A long time ago in a galaxy that is, well, ours, a franchise was born. It was the 1970s and an unexpected hit stormed the box office, won Oscars and began a decades long series that would have releases in every decades since the original. Now, 2015 arrives and the seventh picture in this behemoth arrives, complete with a star from the original. The film I speak of Star Wars – The Force Awakens, but also Creed, the latest installment of the Rocky run.
However, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) is no longer the main character. He is old, alone and now a supporting player to the titular man; Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). Adonis had a rough childhood that featured his single mother passing and his father dying before he was even born. That father, biologically speaking, was Apollo Creed, the legendary boxer who fought with Rocky for the world-championship before being killed in the ring mid-match. After roughly a decade into his life in-and-out of juvenile detention, Apollo’s wife (Phylicia Rashad), whom Apollo had cheated on, takes in young Adonis. She wishes a life of simplicity and ease for him, but Adonis longs to fight.
He moves to Philadelphia, where he tries to convince Rocky, his father’s old nemesis and friend, to train him. Adonis struggles with his dad’s shadow and namesake, finding solace in the ring and with his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson). What follows is a bit obvious. It’s moving and heartfelt too.
Perhaps this all sounds like a convoluted cash-grab; a way for a studio and producer to ring the last drops of nostalgia out of a famous product. Perhaps that is true. What is definitely true is that Creed is dynamite. Directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), who co-wrote the film with newcomer Aaron Covington, Creed is a rather low-key, but mainstream affair. Coogler cooks into his creation enough grit and natural flow to make this rather Hollywood tale sing authentically. Music swells in big moments, but doesn’t linger in the background like an unwanted shadow. Speeches are given, yet come from the heart and have a directness that make the words ring of humanity versus a writer’s room.
It helps that Jordan and Stallone are terrific. Given a character with complexity, Jordan uses his eyes to say a great deal. The man has a stare that is both tender and constant, as if to see “I won’t give up, even if I’m a bit broken right now.” The performance is more than intensity though. Jordan keeps it grounded, trying to become a better boxer and man through adversity, able to laugh at his own mistakes and unleash his charm to get his way. Jordan brings all of these conflicting feelings to the surface in a muted manner, with the fire popping when the anger rises.
Stallone matches Jordan’s work, even if his eyebrows are a little locked in place after so many surgeries. That is more than made up for by his loving tenor and concerned tone. The character of Rocky too stands at a relatable, normal space. He’s lost some loved ones and lives alone, but is no sad-sack. He has a relationship to his son, that appears neither in shambles or ideal, but real.
Also in the pot of quality acting is Thompson as Bianca, Adonis’ love interest. Not the deepest of characters, Bianca is still more than device for our lead to vent to when he’s down. Thompson is a big reason why, no shock for those that saw her incredible work in last year’s Dear White People, where she showed off a knack for being intelligent and vulnerable.
For those that are just itching for a good sports tale, with fisticuffs and knockouts, Coogler’s film will please that audience. His camera circles the competitors, locking in on the dance that is boxing. The brawls are highly choreographed without ever coming off as showy or over-the-top. However, for a person who doesn’t have a history with the Rocky movies, or doesn’t care to see two brutes smacking each other about, Creed should still be seen. As Roger Ebert said, it’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it. Creed is just a boxing movie like The Martian is just a botany story. There is heart here, and comedy and loss and triumph. There are characters you root for on a very base, simple level. Sometimes that is all you need. It’s nice that Creed has a little more too.