Anyone can be forgiven for grumbling at the prospect of another Rocky movie. That was certainly my reaction when I first heard the news of this spin-off/sequel/soft-reboot. I have a great affection for the franchise (for lack of my better judgement, I like all of them in varying degrees from bona-fide classic to guilty pleasure), but it is one that felt like it had its bow nicely tied off with 2006’s underrated Rocky Balboa, why the need to hit the streets of Philly with the Italian Stallion again? This is a question that writer/director Ryan Coogler firmly addresses within Creed, and its greatest success is in its negotiation between telling a new story whilst remaining very much a part of the Rocky franchise.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has grown up without a father and with very little sense of who he is and where he comes from. His father, however, casts a large shadow over his life, as his father was the late heavyweight champion of the world Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Eager to learn more about both his father and himself, Aldonis seeks the help of Apollo’s old rival turned friend, one Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in order to try and be the best fighter he can be, and prove himself worthy of the Creed name.
By putting Rocky more on the sidelines, Coogler and Jordan manage to construct a film which both feels very personal and very much a film made by Rocky fans for Rocky fans. They bring the intimacy and grit that marked their previous collaboration, Fruitvale Station, as a potent piece that demanded attention. There is a bit more Hollywood gloss here, but ultimately there is a rawness here that hasn’t truly been felt in this franchise since the OG in ’77.
The character of Adonis is one that allows Jordan to truly flex both his acting chops and his finely tuned physical form, well and truly bouncing back from last summer’s quickly forgotten Fantastic Four. Adonis is a complicated character, born out of an affair to a mother unprepared to raise him and a father who died before knowing he existed. His struggle to decide whether to use his namesake or forge a legacy for himself is one that powers the narrative and enables the character to be a worthy lead for this new direction for the franchise. His relationship with Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is also pivotal and affectingly genuine, with chemistry stirring between the two young leads and Thompson delivering a great deal of depth from her very well written female role.
Stallone’s return to the role must have been a difficult decision. Not only did Balboa feel like a moment of closure, this is also the first time that Stallone has played the character without also having written the script. Rocky’s voice, however, is much retained, and Stallone, away from both the scripting and directing duties, mines his most famous character in ways not seen across the franchise. The weight of his legacy is felt in his performance, as Stallone refreshingly plays his age and uses his star history to craft Balboa as both a warm and tragic figure. It is a performance that reminds one of how good an actor Stallone can be away from the action-fare that has both made him a star and tainted his name.
What truly marks Creed as a success is Coogler’s dynamism behind the camera. While he respects and adheres to a aesthetic cohesion to the Rocky franchise, there is enough original styling here to further demonstrate his burgeoning talent. The Boxing genre is a difficult one to be all that dynamic within, due to it having been a staple of Hollywood cinema for most of its history, yet Coogler manages it. It is at times over-stylised, but the way in which Coogler frames his fighting scenes engage in an intimate and brutal way, often staying tight to Adonis’ shoulder as he prowls in the ring. One sequence in particular sees Adonis take on an opponent in 3 rounds in one uninterrupted take. It is moments like this that thrill, inspire and reinvigorate this franchise in unexpected and exciting ways.
Creed neogtiates the legacy of the Rocky franchise with nicely placed beats of nostalgia, as well as a soundtrack which is often on the cusp of breaking into to the fanfare we all know so well, but is smart enough to hold its punches until the right moment. There are issues with the film; at 133 minutes long, the pacing suffers, mostly as a result of a poignant yet loaded sub-plot in which Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. And of course, this being a boxing movie very much in the mould of the first Rocky, the narrative itself doesn’t hold many surprises, with more of the creativity coming from the way the story is shot rather than how it is written.
Time will tell if this will lead to another storied franchise, but I for one wouldn’t be too keen on a Coogler-less installment. Much of why this film works stems from Coogler’s own personal agenda, as well as his clear affection for Stallone’s previous films; if anyone else was to continue the story, it would be hard to see it being guided with quite the same veracity and passion as Coogler’s has demonstrated here. Creed is every bit as inspiring and uplifting as any Rocky movie should be, making one want to seek out the highest steps they can and punch the air with glee once at the top.