On the face of it, the Creed film looks like a final desperate cash grab for a franchise that is long past its glory days. The Rocky franchise had, well, a rocky road. This series had its ups and downs in quality but ended on a high with the reflective and emotional Rocky Balboa in 2006. When Creed was announced it was met with general indifference until it was noted that director Ryan Coogler was attached. He was coming off the back of the critically acclaimed Frutivale Station film. As he started to talk about the film it became apparent that Creed would be something a little different to expectations. Coogler had been working on this for a number of years and it was regarded as a passion project for the director. The fact that he was bringing along Michael B Jordan to star added to the anticipation.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan) is the illegitimate son of the former heavyweight champ Apollo Creed. He never met his father as Apollo died at the hands of the Russian boxer Drago before he was born. Adonis was left alone in the world at the age of ten after his mother died. He was bouncing around the care system until Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) took him in and raised him as her own child. He grows to be an intelligent young man with a bright future. What he really wants to do is fight. It is in his blood. Unable to compete locally in Los Angeles, he takes fights in Mexico. When this is not enough he quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to pursue his dream of fighting professionally. To do this, he tries to persuade Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to come out of retirement to train him. As he matures as a fighter and a person, a chance at the big time is handed to him from left field.
Ryan Coogler is very careful with what he is trying to achieve here. There is a legacy of thirty years behind the Rocky story to take into consideration. What he does is acknowledge that history without making it the focus of the movie. This isn’t a reboot of the franchise in the traditional sense. The focus here is on Adonis and his journey rather than a new Rocky. Coogler makes sure that nothing interferes with that. There are certain nods to the series with some familiar locations, set pieces, the use of the Rocky character and his effect on the city of Philadelphia. Rocky is a hero with a statue to prove it. Coogler makes sure we know about it without it dominating the movie. It would have been a mistake to dwell on this aspect as it would have tarnished the final product.
What we get is a film in keeping with the look and feel of the first two Rocky films. It has that non glossy look to it that adds to the atmosphere. From the Mexican boxing ring to the old school training facilities in a run down area of Philadelphia it conveys struggle and pain. The pacing and the set pieces are all present as expected, but there are some subtle differences from the previous films. This is not a personal battle borne out of circumstances like the Balboa tales. Adonis came from the right side of the tracks. His journey is to make sense of his life and his heritage. He begins as a man with a short fuse. He is quick to anger when his lineage is addressed or he is belittled. He wants to make it on his own, with his own name. Ultimately has to compromise his principles as he gets his chance. In order to get the shot at the big time he has to take the Creed name. This is not something that is easy for him.
Michael B Jordan is immense in the title role. He looks the part as the aspiring boxer and he is a convincing actor with a great screen presence. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Sylvester Stallone was persuaded to reprise the role of the aging pugilist in a supporting role. There is a great rapport between the two actors which holds the film together. Stallone’s performance is rightly being noted for award consideration. He plays the part of a man who is resigned to live out his last years as a lonely man. His wife and best friend are both dead but, that doesn’t stop him visiting them in the Cemetery each day to read them the news. The chance to help Adonis changes his perspective and invigorates his life. It is a subtle performance which we have rarely seen from Stallone and proves that the man can be an actor of substance when he chooses.
The other main difference in Creed is the love interest for Adonis. Bianca (Tessa Thompsom) is a fully rounded character in her own right. She has a career and a very self assured attitude. She also has her own battles to fight. There is no point at which she is seen as anything less than the equal to Adonis. Her part in the story is almost as important as the Adonis / Rocky dynamic as it shows how Adonis is changing in terms of his attitudes and his maturity.
The fight scenes are some of the best I have seen in recent years. They get the audience right into the action with a lot of close camera work mixed with some clever editing to increase the tension. There is a notable change in the way in which the camera is used in the various fights. In the first, the camera follows Adonis from the dingy dressing room up to the boxing ring, always at his shoulder. Instead of following into the ring the camera slowly moves round the ring staying low as the short fight unfolds. It is all in one continuous shot and it is very effective. Later in the film the camera rises to move into the ring with the fighters and for the finale it is above the ring emphasising just how far Adonis has risen in stature.
A special mention for the score. It uses elements from the series and mixes it with original material. Once again, Coogler doesn’t push the past too much. In the obligatory training montage, he avoids using the particularly famous theme instead opting for a theme that is a stylistic relative to the original. He also omits the running up the steps sequence which is a very good call. We are teased with the main Rocky theme on several occasions only for it to not follow through. This a very clever move as when we do hear it used in the final fight it has a huge impact on the action.
Overall, a film that wisely refers to its legacy but does so much more than just repeat it. Recommended.