“[O]ne of Stallone’s finest performances in years.”
If you would’ve told me Ryan Coogler, the director of Fruitvale Station, would’ve been to helm the production of Creed, a Rocky spinoff that focused on the son of Rocky Balboa’s original opponent Apollo Creed, I would’ve undoubtedly laughed at you. Now here I am writing a review of another Rocky-centered film in 2015 helmed by two of the greatest, yet most unsung talents of the 2010’s. Fruitvale Station remains one of the most thoughtful and underseen films of this decade, and Coogler and Jordan seem to realize that they will need to throw bigger punches (pun intended) and make more noise in order to get themselves noticed. The result is Creed, a wonderful throwback to the principles, emotional authenticity, and the layered characters that made the original Rocky film so special and so renowned, even to this day.
The film revolves around Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate kid of acclaimed fighter Apollo Creed, who died shortly before his father’s birth. In and out of foster care for years, and with a few bouts of juvenile detention where he learned to fight, Adonis is finally taken in by Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashād) when Adonis’s biological mother winds up dying. Despite her advice, Adonis wants to train to become a fighter like his father, for it’s practically all he has known to do his whole life.
Living on the cold, unfriendly streets of Philadelphia, Adonis looks towards boxing legend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) for training tips and pointers as he climbs his way to face “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), a talented, but troubled, British light heavyweight champion who has never been knocked down. A lot of factors play into Adonis’s quest for a win, however, including Rocky becoming unexpectedly sick, his alter-ego “Donnie Johnson” being exposed as a coverup to hide the Creed name, and his infatuation with his neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who is becoming progressively deaf.
Though it’s a bit bizarre to make it the primary note of a boxing film, it must be stated how well Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti choreograph the two boxing matches in this film, with the first being the prime cinematic achievement. The first boxing match in Creed is conducted in one long take, almost mirroring the kind of coherency and flow of a meticulous dance-number. Pauses and breaks have Coogler’s camera rushing over to profile the opposing corners before plunging back into the action accordingly. It is during the boxing scenes that Coogler decides to focus on facial expressions; everything from game faces, to poker faces, to faces with unfathomable injuries when round eight or nine rolls around. The result is a film that flows in its editing (thanks to both Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver) with a certain, elegant musicality.
Coogler’s love for facial expressions is shown throughout the film, however, even during casual scenes, like Adonis and Bianca going on their first date or him and Rocky having a heart-to-heart. Such a focus shows the tender side of Coogler, and in a physically and mentally arduous sport like boxing, human emotions can something get traded for the adrenaline and sheer rush of energy that comes through in the scenes of the actual sport.
Thankfully, Coogler and Jordan work to make the film deeply predicated off of Creed’s person and personality. Both men already took a real-life person who has been shortchanged to the poster-child victim of unnecessary police brutality and showed how every day events in life can shape our personalities in Fruitvale Station, so it’s not particularly surprising to see how the two men made this film with a considerable human angle. Michael B. Jordan gives yet another strong performance, filled with dramatic urgency that has me predicting at least an Oscar nomination for the incredible young star in the next ten years. Perhaps the most surprising performance of the hour, however, comes from Stallone, who adds a great emotional layer to the story thanks to his natural presence and grace. Stallone comfortably slips back into his Rocky character with ease and a desire to play the character as an aging legend, selflessly helping the son of a rival/friend without a very evident cheeky edge to the material. It’s one of Stallone’s finest performances in years.
Creed may not be as gritty or as hard to watch as this year’s Southpaw, but it doesn’t really need to be. Unlike Southpaw, which showed the pain-ridden personal side to boxing, Creed shows the triumphant side of celebrating a win and training, in addition to the negative side of being dragged down because of something you cannot control – your namesake. During the last fight, I heard emphatic cheers from the audience as if they were watching a UFC fight at the theater and not a Hollywood film. Just like I said about Southpaw, boxing films are special in the realm of film because, if done right, they almost blur the line of cinema and reality in terms of the way they depict the sport, and often inspire and uproot our richest adrenaline to prompt such heavy reactions. Creed deserves its reactions.