Film Review – Creed
When I first heard there was going to be a spin off of the Rocky series focusing on the son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) I had my reservations. Spin offs, reboots, and remakes haven’t had the best track record, and visiting the world of Rocky Balboa yet again felt like a cheap money grab. But two things caught my attention. First, the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Apollo’s off spring. Jordan is a rising star, and a high profile role like this will help us forget that he was in Fantastic Four (2015). Secondly, Ryan Coogler cowrote the screenplay (with Aaron Covington) and takes on directing duties. This is the first “Rocky” entry not to be written by Sylvester Stallone, and the first since the original not to be directed by him.
Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan collaborated together in Fruitvale Station (2013). For anyone that saw that, seeing them together again for Creed (2015) immediately perked our interests. What we get is a highly involving story of a character trying to discover who he is. Although the narrative follows the basic pattern of the previous films, Coogler and Jordan infuse it with an identity all its own. There’s a level of grit that hasn’t been seen since the original. It’s stripped down and grounded, without the goofiness that found its way later on in the series.
Adonis Johnson (Jordan) never knew his father, but his spirit has followed him his entire life. He bounced around foster care, eventually going to the custody of Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad). Even though Adonis ends up in luxury (living off the wealth his father earned) he always wanted to make a name for himself. Coogler distinguishes Adonis from Rocky: instead of the poor man fighting to go the distance, we have a character trying to get out of the shadow of a person he never met. Of course, Adonis chose boxing as his avenue to do it in. Problem is: because of who he is, no one wants to train him. Adonis gains experience by doing cheap fights in Tijuana, but that won’t get him anywhere. So in a desperate move, Adonis moves from Los Angeles to Philadelphia in hopes that the Italian Stallion will take him on as a protégé.
Of all the things Coogler does well, one thing that stands out is how he captures the soul of a city. He shows the same love to Philly as he does to his hometown of Oakland. There’s an affection for the culture of the streets: he often inserts shots of random landmarks and people going about their daily lives. As Adonis makes his morning run, the community acts not as a backdrop but as a living, breathing environment. The faces have stories behind them, and every corner and building contains an untold history.
Another highlight is how Coolger choreographs the fight scenes. They are built unlike any we’ve seen so far in the franchise. Coogler immerses us right into the action. His angles and use of perspective are creative and inspired. The most impressive shot happens in the first fight Adonis has with Rocky in his corner. Starting with Adonis preparing in the locker room, Coogler (with cinematographer Maryse Alberti) follows the action in a seemingly unbroken take throughout the entire match. It’s an interesting approach, as we see everything happening in real time. It allows us to be right there with Adonis, experiencing everything step by step. The climactic battle is good in its own right, but I found myself much more impressed with this one.
If this is the beginning of a “Creed” franchise, the production picked a solid star to continue it. Michael B. Jordan has strong on screen charisma, and can play varying degrees of emotionality with perfect clarity. He can be funny and charming, and then turn around and deliver the hurt and anger of growing up without a father, and we can believe that it’s all encompassed in the same character. I felt most invested when Adonis was outside of the ring, because that is where Jordan and Coogler are at their best in terms of development. The relationship Adonis has with the singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) felt natural and realistic, and even though their courtship was a secondary thread, it never drifted toward being meaningless.
This is the best performance Sylvester Stallone has given in ages. For the seventh outing of Rocky, Stallone inhabits him under a brand new light: as an old man in a supporting role. Stallone is about the same age as Burgess Meredith was in Rocky (1976), and there’s no hiding it. Rocky is a worn out, lonely man now, coming to the realization that his best days are behind him. It takes constant badgering by Adonis to even get Rocky into a gym again, but when he does you can see that glimmer in his eye and sense how much the sport has meant to him. Stallone is excellent at making Rocky funny and heartbreaking. Maybe not since the original have we seen Rocky in such a tender, vulnerable state. It’s that very quality that made people compare Stallone to a young Brando back in the day.
If there’s one thing that Creed doesn’t quite manage to do, it’s to instill that genuine, uplifting emotionality. Is it because we live in a more cynical age, where a feel good movie generates a level of skepticism? When the final fight happens and Bill Conti’s famous score rings out, I wasn’t as stirred as I hoped I would be. Rocky was a bum who came out of nowhere to give Apollo Creed the fight of a lifetime. That element is sadly missing this time around, despite how good everything else is. This may not be the best entry of the series, but it’s certainly in the upper half.