I have to admit that I approached ‘Creed’ filled with cynicism and was convinced that I’d hate it. The mere concept of extending the already overblown ‘Rocky’ franchise was bad enough, but to do it through an illegitimate son of Apollo Creed seeking out Rocky for training… well, it sounded more like an internet parody of franchise fatigue than an actual movie. However, I should have been intrigued that the film was directed by Ryan Coogler of ‘Fruitvale Station‘. He’s a young filmmaker with integrity, who approached ‘Creed’ from a sincere place and delivered one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of the year.
Things kick off in a youth detention center in the 1990s. A young boy is seen brawling and gets pulled aside. Phylicia Rashad appears as Apollo Creed’s widow, confirming the young boy’s heritage and offering to adopt him. Cut forward years later and Michael B. Jordan takes over as Adonis Creed. He’s been raised in comfort with a successful desk job, but moonlights on the underground Mexican boxing circuit, where he’s undefeated. He decides to give up on his white-collar life to pursue a career in boxing. He wants to do it to prove his worth to the father he never knew and travels to Philadelphia to train with none other than Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, for a change). Rocky is of course retired and reluctant, but is impressed by the boy’s sincerity. So he takes on the training with all of the “Who is fighting who?” and “Who is teaching who?” lessons that implies. Plus, Creed finds love in the arms of a young musician (the excellent Tessa Thompson) who’s going deaf.
Sounds pretty soapy, right? Well it is. But so is ‘Rocky’. That’s the franchise – big, embarrassing emotions and obvious lessons delivered through redemptive boxing tales. Somehow, it works thanks to the commitment of Coogler, Jordan and everyone else involved. Unlike the tedious ‘Southpaw’, which merely treaded through boxing movie motions earlier this year, ‘Creed’ is executed with passion and talent. Call it the difference between a champion and a contender. That would certainly fit with all the heavy-handed boxing metaphors that Coogler pulls off.
Much of the success comes down to the wonderful cast, who find life and raw emotion within the populist screenplay. Michael B. Jordan is brilliant at the center, not only physically transforming himself and delivering some stunning fights, but reducing himself to a raw nerve of pain and emotional baggage and finding an honest human within his larger-than-life character. Thompson is equally good in what could have been a completely throwaway love interest role. She breathes life and unpredictability into a character that didn’t necessarily need those things and forms a wonderful relationship with Jordan.
Unexpectedly, Sylvester Stallone might be even better than either of them. Allowing someone else to write ‘Rocky’ for the first time, all of his one-liners and histrionics are removed in favor of a battered, broken man who was once a hero. Stallone actually rediscovers the real and sad man who was once at the center of the series and delivers his best work since the original ‘Rocky’. Honestly, Sylvester Stallone gives an excellent performance in ‘Creed’. I can’t believe I wrote that last sentence, but here we are.
In addition to creating those excellent performances with his actors, Coogler treats the movie seriously as a filmmaker. He’s unapologetic with his metaphors and melodrama, using them to tell an exaggerated yet human story rather than as lazy screenwriting crutches. He also incorporates the entire ‘Rocky’ mythology into the story without stretching credibility, even reclaiming the bonkers ‘Rocky IV’ by treating Creed’s death as a genuine human tragedy. (He actually incorporates Apollo’s old Stars ‘n Stripes shorts into a tear-jerking moment without getting snickers and I don’t know how he pulled that off.) As a director, Coogler also delivers the most technically accomplished and even visually stunning ‘Rocky’ movie to date. He shoots in long takes, with one mid-film fight executed in a single extended steadicam shot that serves the story and increases the impact of the sequence without showing off. The climatic fight manages to make a boxing match cinematically thrilling and unpredictable for the first time in ages, and the filmmaker arrives at a crowd-pleasing finale without losing his movie to tedious Hollywood hokum. It’s a pretty remarkable balancing act.
There was no reason to expect that ‘Creed’ could have turned out this good. It barely makes sense how that happened. Ryan Coogler has managed to take a completely commercial studio franchise product and transform it into a rather wonderful movie. In a strange way, that confirms him as a major cinematic talent as much as another heartfelt personal project like ‘Fruitvale Station’ would have.
Make no mistake, ‘Creed’ is not a masterpiece and is unapologetically mainstream. However, it’s a mainstream movie made by an artist who cares, and it manages to give audiences all the necessary beats of a ‘Rocky’ movie in unexpected ways. Even if you’ve seen ‘Creed’ through cynical eyes up until now like myself, be sure to give it a shot. It’s one of the best movies in the ‘Rocky’ franchise and deserves to score a hit. Let’s just hope that Warner Brothers doesn’t go crazy and attempt to make a cinematic ‘Rocky’ universe with the children of Drago and Clubber Lang also vying for Rocky’s attentions. That would spoil things.