Boxing franchise for a new generation
The original Rocky came out nearly 40 years ago to rave reviews, Academy Awards, and a following that exists to this today. After five sequels to Rocky that spanned from 1979-2006, not one single chapter ever managed to quite capture the magic and story of the 1976 original. While the newest film to feature Sly Stallone’s beloved character “Rocky” stands as more of a spin-off than an outright sequel, Creed debuts as the best film to have the character of Rocky in it since 1976 and the better boxing film of 2015. Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) moves his camera around the ring like a seasoned cognoscente, tapping into the genius of Martin Scorsese with Raging Bull and Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss. While no longer the main character, Stallone’s Rocky shifts comfortably and expertly into a supporting role sure to come up during awards season.
Creed follows the love child, named Adonis, from an affair Apollo Creed (Rocky’s old friend and oft-challenger) had shortly before his death in the ring during a fight in the 1980s. Coogler introduces Adonis as a troubled youth confined to a juvenile detention center in the late-90s who finds adoption in the form of Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (played by iconic television mother Phylicia Rashad). The film jumps to the present and introduces actor Michael B. Jordan (Fantastic Four, That Awkward Moment) playing Adonis as a young man in his twenties, using the name “‘Hollywood’ Donnie Johnson” in order to create a name for himself without relying on his famous father. Donnie balances a life of working in a successful Los Angeles firm and moonlighting as a fighter in Tijuana. Sooner or later, desire wins over the sure thing. When he can’t find anybody to train him in L.A., Donnie heads for Philadelphia to find help from an old family friend in Stallone’s Rocky.
Filmmaker Coogler presents an excellent balance of storytelling and character development between his primary and secondary leads, even if it takes some time to establish this dynamic. It’s incredibly difficult to not compare Jordan’s performance as Donnie to Stallone’s as Rocky. Where Rocky was always presented as an uneducated man with little talent outside of fighting, Donnie willfully leaves a comfortable, high-paying position in L.A. to pursue his need to fight. While both fighters come from separate circumstances, each begins without privilege and strives for success in the ring.
Michael B. Jordan brings layers to his character that audiences haven’t seen in a film boxer before Creed. The chip on Donnie’s shoulder stems from his dead father’s success as a world-class champion and the need to find a separate identity in the same profession. Jordan, like Stallone, makes it easy for the crowd to root for him because his character never forgets a humble beginning and learns from mistakes to better himself as a fighter and person. The up-and-comer’s earlier attempt at a franchise this year flopped hard in the form of Fantastic Four, but his powerhouse performance in Creed resurrects his shot at leading a series of films.
Sylvester Stallone steals the show performing as the character that brought him initial success. Creed is the actor’s first movie as Rocky in which he neither wrote nor directed. Coincidentally, it’s also the Hollywood legend’s best performance in the iconic role since Rocky. Rocky doesn’t have to prepare himself to fight in a bout for the first time; and instead trains his old friend/ opponent’s son to fight. The character also has a fight within that becomes a metaphor for the greater plot. Not only does Stallone slip right back into character with ease, he also develops the character into a sage trainer, wise from decades as an experienced champion boxer who becomes a lot like his own old trainer, Burgess Meredith’s “Mickey.” Expect Stallone to receive an Academy Award nomination for the same role that landed him one in 1977. Don’t forget he also wrote the 1977 Oscar-winning screenplay. It’s an impressive performance to consider how he created the character in the 70s, but can take another writer’s words and make them his own on screen.
Tessa Thompson (“Copper,” Selma) contributes a stand-out performance as aspiring singer Bianca—the “anti-Adrian.” Unlike Rocky’s love interest in the original movie, Bianca has goals. A gifted singer with a hearing disorder, Bianca lends some perspective to Donnie’s point of view when he arrives in Philly. Adrian worked in a pet shop, cared for an abusive, alcoholic brother, and had a generally shy personality. Bianca, however, leads a life as a talented performer, chasing a shot at success like Donnie. Both are strong characters in different respects, but one can’t imagine Bianca standing for Paulie’s oppression like Adrian had. Expect this character’s career and goals to also evolve over the course of this spun-off franchise.
The true value of ticket price comes in Ryan Coogler’s directing. Despite making the runtime a bit too long with at least one fight in each act and spending a lot of time fleshing out Donnie, Rocky, Bianca, and the opposing fighter’s dramatic situation, one can’t deny the filmmaker’s ability behind the camera. Long takes create expert suspense and tension that consist of walk-and-talks beginning in the locker room and ending in the ring, or in the ring itself where the audience gets a clinic on filmmaking. Coogler pivots and swivels without breaking the shot to indicate which fighter enjoys the current momentum. The third act fight, despite its predictable ending akin to the original Rocky, serves as Creed’s real highlight. Long takes and a dramatic, twelve-round bout amount to an exciting film-going experience.
Featuring a talented cast that stars an iconic Hollywood character and the actor who plays him certainly helps Creed attract an audience, but director Ryan Coogler’s ability to put the audience in the fight creates a movie so fun and intense that it could enjoy a similar franchise run to the Rocky anthology. Michael B. Jordan creates a new lead for the Rocky universe that fans can easily root for because of strong character development both independently and from co-star Sylvester Stallone, who hands the franchise reigns over to Jordan with an award-worthy performance after playing Rocky Balboa since 1976. Coogler and Jordan enjoyed praise for their collaboration on Fruitvale Station, as well. Expect these two in conversations covering the next Scorsese/De Niro or Burton/ Depp-type actor/ director teams.