Creed is what re-imagining a franchise should look like, something that homages its past in the past way possible while delivering a story that is wholly its own.
Set in the Rocky universe, a film that included six films already, Creed follows the bastard son of Rocky’s frenemy Apollo Creed, who was born from a mistress of his who gave birth after Apollo was tragically killed in the ring. Apollo’s son, Adonis, was raised in group homes under the last name Johnson, but was taken in at a young age by Apollo’s widow, raising her husband’s infidelity as her own. Adonis gets an education, a good job and avoids his juvy ridden past, but he can’t leave behind that boxing itch in his blood. Leaving his life behind and training under the name Donny Johnson, he solicits the help of Rocky Balboa to train him as Adonis’ self taught skills can’t get him any further than he’s already gone.
This film came about after director Ryan Coogler broke out with Fruitvale Station a few years back, and it was revealed he had this dream to make a Rocky sequel surrounding the son of Creed. Before you know it the film became a real thing and Coogler didn’t miss his opportunity. Coogler is the star of Creed. Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone are both great in this film, but the show Coogler puts on behind the camera is an eye-opening experience for film fans. I wasn’t all that high on Fruitvale Station when it came out, but Creed is a step up onto a level that demands Coogler be a director that you have to watch. His camerawork in the film is just awe-inspiring at times, as he finds a way to make a boxing film feel fresh again in a genre that is full of films. His use of single takes in particular really stand out, but he also brings a kinetic nature to the boxing that is crystal clear to follow even if you are in the heart of all the action. The showcase piece of his direction is a single take boxing match that is worth the price of admission alone. Bobbing in between and around the boxers, checking in with the coaches ringside, building incredible tension as the shot just won’t cut away and the fight just keeps on going. It might be the shot of the year. Coogler is a director I don’t plan on missing out on anytime soon after his work on Creed.
While Creed is clearly technically impressive, there are a couple of shortcomings in the writing. I think the film tried to be a bit too faithful to following in Rocky’s footsteps here and there and I had a hard time rolling with the third act wrench they throw in there between Adonis and Rocky. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and they almost make it work, but I don’t think the film gains anything by having these two be estranged for ten minutes in the movie. That said, the script is mostly pretty great besides that, delivering tension, laughs and pathos throughout the picture without ever feeling forced. I’m not a die-hard Rocky fan, but that trip up those famous steps was pretty special.
That said, Jordan and Stallone work beautifully off one another and I hope we get to see more between the two of them going forward. First, let’s get to Stallone, who has never been better in a movie. He doesn’t get to work with a ton of great directors, but Coogler clearly got something special out of Stallone. He isn’t trying to be the macho meathead he has been trying to play as of late, Rocky is old and fragile here and Stallone plays the role to perfection. He’s funny, he’s endearing, he’s fatherly; there is so much there for Stallone to work with and he nails it through and through. Jordan is also excellent, selling us on the physical side with ease and having the emotional complexity no Rocky character has had before this. Jordan is one of next great actors, and it’s great to see him shine here in a big movie star role. He also has wonderful chemistry with Tessa Thompson, as their romantic sub-plot of the film works every step of the way. Again, I wish they didn’t feel the need to throw the wrench into this relationship too, even if this one makes a bit more sense, but Thompson and Jordan are sexy together and are a couple you root for to get together in the end.
Creed always seemed like a clever way to re-launch a franchise in today’s hollywood outlook, but I never imagined it would work as well as it did. I am probably being too hard on the film with my quibbles over the wrench throwing the script does, but outside that complaint I don’t really have any. I was thrilled and entertained over the course of most of Creed’s runtime and that is thanks to some stellar direction from Coogler and great turns by Jordan and Stallone. Never thought I would think Stallone is worth seeing a movie for, but here I am telling you to see it for him. Even better, it’s a coming out party for Coogler and Jordan, who I hope continue to collaborate for years to come; and not just on Creed sequels.