In the new movie Creed, Rocky Balboa once again mounts the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In the original Rocky, the climb up those stairs was the climax of a training montage that has since become iconic. With the gladiatorial horns and sweeping strings of Bill Conti’s soundtrack pumping full out behind him, Rocky takes those stairs at a celebratory run, dancing and shadow boxing when he reaches the top.
But that was 39 years ago.
In Creed, Rocky walks. He needs help. He has to take a breather. It is a soulful juxtaposition to his run up those same stairs when he was young, a moment of almost unbearable tenderness that reminds you just how long — and how short — is 39 years.
I occasionally find myself wishing I could see Rocky again for the first time. I wish I could experience again that first surge of Wow! and can do! that came when Rocky Balboa, this unheralded club fighter nobody ever heard of, tagged preening champion Apollo Creed with an up-from-nowhere left that dropped him like an ex-boyfriend. People in the theater were yanked to their feet, cheering. I was one of them.
It is axiomatic that there are moments when art imitates life. But there are also moments, rare though they are, when art impinges life, when it affects you and you find yourself different after the experience than you were before. Rocky was one of those moments for me.
It was a battle cry for underdogs, losers, misfits, a Bronx cheer to conventional wisdom and long odds. It was a reminder the secret of success is ultimately pretty simple: Get knocked down, but keep getting up.
Creed is all those things, too. But it is also, subtly, something more: a reminder, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, to “rage against the dying of the light.”
You sometimes hear athletes and TV commentators speak of how Father Time is undefeated — and he is. You need only look at 37-year-old Kobe Bryant struggling through his final season of professional basketball to know how true that is. You need only note how abruptly mediocrity landed on Bryant, the fieriest combination of will and skill this side of Michael Jordan, to understand that time is a thief.
Yes, it steals your legs and stamina, your quickness and strength. But that’s just physicality. Time takes more. It takes the places you used to go and things you you used to do. It takes memory. It takes loved ones. Eventually, it takes you.
Life — and Creed — are about how you respond as time does those things. When Rocky was released, writer and star Sylvester Stallone was 30 years old. Almost 40 years later, Creed finds Stallone’s signature character aged, ailing and alone. Adrian, the wife who loved him, Mickey, the manager who trained him, Apollo, the opponent who befriended him, Paulie, the brother-in-law who exasperated him, all are gone.
And on some level, Rocky is simply marking time until he joins them. Enter Adonis Johnson, the out-of-wedlock son of his old opponent. Unheralded like Rocky was, underdog like Rocky was, fighting for respect as Rocky did, he cajoles the old pug into training him. In the process, he also cajoles him back into life.
It’s not simply that Rocky finds a surrogate son or even renewed purpose in readying Adonis for the ring. Rather, it’s that he rediscovers the thing that made him, him.
So much of what time steals, we have no choice about. Your legs are going to go, your loves are going to go, whether you acquiesce to it or not. But to watch Rocky struggle up those steps he once conquered by leaps and bounds is to know that the thing inside that makes you get up from every knockdown is different. Its loss is not predetermined by age. Rather, it’s a choice. You decide to let time take that thing away from you.