The love affair with the ‘boxing for life’ metaphor finds a worthy successor in Creed—the seventh film in the Rocky franchise, this ain’t no spin-off—but it has morphed into a multi-pronged beast of personal battles and legacy quests on multiple fronts. When the news of a new boxing movie is enough to cause narcolepsy (seems to be every five years on average) it’s a relief to finally have one that matters.
The son of the late Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in Rocky–Rocky IV), Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), has aspirations to be a boxer and travels to Philadelphia to ask Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him. Once Johnson starts fighting and the world learns of his parentage, a heavyweight champion from Britain (Tony Bellew) challenges Adonis.
Pay close attention to how composer Ludwig Göransson magnificently repurposes Bill Conti’s iconic Rocky theme Gonna Fly Now throughout Creed. It’s the mission statement for co-writer and director Ryan Coogler, who retains the essence of a Rocky movie while forging ahead with a story that carves out a unique space in the well-worn series. Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington (it’s the first Rocky film Stallone hasn’t written) don’t pander to nostalgia, they allow it to inform the path of Adonis Creed’s growth as a character in his search for identity in the shadow of the father he never knew. In an almost self-referential way, Adonis Creed spends a majority of the film resistant to taking on the name ‘Creed’, preferring his mother’s name ‘Johnson’—it’s like Coogler resisting the titling of his film as The Rocky Anthology: Creed. Every element of Creed shows Coogler’s attention to detail in ensuring every moment, even if they’re referencing a prior film, is defined by Adonis’ journey. Early in the film Adonis is rejected by the son (Wood Harris) of his father’s trainer (Tony Burton from Rocky–Rocky Balboa) and once Balboa is training Adonis he decides not to use Mighty Mick’s Gym (as if saying no to lazy fan service). For the entirety of Creed there’s anticipation for something similar to the iconic stair climbing scene in Rocky, but when it happens in an unexpected yet recognisable way with an incredible slow-motion running sequence as Adonis is flanked by young men on motorcycles and quad bikes doing wheelies, the genius of Coogler’s vision for Creed is most apparent. There’s an acknowledgement of the past but Coogler never dwells long enough for his film to be trapped by nostalgic revisitations; it’s an intricate balancing act.
The trappings of the past are defined by Balboa who operates a restaurant, ‘Adrian’s’, that is practically a mausoleum for his late wife (Talia Shire) with the interior walls covered with old photos. In a scene where Balboa visits a graveyard, Coogler fames him sitting in the company of the gravestones of Adrian and Paulie (Burt Young). It’s a striking image of the baby-boomer underdog and it aches when thinking back to the hope Rocky represented back in 1976. Balboa seems more than ready to become the third gravestone, and Stallone’s performance rumbles with melancholy. With one “eh, how ya doin’” Stallone effortlessly slides back into the slurs of Balboa, his knockabout swagger wearied with age. Jordan’s rage hidden under a nice guy demeanour contrasts with Stallone perfectly and the dynamic of their relationship is where these characters get their instinct to fight on physical and mental fronts. Although Adonis’ motivations are clear cut, Jordan manages to surprise with a performance that’s emotionally wrenching as it gets to the core of Adonis’ pain in the finale as an entire film rests on one line, one moment of beautiful self-introspection (you’ll know it when you hear it). Another relationship in Creed that doesn’t hold up as well is a sub-plot involving Adonis and a musician, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), that’s completely inconsequential. Sure, Jordan and Thompson are effortlessly charming during their flirtatious encounters but it’s a side attraction that becomes a chore.
Coolger’s talent as a director shines bright in the boxing sequences with a captivating, flinch inducing one-take sequence (sure to be the talk of every review) where the camera goes over the shoulder with Adonis and around the ring with an opponent. Although the camera bounces around with the fighters, there’s clarity to the direction and fight choreography that makes for an intimate experience to heighten the drama and face the ferocity Adonis must encounter as an amateur against seasoned fighters. Each of the showcase fight sequences are shot differently with Coogler and his editors, Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver, ensuring the skirmishes are dynamic and are representative of what Adonis is experiencing. Throughout Creed there is a technical prowess that certifies Coogler and his collaborators as formidable filmmakers.
Creed avoids being a by-the-numbers retread of the iconic elements of the Rocky franchise, it’s a fascinating remix, and it amazes by doing the unexpected in a sub-genre that’s fatiguing with its dedication to formula.
The Popcorn Junkie