Will Michael B. Jordan Learn the Lessons of Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley?

Movies Features Michael B. Jordan
Will Michael B. Jordan Learn the Lessons of Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley?

Though his career has been beset with more bombs than many of his battle-weary characters, Sylvester Stallone has nonetheless achieved a rare and surprising feat of box office strength: He has starred in $100 million-plus global grossers in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s, ‘00s and ’10s. Stallone could be forgiven, then, for feeling as if not appearing in the recent Creed IIIalready nearly the biggest entry yet of this series spun off from Stallone’s Rocky saga–has cost him a shot at the same for the 2020s. (It’s all up to you now, Expendables 4.) Within the movie itself, there’s a particular moment late in Creed III involving a funeral where Rocky’s presence would have made sense, and it seems like the main reason Stallone doesn’t make a cameo is his ongoing feud over the rights to the Rocky characters (which he does not own) with producer Irwin Winkler (who does own the characters and, in Stallone’s view, is hoarding those rights in order to pass them on to his children).

Thematically, though, it makes sense that Stallone isn’t in Creed III; after beautifully returning to the Rocky Balboa role for a deservedly Oscar-nominated turn in Creed, his role in Creed II (both onscreen and as an unexpected co-screenwriter) felt a little outsized, a little bit at odds with the story of his foe-turned-friend’s secret son Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) making his own way in the world. Creed III, which takes place in Los Angeles rather than Philadelphia and deals with Creed’s childhood well before he knew Rocky, continues on this track. In doing so, Jordan is very much taking his cues from Stallone: Creed III marks Jordan’s directorial debut, allowing him to shape not just his character’s story, but the way he’s visually presented to the world, just as Stallone did as a writer-director on the second, third, fourth and sixth Rocky movies. (Maybe someday down the line, Jordan and Stallone can patch things up, get together and grouse about Winkler making money off both of them.)

Unlike Jordan, Stallone’s first movie as a director was not within the Rocky franchise. It nonetheless remains, nearly 45 years after its release, a fascinatingly awkward act of self-presentation. 1978’s Paradise Alley is a 1940s-set movie about wrestling, which makes it sound like an amusingly obvious Rocky knockoff–and it’s certainly closer in spirit to the 1976 original than any of its sequels, which did not yet exist back in ’78. But Paradise Alley comes closest to Rocky by offering an unadulterated, inadvisable level of pure, uncut Stallone.

He writes and directs himself as Cosmo, one of three brothers scraping by in Hell’s Kitchen around the end of World War II. Cosmo’s brother Victor (Lee Canalito) is a sweet lummox who shows a talent for wrestling; after much cajoling and bickering (Cosmo’s two basic modes), he commits to the wrestling circuit, with Cosmo handling coaching duties and Lenny (Armand Assante) handling the business end. Lenny changes, and the family threatens to fall in with some shady characters; meanwhile, Cosmo engages in courtships that bring to mind a dispiriting hypothetical: What if Rocky Balboa was just coherent enough to whine to Adrian about getting friendzoned?

If Stallone might be affectionately described as a meatball, Paradise Alley is a meatball sandwich with thick slices of ham for bread. (If this sounds like a cruel description, consider that Victor wrestles under the name of Kid Salami.) It is bad, with some good ingredients. It may be the most purely beautiful movie Stallone has ever directed, with gray skies and New York nighttime shadows captured by gifted cinematographer László Kovács (a longtime collaborator of Peter Bogdanovich who also worked with Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby and Bob Rafelson, among others). The atmosphere is convincing, and if the inarticulate ball-busting banter favored by Stallone’s screenwriting isn’t exactly elegant, it has a certain raffish charm. The movie flounders, though, without the underdog drive of a Rocky Balboa–Stallone’s character is more a Mickey/Paulie combo here, with Victor’s sweet-natured Rocky-ish fighter denied much interiority, and the whole thing feels a bit aimless and diagrammatic rather than deeply felt. Maybe it’s because Universal wound up insisting on a litany of cuts, bringing the movie well under two hours where Stallone had envisioned (and shot) something more expansive. On the other hand, it’s hard to figure out how spending more and more time with these knucklehead characters would tighten or clarify anything on screen.

There’s something self-effacing about Paradise Alley’s aimlessness; it may overestimate the audience’s tolerance for Stallone’s yammering patter, but it’s also not the exercise in autobiographical glorification that would emerge in various forms of his self-directed Rocky sequels, sometimes diminishing the series’ charm in the process. (It’s probably no accident that the pre-Creed follow-up to Rocky most willing to change the series formula is Rocky V, which brought back original director John G. Avildsen.) Having Cosmo work behind the scenes with the wrestlers plays almost like Stallone trying to figure out how to step back and cede the spotlight to other characters. Rocky, of course, came roaring back, and the greatest relief in Jordan’s direction of Creed III is that he keeps that aspect of the movie–Creed as Jordan, Jordan as Creed–under control, though it’s far from invisible. Most obviously, he brings his anime fandom into Creed’s life, both as a character (Donnie’s childhood bedroom sports a prominent anime poster) and as a director, styling that character (the climactic fight is full of anime-influenced visual touches).

It’s the latter where Jordan seems to be finding a more visual, intuitive way of expressing himself through Donnie than Stallone has as a director. It might have been a kick to see a Rocky sequel as stylized and retro as the melodrama of Paradise Alley. Instead, Stallone’s Rocky sequels don’t stake out much visual or atmospheric identity; where Jordan uses anime to heighten and accentuate his character’s psychology alongside his physical prowess, Stallone’s stylizations in something like Rocky IV just turn the movie into a series of gestures toward the spectacle of Stallone’s real-life stardom, all random close-ups–montage in search of a character. In a way, Stallone’s increasingly amped and cartoonish autobiography may have encouraged other stars to be more proactive in remaking their images in front of our eyes. Is this a boxing-picture thing? Jake Gyllenhaal has come across particularly sweaty and desperate for masculine juice in his leading roles after making the middling Southpaw; Jordan himself went from charmer to stoic, vengeful military man in Without Remorse. They’re almost like movies their boxer characters would make if Hollywood came calling. (Doesn’t it almost feel like Rocky Balboa himself directed Rocky III and Rocky IV?)

Likewise, Creed III doesn’t ignore its star’s newfound position in the world. In fact, it spares no luxurious detail as it drinks in Adonis Creed’s position as a wealthy, retired, world-famous boxer with a similarly rich and successful wife. That’s part of the movie’s story, of course, that Creed’s childhood friend Damian (Jonathan Majors) resents the success he sees as purloined from his own destiny–perhaps not unlike Stallone assessing Jordan taking up the Rocky mantle to make the series his signature movie-star franchise? Or perhaps it’s a stretch to imagine Jordan and his writers are thinking that much about Stallone in the first place.

Either way, though Creed III has moments that rival the Rocky sequels in self-aggrandizement, it at least makes the effort to fight new battles; Paradise Alley and Stallone’s sure-thing follow-up Rocky II both, in their own ways, pretend to reshuffle the deck on Rocky before dealing strikingly similar hands. One of the best things about the Creed series is its ability to imagine life after the character that inspired it. The movies don’t need to kill Rocky off to accomplish this; it’s comforting, in fact, that Balboa remains offscreen but not unceremoniously dispatched for this installment. Rocky is technically offscreen in Paradise Alley, but memory of him lingers as the movie shadow-boxes with itself. As much as Creed III is a directorial debut that colors within franchise lines, its real promise isn’t so much for Creed IV as for what Jordan might make next, and whether he can force himself to make it outside of the ring.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

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