Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew
Released in 2006, Rocky Balboa was a fitting farewell to the beloved character. Fifteen years after the previous instalment it allowed the Italian Stallion to walk off into the sunset with dignity, well and truly making up for the travesty that was Rocky V. The book seemed to be closed. But Ryan Coogler, the young writer and director of 2013’s Fruitvale Station, found a reason to open it again and Stallone was receptive to it. The result, Creed, is one of the genuine cinematic surprises of the year.
In 1998, young Adonis Johnson, who has bounced between foster homes and juvenile detention, discovers that he is the illegitimate son of the deceased legendary heavyweight boxer Apollo Creed, and is invited by Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) to come and live with her. Flash forward to 2015 and Donnie (Michael B. Jordan), as he prefers to be called, has been working in a white collar job during the week and sneaking off to Tijuana to box on the weekends. Deciding he needs to throw himself into his fighting, he relocates to Philadelphia to try and convince his father’s great rival and friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to become his trainer. When he wins his first fight (impressively realised by Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti, with the entire fight being captured in a single shot, weaving in and out between the pugilists) against a fancied opponent with Rocky in his corner, it catches the attention of the press and it is not long before the secret of his lineage is out of the bag. On the other side of the Atlantic, the agent of undefeated light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is looking to secure his next opponent and sees a marketable opportunity in the young Creed.
Creed represents the first Rocky film to have not been written by Stallone himself. But Coogler and Aaron Covington’s screenplay is clearly a love letter to Rocky. Functioning at the same time as a sequel and a remake, fans of the original Rocky will recognise elements of the narrative structure: the underappreciated boxer who no coach is interested in, the world champion who gives him a shot at the title as a gimmick, the local girl whose love inspires the fighter – in this case it is aspiring musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who lives in the apartment downstairs from Donnie and becomes his first Philly friend. Those familiar beats are all there, including the expected training montages, but Coogler brings something different to it. He skilfully leans into the formula, picking his moments to turn it on its head.
There is a reason this film is called Creed and not ‘Rocky VII.’ This is Donnie’s story and Rocky, who doesn’t appear until 20 minutes into the film, is repositioned as a supporting character in it. The ageing warrior takes on the mentoring role that Mickey performed in the original, with Stallone coincidentally being the same age now that Burgess Meredith was when he first played Mickey in Rocky. While Coogler and Covington’s screenplay makes valuable contributions to the story of Rocky Balboa and provides Stallone with the opportunity to do some really good work – more on that later – the primary focus is on young Creed.
Creed is a film about fathers, more specifically about absent fathers and father figures. We watch a young man navigating the complex relationship he has with his deceased father. This is wonderfully visualised in an early scene in the film where Donnie projects a video of the first fight between Rocky and Apollo Creed onto the wall and, standing in front of the projection shadow-boxing, he notably takes the position of Rocky rather than Apollo, furiously throwing punches at his deceased father. The moment, late in the film, when Donnie finally vocalises the idea that is both his fundamental motivation and the heart of all his insecurity, lands one of the heaviest blows of the film.
More broadly, the film explores how we cope with loss. While the spectre of Apollo Creed obviously hangs over everything Donnie does, the supporting characters are dealing with their own losses. Bianca has a degenerative hearing condition which requires her to wear hearing aids. She is all too aware that this condition will inevitably rob her of her music, her life’s great passion, yet her positivity, her determination to make the most of things while she can, inspires Donnie. The counterpoint to Bianca is the melancholy Rocky. With the love of his life, Adrian, and his two best friends, Paulie and Apollo, all gone, and his son living far away, doing his best to make a life for himself outside of his father’s shadow, Rocky’s life is defined by loss. He is in a rut, spinning his wheels, waiting out life, and it is Donnie and Bianca who must reignite his fire.
There is something that needs to be cleared up here: Sylvester Stallone is a very good actor. There is arguably no actor whose talent is more consistently disregarded because of his physical appearance (Sorry. That should read “no male actor,” as it happens to beautiful actresses all the time). But don’t let his hulking frame fool you, Stallone has some serious chops and Creed gives him the chance to show it. Amongst all the rousing, stand-up-and-cheer moments you expect in a Rocky movie, there are small moments of true emotion which Stallone skilfully underplays, doing so much with a look, or a gesture, or a crack in the voice. While Stallone has made more than his fair share of action beefcake dross, when you put him in the right role with the right director he can be quite something. And when that role is Rocky Balboa, it is a whole different level. Stallone knows this character so intimately, he has been on a journey with him for forty years, and his affection for the character that was so palpable in Rocky Balboa is there again, albeit in a slightly different way, in Creed. Don’t be surprised if Stallone’s name is in the Best Supporting Actor conversation come Oscar nomination time.
Sometimes a film gives you something you didn’t even know that you wanted. There were very few people openly hoping for a seventh Rocky movie, but Coogler’s fresh take on the material has resulted in a movie that is not only easily the best Rocky film since the original, but one of the best movies of the year.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Creed? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.