Updated: Friday, December 11, 2015, 1:09 AM
The original Rocky movie arrived in 1976, just as Philadelphia was hitting bottom, and it unfolded against a background of shuttered factories and ravaged neighborhoods. Working-class men, suddenly rendered unnecessary, were shown huddling around trash-can fires. The club fighter Rocky, who earns a living as a loan shark's enforcer, serves as the personification of the broken-down city, an underdog with nothing to lose.
Forty years have passed and Philadelphia is in the midst of its own Rocky-like comeback. Yet the newest movie in the series, Creed, leaves you with the impression that the city is still a dysfunctional, hard-luck place.
Shot in shades of blue, in the chill of winter, the film shows us the city through the murky shadows of the Market-Frankford El. It's a world still defined by the gap-tooth blocks and deserted streets where feral teens pop wheelies on dirt bikes. We never once see those $500,000 townhouses that have muscled into Rocky's old haunts in South Philadelphia and South Kensington.
Sure, director Ryan Coogler includes some glamour shots to update the moment. We get the obligatory pan of the Center City skyline and a bird's-eye view of the new Schuylkill boardwalk, where the second-generation hero, Adonis Johnson, does pull-ups on a pergola. But whenever the camera is on the ground, it's still 1976.
Yo, Rocky, don't you know the city has changed?
What's frustrating is that the film almost captures something new about Philadelphia. Though the story is essentially an act-by-act remake of the original, Coogler cleverly turns the Rocky franchise on its head by making the main character a college-educated black man. But that twist would have been more subversive - and made the diagrammatic film more interesting - if Johnson actually engaged with the contradictions of the new Philadelphia.
Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), like Rocky before him, is a young man searching for redemption. The illegitimate son of heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, who died in the ring, he was raised in a Los Angeles mansion by Creed's widow. Johnson is a rising star in a financial-services firm when he throws it all away (implausibly, it goes without saying) to become a contender. He moves to Philadelphia to seek the wisdom of the great boxing sage Rocky Balboa.
Driving in from the airport, Johnson is struck by the barracks-like public housing along the Schuylkill Expressway, and the murals that are meant to pass as a public improvement. He installs himself in an apartment in an emerging neighborhood and soon takes up with Bianca, a singer who is playing opening acts at Johnny Brenda's and the Electric Factory, and hoping to make it to the big-time.
Never mind the ritualized boxing-movie tropes. What's Creed, if not the story of two educated millennials who come to the big city to fulfill their creative dreams? Adonis and Bianca are young, gifted, and much like thousands of others who are remaking Philadelphia right now.
We almost never see the world that their diverse, multiethnic generation inhabits, other than those moments when the camera speeds past a hot spot such as the Green Eggs Cafe on Dickinson Street.
Instead, the movie spends most of its time in neighborhoods that appear untouched by the rowhouse boom. Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, who has assumed Burgess Meredith's role as the philosophy-spouting boxing trainer, basically ferries Johnson between his unrenovated South Philly rowhouse and a grotty gym hidden behind a steel door in an unmarked building. We see the corner boys, updated for the times with their ATVs, lingering outside, presumably skipping school.
Those scenes telegraph the hopelessness and entrenched poverty that is still with us in today's Philadelphia. Jake Blumgart, a Philadelphia writer, praised Creed in an article in Slate for its honest portrayal of the city's poverty.
I can't, though. Not because poverty isn't an urgent issue here, but because it's not all that Philadelphia is. If we continue to see ourselves as we were in the 1970s, we'll keep making policies based on that self-image and borne out of desperation. It's one reason the "any development is good development" crowd still dominates the conversation.
In its zeal to replicate the look and atmosphere of the original Rocky locations, the film glosses over other changes, like Philadelphia's shifting demographics. The Italian Market where Johnson reprises Rocky's jog is really the Mexican Market. It's odd that Johnson, who fought a few fights in Mexico, encounters no Latinos in Philadelphia. They're the ones dominating boxing rings these days.
Creed features several local boxing spots, including Shuler Gym in West Philadelphia and Front Street Gym in Kensington, but they're portrayed through an old lens. The tough, up-from-the-street guys still rule. But step into a boxing gym today and you'll find all sorts of people: women, practitioners of mixed martial arts, and people who box simply for "health and wellness," gym owner Joe Hand Jr. told me. His Northern Liberties facility has installed computer terminals so kids can do homework before working out. He also holds free classes for women, called "Float Like a Butterfly," after the famous Muhammad Ali phrase.
In one throwback moment in Creed, Rocky goes to the cemetery where his wife, Adrian, and his brother-in-law Paulie are buried. I had the sense that it isn't just the two of them he's mourning, but the passing of Philadelphia's working class and their tight-knit, if insular, neighborhoods, built around the church, the school, and the factory. At least the rowhouse boom has helped to salvage some of those places.
If the aging Rocky ever notices that Philadelphia is a different place than it was in his boxing days, he's not eager to share the news with Johnson. In a final scene, he leads the young boxer up the Art Museum steps. The camera's gaze falls briefly on the iceberg of the Cira Centre. Rocky, however, appears oblivious to the presence of the modern skyscraper, and instead directs Johnson to focus on the familiar Parkway.
Maybe if Johnson stays in Philadelphia, he'll discover the city is a rich and varied place that has much more to offer. Let's wait for the sequel.