D: Ryan Coogler / 133m
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Anthony Bellew, Ritchie Coster, Jacob “Stitch” Duran, Graham McTavish, Gabe Rosado
The Rocky series has been a recurring staple of moviegoing since Sylvester Stallone first introduced us to the Italian Stallion back in 1976. The first movie had so much heart it sometimes felt like it would burst, and Stallone’s performance was a perfect match for the character. Rocky II (1979) was the inevitable sequel, and Stallone was canny enough to replicate enough of what made the first movie so good with newer elements that complemented the original. But then he made an unnecessary third movie, Rocky III (1982), and suddenly Rocky was fighting for an uneasy mix of revenge and morality. And then we had the blatant jingoism of Rocky IV (1985), with the Italian Stallion representing American pride at its most unseemly against a near unstoppable Russian opponent (thank God the Cold War was nearly over).
That seemed to be it, but then Stallone came up with Rocky V (1990), an attempt at scaling back the stylistic excesses of the previous two movies, but which lacked an interesting story. By then, Stallone was forty-four and age was beginning to make its point (as the movie recognised), and the chances of Rocky Balboa still stepping into the ring and taking even more poundings was quickly dismissed. But just as you can never keep a good fighter down, a sixth movie appeared, Rocky Balboa (2006). It showed more of a respect for the series than parts III – V, and it gave Stallone a chance to show just how much affection he had for the character, and that Rocky could be rescued from unintended parody. And that, surely, everyone felt, was that.
Well, almost. Now we have a seventh movie and a sixth sequel, except that this time around, the focus isn’t on Rocky Balboa but instead it’s on the illegitimate son of his most famous opponent, Apollo Creed. He has the appropriate (and unfortunate) name of Adonis, and when we first meet him he’s a young boy in a childcare facility. He’s also beating up one of the other boys, so right away we know he’s got anger issues. And we know that these issues will resurface later in the movie to provide an obstacle to getting where he wants to be, and if by chance he meets someone significant, in being with the person he wants to be with. He’s given an unexpected reprieve from a young life busting other kid’s noses by the arrival of Apollo Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Rashad), who takes him home with her.
As an adult, Adonis (Jordan) is conflicted: he has a well-paid office job but he also fights down in Tijuana where he’s undefeated after fifteen bouts. He’s self-taught, self-motivated, but knows he needs a proper coach to help him make a name for himself in the ring. And that name needs to be Johnson, his mother’s name, because he doesn’t want to make it on the back of his father’s legendary status. So he resigns from his job, and moves from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, home of another boxing legend. There he approaches Rocky, who after the usual demurring, agrees to help him train to be a better, professional fighter. And he meets someone significant, in the form of wannabe musician and downstairs neighbour, Bianca (Thompson).
Adonis is focused, and when he wins his first US fight against local boxer Leo ‘The Lion’ Sporino (Rosado), the cat is soon out of the bag in terms of his heritage. And with World Light-Heavyweight Champion ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Bellew) needing a fight in the next six months, the stage is set for the kind of fairytale ending that only happens in Hollywood boxing movies, and which includes highlights of a highly physical, hugely punishing twelve round bout (basically the kind that rarely happen in the real world).
If some of the summary above sounds a little cynical, then it is. Creed is a movie that follows a well established template, and is incredibly easy to predict, right down to the outcome of Adonis’s bout with Conlan. There’s nothing here that you won’t have seen before, and there’s little that’s new or innovative. But fortunately, this is a movie where all that doesn’t matter, because what it does have is a fondness for and a charity towards the characters that allows them to feel like old friends even though you’ve only just met them. Adonis is the eternal child trying to find a place for himself in the world, and with only a single means to do it. He’s matched by Bianca, whose progressive hearing loss means she has to concentrate on her music almost to the exclusion of everything else. They’re both sympathetic characters and easily likeable, and both Jordan and Thompson have no trouble investing them with the kind of emotional honesty needed to avoid their becoming stereotypes.
And then there’s the man himself, Rocky Balboa, aged, resigned to running his restaurant, and staying adrift from the world that made him famous. This is a character that Stallone has played for nearly forty years all told, and this is finally the movie where he gives his best performance as the Italian Stallion. It’s a modest, surprisingly complex performance, with delicate shadings that haven’t been seen in a Rocky movie before, and Stallone appears so at home in the role that it really does seem difficult to separate the two: is Stallone Rocky, or is Rocky Stallone? Either way, the much maligned actor is excellent in his signature role, and he reminds us of just how much heart and soul the character had back in the beginning.
Away from Stallone, much of the movie’s success is down to the direction of Ryan Coogler. Coogler adopts a slightly unconventional visual approach to the movie which pays off during its quieter moments as the widescreen image is used to highlight a range of emotions. He’s also adept at keeping the camera in the ring, having it circle the boxers (and sometimes getting in between them) and prowl around every punch and blow. It’s a fluid performance by the camera, and superbly orchestrated by Coogler and DoP Maryse Alberti. The editing by Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver is also a plus in these sequences, interspersing the fluid camerawork with quick cuts and flourishes when the action needs to get in tight.
There are references to the earlier movies throughout, though bizarrely, Rocky’s early morning training run is transformed completely, with Adonis trailed and then overtaken by local youngsters on a variety of souped-up bikes. Bill Conti’s iconic score is in there as well, though you might not always recognise it, and of course, those steps outside the Philadelpha Museum of Art get a visit, but in a way that’s less majestical and more realistic. Fans will be pleased to see so much effort being put into what is the seventh movie in the series, and with the torch being passed from Stallone to Jordan, there’s always the possibility that we’ll be following Adonis Creed’s career for some time to come.
Rating: 8/10 – on a par with the first two movies, Creed is hugely enjoyable, and benefits from a script – by Coogler and Aaron Covington – that puts the characters first before the fight scenes; if there still remains a lack of development in some areas (the various subplots), there’s more than enough here to keep old, new and non-fans alike happy and satisfied.