Ryan Coogler | 133 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Somehow, it took me a while to realise Creed was a Rocky movie. I remember hearing about the film; hearing its story of an underdog boxer taking on the world champion being compared positively to Rocky; and then beginning to hear kind-of-like-rumours that maybe, in fact, it actually featured the character of Rocky, and was, therefore, technically, a Rocky movie. Goodness knows what gave me that impression, because not only is Creed a Rocky movie through and through, with a major role for Sylvester Stallone’s character, but he’s on the bloody poster — and, in international markets, there’s a bloody big tagline emphasising how it’s a Rocky movie. Eesh. And all of that matters because, while there are a lot of things to like about Creed, I think my favourite was that it’s a proper Rocky movie.
The film introduces us to Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed was killed in the ring (see Rocky IV for more on that). Adonis grew up in juvie, getting into fights, until Creed’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him and raised him as her own. So Adonis was raised in the luxury life Creed’s legacy left them, and is now successful in a cushty office job, but inside burns the fire of a fighter. Quitting his job to make a proper go of it, no one in LA will train him, thinking he’s a rich kid just wanting to trade on his daddy’s legacy. Determined to make a name for himself, Adonis heads to Philadelphia with the intention of being trained by his father’s best friend, legendary boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone).
Creed partly sets out to be its own thing, focusing on Adonis rather than Rocky (when you boil it down, the film actually has a similar plot to the much-despised Rocky V), but it doesn’t forget to be a proper instalment in the Rocky saga too, picking up on things from previous films (the restaurant; Rocky visiting Adrian’s grave) and moving them forward (where Paulie is; where Rocky’s son is). It’s unobtrusive for newcomers (it plays as character beats rather than overt references), but it’s satisfying for fans to feel that connection, that respect for the material. Creed sets out to tell a grounded and somewhat gritty story, like the original Rocky, but, as Matt Zoller Seitz put it on Twitter, the film pulls its “existence from what’s probably the dumbest and most cartoony of the Rocky movies. There are overt references to all 6 Rockys in the first Creed. No cherry picking. It’s all canon.”
That influence extends to the whole shape of the film, which follows the Rocky formula: the underdog getting a shot at the big league; a hero who’s fighting to prove himself more than to win; the training montages; the simultaneous love life and/or personal storylines… It’s clearly a new story about a new generation, emphasised by the details of how co-writer/director Ryan Coogler constructs and crafts the film, but it also sits very comfortably as the seventh Rocky movie.
As with any film that fits a genre template, it’s in the nuances that we find differences. For starters, Adonis’ route to the ring is a bit different to the norm. “Rags to riches” is a storyline we’ve seen a hundred times, but here’s a guy who has a lavish lifestyle, who could just trade off his father’s name if he wanted, but who has to find a way to prove himself in spite of that. It’s not just a personal demon: we’re shown that this is a world where only that “rags to riches” path is seen as authentic. It comes up several times throughout the film, but not least before the final fight, when Creed’s opponent taunts him with the fact he comes from such a background, that he’s more like Rocky than Adonis is. Of course, the net result to storytelling is the same: Adonis has to prove his worth to his doubters, and to himself.
In a featurette on the Blu-ray, Coogler says that “at the core of these movies, they’re really relationship dramas with an action sequence at the end.” I couldn’t’ve put it better myself, and Creed continues that tradition by seeing Adonis hook up with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with problems of her own. According to Thompson, “Ryan really wanted to show a girlfriend character in the context of a sports movie that was complicated, that had her own life and own dreams.” I think that’s noticeably the case: her role in the film is obviously primarily defined in relation to Adonis, because this is his story, but she’s a rounded character with more agency than just “the love interest”. Depending how you view things, I think there’s an argument to be made that the Rocky films have often tried to give this depth to “the love interest”, i.e. Adrian. When we first meet her in Rocky she’s shy and quiet, which can come across as ‘secondary’, lacking depth or independence, but really it’s just a personality type. Adrian certainly changes and grows as the films go on, becoming more confident and forthright. Even compared to that, Bianca is more independent, more ‘modern woman’, driving the back-and-forth of the relationship as much as Adonis.
Rocky himself also gets a significant personal subplot, which allows Stallone to give a powerful performance — and, as it turned out, an award-winning one, which is impressive (and probably unprecedented) for the seventh outing of a character. The film draws on Rocky’s past to show us a guy who’s kind of content with letting life go — the love of his life is dead, his best friend is dead, his son has moved away, so why keep going? — but is given reason to fight again by a new family. I did think it was lacking a bit of Rocky’s charming naïveté, the occasional misspeaks or what have you (except for one bit about ‘the cloud’), but it’s been replaced with a genuine lived wisdom that does still feel like Rocky.
Coogler, in just his second feature, demonstrated he really knows what he’s doing. Perhaps the most striking part of the direction is that he chooses to use a lot of oners, with none more effective than covering the entirety of Adonis’ first pro fight in a single take. We stay in the ring with the boxers throughout, up close alongside them, following the fight almost from their perspective, with the noise of the crowd and the shouts of the trainers moving around the room if you’re watching with surround sound. It depicts an entire two-round match this way, and it’s a genuine single take (they shot it 13 times, with the 11th being the one used). It’s a very different and effective way of presenting a fight, but it’s more than just cinematic theatrics: to quote Scott Collette from Twitter, it’s “one of the smartest sequences in modern filmmaking. Coogler puts us into the ring and, in withholding an edit, he conditions us to trust in and rely entirely upon Creed’s skills and training to get us out, and he rewards that trust. In doing so, Coogler buys himself the freedom to edit the shit out of the final match. No matter where he cuts […] we never leave the ring. We’re always with Adonis because he’s the only one who’s shown us that he can get us through it.” That’s bolstered by another oner just before the climactic bout, in which Coogler makes us a member of Adonis’ squad: it begins in the quiet locker room, with Rocky’s prematch pep talk and a little warm-up, before the camera follows along as they walk down the tunnel, putting us in the middle of the team, all the way into the arena, the sound of thumping music and a baying crowd gradually growing, and it doesn’t end until Adonis is actually in the ring, ready to fight. Again, it’s all about aligning us with Adonis and his crew, emphasising how much we’re connected to him and his fate.
The way Coogler and composer Ludwig Göransson use the famous Rocky theme is neat too: they hold it back, hold it back, hold it back, so that when it finally hits, just that burst of score makes for a triumphant moment. But then it’s not allowed to take over: Adonis may have been helped by the Rocky legacy, but this is his story now. Neither Adonis the fighter nor Creed the film exist purely by leeching off nostalgia.
And yet, as I said at the start, my favourite thing about the film is that it is a Rocky movie. But, importantly, it’s the way it doesn’t just indulge in references, but actually seeks to develop on the Rocky story — on everything that went on in the previous films — that makes Creed one of the very best in the series. To quote Matt Zoller Seitz again, “Creed is the ultimate Rocky movie, because all the other Rocky movies are somehow contained within it.” I feel wrong enjoying Creed the most out of the Rocky movies — like I’m just going for the most recent one, as if new = best — but the major reason I loved it so much is the way it has reverence for and builds on the past. As a standalone movie, it’s more-or-less equal to the best of the original Rocky films; but as specifically the seventh film in the Rocky series, it stands atop that 40-year history to add extra weight to everything. By itself, Creed is a very good 4-star movie, but its respect for the legacy tipped me over the top.
Creed II is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.