Rocky gets reinvigorated in Ryan Coogler’s superlative boxing drama. Cal finally gets to see it.
Creed is precisely the type of involving, crowd-pleasing independent motion picture that Rocky was back in 1976. Five sequels followed the Oscar-winning Rocky, with the most recent follow-up, 2006’s Rocky Balboa, retiring Sylvester Stallone’s iconic titular role in a respectful manner. It’s understandable, then, that a degree of trepidation surrounded 2015’s Creed, which threatened to spoil the perfect franchise conclusion concocted by Stallone nearly a decade ago. But under the care of co-writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), who was given Sly’s blessing and support, Creed is far better than anybody could have reasonably expected, showing once again that Coogler truly is a cinematic talent to be reckoned with. For all intents and purposes, this can be considered a fan film, with Coogler crafting a reverent, affectionate valentine to the iconic franchise. Against all odds, though, Creed is an exhilarating extension of the series, a modern film delivered with true passion that harkens back to a previous era in all the right ways.
The illegitimate son of iconic former boxing champion Apollo Creed, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) spends his childhood in foster care and juvenile hall, before finally being adopted by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Although Mary Anne tries to raise Adonis on the straight and narrow, he’s still his father’s son, choosing to leave his secure white-collar job to pursue a career in the ring. Departing Los Angeles, Adonis travels to Philadelphia, where he tracks down Rocky Balboa (Stallone), who’s still running a restaurant named for his beloved late wife Adrian. Despite Rocky’s initial disinterest, Adonis convinces the aging boxer to train him, with the two ultimately forming a tender friendship based on mutual trust and respect. In addition, Adonis finds love in Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with progressive hearing loss who enraptures the wannabe fighter. Adonis seeks to make a name for himself without using the name “Creed,” but word soon gets out about his heritage, and before long he’s challenged by hothead English boxing champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).
It’s clear that Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington did their homework before embarking on Creed, and the result is an organic continuation with a fundamental understanding of Balboa as a character. Rocky’s every line of dialogue feels real, with ideal Rocky-isms and tender humour as Coogler takes the champ to the next logical place in his life without coming off as contrived. And although Adonis is the focus of the story, Coogler finds time to peer into Rocky’s personal life, with a poignant visit to the cemetery that will no doubt bring tears to the eyes of many. The idea of Rocky as a coach may have been explored in Rocky V, but that dismal follow-up was brought down by a naff, surface-level script – by comparison, Creed feels thoroughly authentic. There are echoes of the original Rocky in terms of narrative structure, and some may even call it a remake, but the execution is close to perfect, emerging as a distinct entry in the franchise. And although the romance between Adonis and Bianca does seem almost obligatory, it’s a vital part of the plot, with the coupling proving to be wholly endearing.
Creed is teeming with references to the Rocky movies, but such aspects are meaningful and nuanced without ever coming off as cheap fan service. The story returns to Mickey’s old gym where it all began, for instance, and in one scene Adonis shadowboxes against Apollo who’s projected on a wall via a YouTube video of his initial match with Balboa. Commendably, Creed does not play out like some victory lap which rides on the legacy of the Rocky franchise. Rather, it is a very heavy drama at times, reminiscent of the original Rocky more than the cheesy fun of Rocky IV. There are some dramatic developments which may not sit right with long-time fans at first, but the material is tastefully-handled and makes sense in the context of the narrative. But as powerful and affecting as Creed may be, it’s not an insufferably dour drama, as Coogler incorporates the same brand of humour glimpsed in the Rocky movies without going over-the-top.
Recapturing the gritty cinematic aesthetic of its predecessors, the look of Creed is spot-on, with Coogler always maintaining firm control of his movie. The intensity of the ring is also perfectly captured, with one amazing boxing match lensed in an unbroken extended take, immediately setting it apart from similar endeavours. And the grand finale, portrayed in prototypical Rocky style, is raw and visceral, easily drawing you in and encouraging you to cheer for Adonis in the same way that we have cheered for Balboa in previous instalments. The fight choreography is especially stunning; punches look authentic and blood is shed, but Coogler also recognises that our investment in the fights derives from proper characterisation, with Adonis an effortlessly likeable lead. Also beneficial is Ludwig Göransson’s incredible score, which is reminiscent of Bill Conti’s memorable musical contributions to the Rocky saga whilst still establishing its own distinctive identity. The movie even makes tasteful use of the iconic Rocky theme, which makes for one of the most goosebump-inducing moments in cinema of 2015.
Many will come to Creed to see Stallone as Rocky Balboa once again, yet Jordan manages to hold his own against the heavyweight, atoning for Fantastic Four in style. Adonis is tough, yet the movie also reveals a more vulnerable side, with Jordan carving out a believable, fallible character. But while his performance is damn good, most people will no doubt walk away from Creed with a renewed love for Mr. Stallone. This is precisely the movie that Stallone needed to bring him back down to earth, as the actor’s ego has undoubtedly gotten the best of him lately. Sly slips back into his iconic role as if no time has passed, submitting his most beautifully-nuanced work since, well, 2006’s Rocky Balboa. Rocky has changed since his first appearance in 1976, becoming older and wiser, but he still has a big heart. The script gives Stallone the chance to show off his acting chops that many may have forgotten he even possesses, and he nails it. It’s a very real performance, and one particular moment at a hospital features perhaps the best instance of acting in Stallone’s career. It is heartfelt work from the veteran and his Golden Globe win was well-deserved. Meanwhile, Thompson is a smart pick for the warm-hearted Bianca, and Rashad makes a positive impression as Mary Anne. However, as Conlan, Tony Bellew is an out-and-out cartoon, creating a typical villain role for us to actively root against, and that almost betrays the realistic tone that Coogler strives for.
As with the majority of the Rocky movies, there are real-life allegories to be drawn from Creed; just as Adonis passionately strives to carve out his own legacy and escape his father’s shadow, the movie itself is trying to create its own legacy and escape the shadow of the Rocky franchise. The only real drawback is that it’s not Rocky, and by boldly including Balboa, setting the story in Philly, and adhering to a Rocky-esque narrative, it does invite comparisons. And yet, Coogler infuses the movie with its own distinct voice, and the result quite simply works. It pulls on the heartstrings without shame, leading to a final scene that’s impossible to watch with dry eyes, especially if you’re a long-time fan of the Rocky franchise. It’s a tried-and-true formula movie in some respects, but the skill of the execution elevates Creed.
It’s one of the best movies of 2015.