for emotional energy as well as physicality.
“It’s very hard to get the whole package, he said. “Dolph was unique, he was good looking, fantastic body, and also, he could fight [Lundgren attained the rank of 3rd dan black belt in Kyokushin, a style of stand up, full contact karate]. Florian’s the same way, he actually knows how to fight for real [Munteanu is a professional heavyweight boxer], plus he’s incredibly large and muscular [laughs].”

The original Creed revived not only Stallone’s acting career, garnering him a Golden Globe as well as a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but it also reminded moviego ers and critics that Stallone was more than the often parody version of himself that had developed over the intervening decades. By the time the ’80s rolled around, it felt like the Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan born star was just playing tough hero roles in which he could slur his speech and flex muscles. If he got to yell while shooting a machine gun, as he did during Rambo movies, all the better. He found his biggest box office success in the 21st century in The Expendables series, the first of which he directed, and all of which he co wrote. Even now, at 72, he can’t let action movies go completely; he’s in the process of filming what’s supposed to be John Rambo’s “final adventure” in Rambo V.

Creed II, the star opined while full of thrills, to be sure also plays out in markedly more thoughtful passages than were afforded to middle era Rocky films. “Ivan Drago, for example, represents unfulfilled dreams,” said Stallone. “I think a lot of people are crushed glories…people who feel that they had a moment and it went poorly, and they imploded. So now he’s blaming his entire self destruction the fact that he’s banned from Russia and his wife left him, his family left him on me rather than accept responsibility. And he’s basically instilled in his son nothing but hatred and revenge, distorted this whole kid’s outlook on life.”

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Stallone explained, however, that there’s more than one character in the script who needs to seek redemption.

“Rocky doesn’t want Adonis to fight this young Drago, because he’s afraid that history is going to repeat itself. He’s lived this horrible tragedy and now the nightmare is coming back. He has to rescue this kid, because he’s going down this dark hole, and even though he doesn’t want him to fight, knows that he has to at least make an attempt to redeem himself.”

The actor pondered a moment, as if aware that spoilers might be produced along with any further details, then explored Balboa’s lifetime arc as at once extraordinary and common.

“Everyone wants to leave some footprints on the canvas of life,” he said, “and they don’t have to be big ones. Everyone doesn’t have to be a world champion, but you give it your best. That’s the Rocky philosophy; he never expected to be a champion. He just wanted to go to the distance, and have a little dignity.”

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The new year will bring no fewer than five films for Stallone, including Escape Plan 3: Devil’s Station, The Expendables 4, Tough as They Come, and the Rambo V production, in which the dependably outraged Vietnam War veteran and his “Heartstopper” knife square off against a Mexican drug cartel.

Guess who wins?