One two punch
Creed is directed and co-written by Ryan Coogler and is the seventh installment in the Rocky franchise, serving as a sequel to 2006's Rocky Balboa. The film stars Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone (reprising his role as Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, and Graham McTavish.
With the success of 2015's Creed, it's safe to say that the quality of the Rocky franchise now represents something of a parabolic curve. The franchise's obvious high mark was the first Rocky, with each new installment sending the franchise lower and lower down the curve until the curve hit its all-time low with Rocky V (or Rocky IV, if you prefer). Wherever one believes that the Rocky franchise hit rock bottom, let's just agree that 2006's Rocky Balboa got the curve back on the upswing, with Creed bringing the curve back up to almost the level that it was at with the original Rocky. I promise I will not be talking about curves for the entirety of this review, so let's just keep it short and sweet and say this: Creed is the best movie to feature Rocky Balboa since the Best Picture winning Rocky back in 1976.
Sylvester Stallone had no desire to return to the franchise following Rocky Balboa, believing that Rocky's story was complete and that there was no point in going any further. However, Ryan Coogler kept insisting for Stallone revisit, eventually getting Stallone to come on board. But if agreeing to revisit wasn't hard enough for Stallone, then this nearly sent him into a total breakdown: the death of his oldest son, Sage Stallone. Again, Coogler was able to convince Stallone to proceed with the film, telling him he could use Creed as a tribute to his son, especially since father-son relationships is a crucial theme in Creed's story. Stallone stated at that year's Golden Globes that working on Creed helped him manage his son's death, even stating that he hoped to portray more of Rocky in the Creed sequels.
So though Rocky is a supporting character in Creed, all of these bits of trivia and production notes ought to tell you that Sylvester Stallone was still a big deal to the production and almost everything that went involved in making Creed. Stallone even puts on a performance that comes quite close to matching his performance from the first film, something you probably wouldn't think was possible from someone who had been portraying the same character for the seventh time over the span of nearly forty years. But like they say, age is just a number.
The plot of Creed follows Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of former boxing heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. At a young age, he serves time at an LA detention center, until Creed's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), meets with him and agrees to take him home with her. Many years later, Adonis quits his corporate job in order to pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxer. This leads him to travel to Philadelphia and try to meet up with the legendary former champion, Rocky Balboa. Adonis finds Rocky and asks him for training, and while Rocky is reluctant at first, he eventually agrees. Soon afterwards, Adonis receives a challenge from the world light heavyweight champion Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew), who learns that Adonis is Creed's illegitimate son. Conlan, facing an impending prison term, wants to make Adonis his final challenger, requesting that he change his name to Adonis Creed. Though angered by this request, Adonis agrees and goes through with the fight.
- It's a joy to watch Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone together; the two have terrific chemistry and make for a father-son relationship that brings the best out of one another. The real icing on the cake is the way that the script handles the dynamic between Rocky and Adonis by not playing strictly towards the, "sullen, aged hero trains the raw newbie to truly embrace his identity" angle. Jordan's Adonis is a boxer who's not so much ignorant towards "real boxing", more so he's a character who is rough around the edges, and he needs Rocky to loosen him up and get his head on straight. Meanwhile, Adonis gives Rocky the guts to fight, but when I say fight, I mean "fight" in a way that would be a pretty hefty spoiler. In other words, Adonis challenges Rocky, in his old, hardened age, to muster up the strength to fight the battles he comes across later in the film (if you've seen the film already, you know what I mean). The other thing about the relationship between Adonis and Rocky that makes it so wonderful to watch is the overall balance between the two. Even though Rocky is the trainer, he needs Adonis just as much as Adonis needs him. Rocky may not be fighting in the ring anymore, but thanks to a smart script by Coogler and fellow screenwriter Aaron Convington, there's more put into Rocky than just being an aged veteran who is there to train the new guy.
- Surprisingly, there isn't a whole lot of actual boxing throughout the film, but when we do see Creed fight someone in the ring, Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti rely on special film-making techniques, particularly an entire two-round boxing match being shot in one continuous take. The fights are filmed with clean and coherent camera work, no kind of shaky cam nonsense to speak of.
- Creed's only mistakes come in the habit of repeating some story elements from the earlier Rocky films, mainly the first one. You can easily predict some of the outcomes, and the movie likes to give Adonis some moments that match those of Rocky when he was training for his major heavyweight fight. One that stuck out to me was a shot of Adonis running through the streets, wearing a hoodie, and being followed by a bunch of people riding motorcycles. As the people ride past him, Adonis waves his hands in the air and belts out a roar of pride. This moment made me think so much of the end of Rocky's training montage in the first film, as he waves his arms in the air while standing at the top of the long flight of stairs. I know I'm reaching a bit when I bring up this moment, but still, Creed likes to take parts of the Rocky story and try to mold them into something slightly different. A direct challenge from the heavyweight champion, training montages (though these are present in almost all sports films), and fight results - all of these owe in part to the first Rocky film, which is a little frustrating if Creed is trying to branch out from the franchise and not seem completely like more of the same.
When you're this many installments into a franchise, the natural thing to think of is that the franchise in question is long overdue for retirement, but it keeps lingering on, just to see how much more material it can possibly milk from the story cow. Turns out, the Rocky franchise scrapped their old, tired story cow and, at some point during its hibernation period, acquired a new one, setting the franchise up to regain the high quality that it once enjoyed from back in the day. That high quality is on display in Creed: the best film in the franchise since the original Rocky, bolstered by the superb chemistry between Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone and a director and co-writer in Ryan Coogler who, a guy still in his early 30's and who has enjoyed massive success with also directing Black Panther, has set himself up to be one of the most promising film-makers of the future. Whether or not Creed goes on to be seen as a classic is anyone's guess. One thing's for sure though: the film has done wonders for Sylvester Stallone, and shows that good ol' Rocky has more to him than being just a great fighter.
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