Directed by Ryan Coogler. Starring Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thomson, Phylicia Rashad, Andre Ward, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish.
Sometimes a formulaic movie is great because of how effectively it uses the established formula. “Rocky” (1976) is just such a movie. So is “Creed.”
There aren’t a lot of surprises in “Creed.” There aren’t supposed to be. The narrative is based on a formula that dates back to “The Patent Leather Kid” (1927) and has been used in most films about boxing. While some challenge the formula (“City for Conquest,” “The Set Up,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “Raging Bull”) most are satisfied in centering on an eager young fighter, his seasoned trainer, and their growth as well as their various conflicts on their way to the top. “Kid Galahad,” “The Square Jungle,” “Winner Take All,” even Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning “Million Dollar Baby” are successful uses of this formula. “Rocky” might be the quintessential example.
The success of “Rocky” went far beyond anyone’s expectations, spawning several rather lackluster sequels and elevating the title character into a cinematic icon. Stallone’s other work (from the challenging “Copland”, the insightful “Paradise Alley,” or straight up actioners like “Cobra”) pales in comparison to the success he enjoyed as slow witted prizefighter Rocky Balboa. The only franchise that enjoyed that level of success in Stallone’s career is the “First Blood” series featuring the actor as war hero John Rambo.
“Creed” approaches its narrative differently. While it embraces the same formula of a tough, angry kid who uses boxing to prove himself, eventually rising in the ranks to the top, it does so without manipulation and where even the sentimental scenes have an irresistible earnestness. Rocky is now an old man, settled into a successful restaurant business. Left alone by the passing of his wife and friends, and the estrangement of his son, Rocky remains grounded, and expects no more out of life. Adonis Johnson is the illegitimate child of Apollo Creed, the result of an affair Creed had just prior to his death. He died before the child was born.
The film makes all the usual stops as it journeys through its narrative: the gradual increased success in training, the gains attained from Rocky’s rugged insight, and the series of low grade fights that help the young man’s confidence. Meanwhile, the film shows us that everyone must fight an even bigger battle than the title character. His girl, a singer, is slowly losing her hearing. Rocky discovers he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. These bouts are far more serious than simply wanting to achieve in the prize ring for personal and psychological reasons. They are there as a matter of perspective, and the film is smart enough to avoid giving them more than tangential attention.
Stallone climbs into the Rocky Balboa role like a comfortable old shoe, and the audience grins at seeing an old friend on the screen. The fact that he is now the same age as Burgess Meredith was in the first “Rocky” is mind boggling for those of us old enough to have seen both films upon their initial release. Michael B. Jordan both embodies and controls the title role, proving himself as effectively as his character does in the ring. But the real star of “Creed” is director and co-screenwriter Ryan Coogler, who understands the territory so completely; he has managed to make the only truly great “Rocky” sequel.
When John Avildsen directed the first “Rocky,” his reliance on quick edits to convey the tightly choreographed fight scenes led the film to a Best Picture Oscar. Ryan Coogler impressively uses the effects that cinema offers nearly 40 years later, with the same penchant for quick shots that have a jab-like rhythm. The fact that Coogler wasn’t even alive until after the first four “Rocky” films had already been released makes his understanding of the character even more impressive.
What both the first “Rocky” and this film succeed in doing, along with effectively utilizing an established cinematic formula, is inspiring audiences to connect with the characters, remain interested in their story, and feel excitement during the final fight as if it were actually happening before their eyes. The applause that met the end of this movie at the screening I attended is something that rarely occurs in these more jaded, cynical times. It was even unusual in the 70s when the same thing happened at the end of “Rocky.” But it happened both times.