Starring- Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Tony Bellew, Ritchie Coster
Director- Ryan Coogler
PG-13- violence, language and some sensuality
It’s strange that it took twenty years and a half-dozen movies for Rocky sequels to start feeling vital, but it’s a trend that I hope continues. Sylvester Stallone said he was done with the character after Rocky Balboa, and for once, I’m glad that someone talked him out of it. Creed is a good, old-fashioned sports movie and the ideal way to send off one franchise and kick off another.
When he was a child, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) — everyone calls him Donnie, for obvious reasons — was kicked around from juvie to foster homes and back again. His father died before he was born, and his mother did the same not too long afterward. He’s in detention again when Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) finds him and tells him the truth — he’s actually the son of her late husband, the famous boxer Apollo Creed. She takes him in, and he spends the remainder of his childhood and young adulthood in privilege.
But he is his father’s son, and all he wants in this world is to be a champion boxer. However, his adoptive mother doesn’t approve, and his peers reject him as an untalented silver-spoon kid chasing a random whim. So, he decides to start from the bottom. He drops the Creed name, moves to Philadelphia, and begins searching for a trainer, eventually finding one in his father’s old friend and rival: Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
I’ve had faith in this project since it was first announced, and I’m happy to have been vindicated. For most people, it seemed as though the movie came out of nowhere, barely marketed itself as a Rocky movie, and was just more unnecessary Hollywood franchising. But Ryan Coogler’s involvement had me interested from the beginning. Fruitvale Station seemed like the sort of debut that marked its director as someone who was here to stay. However, the pleasant surprise of Creed is not only that Coogler delivers but that almost everyone else does, too.
Creed lets us see a bit more of what Coogler can do behind the camera, mainly showing us that he can work in other styles than the intimate, handheld indie cinema of Fruitvale Station — including, possibly, blockbuster action. Creed has some of the best, most dynamic fight scenes of any boxing movie in recent memory. I’ve seen a lot of films centered on boxing, mixed martial arts, wrestling, and similar activities, and the direction often goes weird when the characters get in the ring. I think it’s because such events are televised blow-for-blow in reality, and it’s difficult to move past our ingrained perception of how they ought to be shot — the same reason scenes where pastors are giving a sermon so often look like televangelism.
Fortunately, Coogler finds the right way into the boxing sequences and, most importantly, doesn’t over-direct them. Even though what’s happening in the ring is fast and fierce, his direction is gentle and patient. It’s reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s approach to weightless space perils in Gravity — Coogler uses comparatively long, slow takes. He anchors the shot to a character, and he directs the combatants to move in such a way as to guide the camera. It slides gracefully in and out of the action, which allows it to budget its quick zooms and close-ups for the truly brutal punches. The end result is action that’s clear and easy to follow and only heightens the fury on the screen. There’s weight and motion behind every punch thrown, and you feel each one. Usually, when boxing or MMA movies get PG-13 ratings, I roll my eyes at how sensitive the MPAA has gotten, but Creed actually earns that. It gets up close and personal and truly identifies you with the physical pain of the characters in the ring.
Fruitvale Station gave us hope, but Creed makes us believe that Ryan Coogler is a talent to watch.
However, filmmaking is a collaborative art form, and Coogler isn’t the be all and end all. He gets support from a great cast — or rather, a pair of great leads.
Michael B. Jordan is a name that remains somewhat new to the public at large, but to obsessive cinephiles like me, he’s already arrived. It isn’t surprising that he’s a charismatic, likable lead; he’s done it a handful of times already. Adonis Creed is a character who could easily lead his own series, provided the story is there. (Admittedly, I’m not sure I want sequels to this — for starters, I don’t know where Donnie goes from here as a character; more importantly, there are appropriate ambiguities in this movie that future sequels would have to resolve one way or another, and I don’t want them to. Still, when they arrive, I will be open-minded.)
Stallone’s the one who will — pardon the pun — knock you out, delivering one of his best performances and reminding you why society collectively fell in love with Rocky Balboa all those years ago. It’s a performance so effortless and powerful that it becomes baffling — is this just the part Stallone was born to play or something? He’s spent the overwhelming majority of his career in dumb parts that are sometimes in good movies and oftentimes not and doing…fine in them, I suppose. But then, you throw something like Creed at him, and he immediately starts going toe-to-toe with the best actors of our time. If you showed someone Rocky and Creed and nothing else, they’d think we considered him one of the all-time greats.
Whatever the case may be, he’s fantastic in this movie. The Oscar talk is not B.S. As of right now, having not seen a lot of the other potential nominees, I’m actually okay with him winning. His take on Rocky — another 10 years older since the last time we saw him — is subtle and detailed and lived-in. There’s so much history in this character, so much struggle, so much pain, so much loss, so many varied and interesting experiences, and Stallone brings all of that to the screen. Even if you’ve never seen another Rocky movie, I suspect you’ll leave Creed with a good sense of who the character used to be — and that’s without a single flashback or extended reference to what happened all those years ago. You can see traces of the man Rocky used to be — some of the trademark humor, warmth, and talkativeness remain in the character we see in Creed. However, the character is carrying around a lot of pain, and those lighter qualities are muted. Rocky isn’t dark and brooding; he’s just tired. You can see that behind his eyes even in the film’s happier moments. Adrian died between Rocky V and Balboa, and now Paulie has joined her. Rocky feels as though his life has already happened and is functionally over. His wife and best friend are gone, he’s too old for boxing, and his son and grandchildren have moved to Canada. He’s just sleepwalking through the remainder of his days. He’s not miserable, but his lust for life is gone.
And that’s reflected through the entirety of the film. What people may be most surprised to discover is that Creed is a tightly-written, intelligent story, on top of being a viscerally engaging sports drama. I think that, as time has passed, people who only distantly remember Rocky have written it off as pure formula that we only liked because of how enjoyable the main character was. I would encourage those people to give it another go. Rocky only borrows its biggest beats from the traditional sports movie formula, and even a few of those are twisted up a bit. The space in between is filled with complex and interesting characters — every single one of them, from Rocky to Mickey to Paulie to Adrian, are, for different reasons, nobodies desperate to matter. Each chases that longing in his or her own way, some for good and others for ill.
Creed is the same, only this time, the story is about how we view the past, the present, and the future. Rocky, as stated, believes he’s already done all the living he was meant to do and ambles around without purpose, seeing the future as empty and purposeless. Donnie, on the other hand, has a negative relationship with his past — he never recovered from his birth mother’s death; he has a complicated relationship with his father, half resentment for conceiving him as a result of an affair and dying before he was born, and half love and respect; and he lives in the shadow of the Creed legacy. Everyone sees him as someone raised, albeit not born, in wealth and privilege, and who advanced his career solely through the strength of his name. Donnie loves and hates being a Creed, and he struggles to make peace with his own past. In the middle is Donnie’s girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer with progressive hearing loss. The movie presents her as the ideal — someone who understands the value of the present and holds the past and the future in appropriate perspective. She knows that she won’t be able to pursue her dreams in a few decades, that she won’t even be able to experience music at all, but the now is more important. She’s an interesting piece of the thematic puzzle, but she’s the weak link in the cast as a result — she isn’t struggling with anything and doesn’t change over the course of the film.
I think the bigger issue with Creed is that it’s a bit hamstrung over its adherence to formula — not only the sports movie formula, but the Rockyformula specifically. It follows almost exactly the same basic structure — a dreamer jumps from one ring to another trying to become a professional boxer, only to have a high-profile title fight dropped in his lap. That worked in Rocky, because it was more specifically about that — a random schmuck who gets a shot at the title as a publicity stunt and wants to prove he’s worthy of it. Creed seems as though it would be better-served with a climbing-the-ladder sort of story, with Donnie training and getting better and better, stepping into the ring and making his name, slowly gathering notoriety. I don’t think the movie needs a final fight as big as this one, especially since the story has more to do with what’s going on outside the ring anyway. It would work just as well with an opponent intimidating enough to put Donnie on the map and force him to deal with his father’s legacy. When the final fight is as big as this one, you need to make sure that’s a necessary component of the film’s emotional stakes, and I’m just not sold on it here. I think it would work better with a more progressive, gradual approach to the boxing part of the story.
Regardless, film franchises don’t usually deliver installments this good on the seventh movie in. It’s even better that Creed moves the story of the previous films in intriguing new directions. Even when they’re well-made, a lot of sequels struggle to justify the narrative necessity of their own existence; Creed, on the other hand, feels as though it’s latching onto character and thematic threads that were always in there, somewhere we couldn’t notice them. It’s no small thing trying to continue the story of Rocky Balboa, one of the most iconic fictional characters of all time, and the artists behind Creed can rest easy knowing that they did him justice. Is the movie formula? Admittedly, yes. Is it still rousing and powerful? Also yes.
Flying high now…