When the news broke earlier in the week that Sylvester Stallone was producing a new Rambo and son TV series spinoff, there was a deafening din on the internet caused by the violent gnashing of teeth as fans angrily lamented “WHY?!”. On it’s own, it’s already an unnecessary, creatively bankrupt idea, but it’s made even more so by the fact that this year has already given us a platform upon which Stallone can pass the torch from one of his famed characters to a new generation. That platform is Creed and it is – pardon the obligatory boxing pun – a knockout!
Rising up in the metaphorical 12th round like the franchise’s titular hero, this Rocky spinoff doesn’t just revitalize and modernize a franchise that has been bobbing and weaving onto cinema screens and into audiences’ hearts since 1976, but also stands as a wonderfully crafted, emotionally punchy homage to Stallone’s triple Oscar-winning 1976 original film.
This time around the focus is on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the troubled illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, one time boxing rival and best friend of Stallone’s now aged Rocky Balboa. Despite Apollo having died before Adonis was even born, he is very much his father’s son: a natural born fighter. A fact that terrifies and angers his adopted mother and Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), as she’s already had to see one Creed too many die in the boxing ring. Not that that dissuades Adonis from pursuing his pugilist dreams one bit.
Going by his late biological mother’s maiden surname of Johnson – so as to make a name for himself instead of riding his father’s star-spangled coattails – Adonis moves out to Philadelphia where he tracks down Stallone’s Rocky in the hopes of coaxing the greying ex-boxer out of retirement to train him. And despite heavy initial trepidation to step back into this often painful part of his life, Rocky agrees once he’s won over by Adonis’ affable charm and persistence. And it isn’t long before the news of an unknown fighter trained by the great Rocky Balboa gets noticed by the boxing pundits, setting up Adonis for his real professional and personal test.
Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler had already turned the then unknown Michael B. Jordan into a hot Hollywood commodity with the hard-hitting (not a boxing pun, I promise) true life drama Fruitvale Station, but here, in just his second feature film directing gig, he gives the 28-year old rising star a primetime main card billing to show off both his prodigious physical and dramatic talents. And Jordan absolutely owns it. Able to go from charming beau as he tries to romance his next-door neighbour singer-songwriter Bianca (Tessa Thomson) to beastly young man as his prickly emotions boil over at the mention of his father, Jordan shows off his acting range with aplomb. If you’ve ever doubted his movie star credentials, he knocks those misgivings flat here with a franchise building performance.
But while Jordan is exceptional as Adonis, and is required to do most of the film’s muscle-work, it’s Stallone as this twilit version of a once great champion who nearly steals it all. His Rocky is a man out of sync with the world – all that was once good in his life has either left him or passed him by – and when faced with his own personal challenge threatening to knock him down, it leads down some nihilistic pathways. It’s a performance layered in both flagging machismo and tender fragility, reminding us in the most heartbreaking way that this 69-year old elder statesman of the screen began his career as much more than just the musclebound action hero he would mainly become known as.
With the brilliant one-two combination of Jordan and Stallone leading from the front with definite awards-worthy showings, the rest of the cast all bring their A-game, turning in solid performances across the board. Similarly behind the camera, Coogler executes his game plan to near perfection (there is a slight pacing issue early on). He showed us with Fruitvale Station that his grasp of raw human drama is exemplary, and he keeps up that high standard here with a gallery of powerful moments, both triumphant and devastating.
But it’s his work in the boxing ring that truly stands out, as he shoots Adonis’ fights with a masterly eye, with the highlight being a complete fight shot in one single-take – the lack of edits, Coogler’s framing and the brilliantly engaging and crystal clear work of cinematographer Maryse Alberti all combining for a bristling sequence where you just can’t look away.
Not that you would want to look away from any other boxing scenes either as the 29-year old Coogler, utterly belying his relative filmmaking newcomer status, stages them with a veteran’s understanding of dramatic ebb and flow, wringing a plethora of emotions out of every bone-jarring punch, every gaping bloody cut, every tactical surge and retreat. This is heavyweight filmmaking that is powerful and poignant and timely, with Rocky’s words ringing true that your toughest opponent, whether in boxing or life, is the person staring back at you in the mirror.
Creed is a monumental film, reviving an icon and simultaneously introducing a brand new contender in the best way possible. It’s a film about legacy, both embracing it and escaping it. It’s a film about fathers and sons, pride and humility. It’s a film about striving for your dreams and being willing to knock down any opposition that dares to stand in the way of making that a reality. Most importantly though, it’s just a damn good piece of cinema that can proudly run up those famous Philadelphian steps and also raise its arms in absolute triumph like it’s legendary predecessor.
Last Updated: December 3, 2015