The 1976 film Rocky is really really good, possibly great. Depending on your perspective that’s either an insanely obvious statement or a bit of a surprising reminder. Obviously Rocky is a very popular movie, one which once won an Academy Award for Best Picture and which has been loved by audiences for generations, but if ever there’s been a movie that’s been tainted by things outside of its control it’s that one. Rocky’s legacy has largely been tainted by five mostly superfluous sequels as well as the increasingly disreputable career of its star/screenwriter Sylvester Stallone. Honestly I’m not sure that even the greediest of studio executives would have watched the original Rocky and said to him or herself “I bet we could turn that into a seven film franchise,” rather that’s something that seems to have just happened over time and not necessarily with the worst intentions. Rocky II was an unneeded but serviceable follow-up, with Rocky III the franchise started to feel like a cash grab, and then came the infamous Rocky IV which featured Rocky fighting a steroid using Soviet champion before giving one of the most ridiculous speeches in film history to a cheering crowd of Russians who have suddenly been inspired by his American tenacity. Rocky V by contrast didn’t even have the energy to be stupid, the franchise had clearly run out of ideas and run out of places to go and it was only still going on out of sheer obligation. The series was put on ice for a while as Stallone went on to start in something like a dozen terrible movies through the 90s and early 2000s but was revived by 2006’s Rocky Balboa. A lot of people like that movie and see it as a worthy capper to the story, but I never thought much of that film and as the years have gone by find it have been a rather forgettable waste of time. Fortunately they’ve found a way to come back for one last time all over again, this time with a more promising premise that seems less like a conclusion and more like the passing of a torch.
The film is not a reboot, it acknowledges all of the established continuity of the series but focuses not on Rocky Balboa but on Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), a long lost son that Apollo Creed sired during an affair. Johnson born after Apollo was killed in the ring and was orphaned shortly thereafter. He had a rough childhood before Apollo’s wife finally tracked him down and took him in. From there Johnson lived a life of relative privilege, but still had psychological demons and daddy issues to work out and he did it by taking part in low level boxing matches in Tijuana. Eventually he grows tired of his day job and decides to take on boxing professionally but isn’t really welcomed in his father’s old gym. Instead he decides to travel to Philadelphia to seek the advice of Rocky Balboa, who is now firmly retired from boxing and focusing his efforts on his restaurant. When Johnson asks Rocky to train him he’s initially hesitant but given his strong affinity towards Johnson’s father he finally agrees. Soon, word of Johnson’s parentage gets out into the media and Johnson is offered a chance to take part in a championship fight despite his inexperience, an offer that would require him to fight against some pretty stiff odds.
Creed was directed by a guy named Ryan Coogler, who made a pretty big splash in 2013 with a drama called Fruitvale Station, which proved to be incredibly topical given that it was about an unarmed young black man being killed by a police officer. I had problems with that movie (in brief, that movie’s thesis is that black men are three dimensional and therefore don’t deserve to be murdered, that the movie expects this to be a shocking revelation to its audience is kind of insulting) and I kind of got the impression that it was a movie that a lot of people maybe wanted to like more than they actually did, but there was no doubt that it was skillfully made and that its director had a lot of promise. That movie also proved to be something of a breakout role for the actor Michael B. Jordan, who had previously had notable teenage roles on the shows “The Wire” and “Friday Night Lights” as well as in the movie Chronicle, but Fruitvale Station showed that he was going to transition pretty easily into adult roles and wasn’t going anywhere. The two reunite here with Jordan starring as the titular Creed and showing more of a movie star quality than we saw in his previous Coogler collaboration where he seemed to be going down more of a character actor route.
Sylvestor Stallone is back of course, this time in more of a supporting role that frequently threatens to take over and become a lead all over again. Stallone has been playing this role for forty years and seems to pretty much have it down, he isn’t doing anything radically different this time around from what he was doing in Rocky Balboa but the fact that he’s receiving direction this time around seems to have given him a little big a fresh eye on the character that was maybe missing when he was directing himself. Stallone should also be given some props for not letting his vanity get too much in the way this time around because this version of Rocky really does seem to be dipping into senior citizen territory. In fact, at 69 years old Stallone is actually the same age now that Burgess Meredith was when he played Mickey in the original Rocky. Tessa Thompson rounds out the cast as Bianca, an Adrian figure in Adonis’ life who has a penitent for music despite the fact that she’s going deaf and Phylicia Rashad as the perhaps too saintly widow of Apollo Creed and Adonis’ adoptive mother.
The basic structure of the film will not be unfamiliar to anyone who knows this series. Adonis starts at the bottom, learns the ropes from an older father figure, goes through a training montage, then finds himself in a boxing match that is probably out of his league but which he’s going to try his damnedest to win and maybe get the girl along the way. The film does find some clever ways to avoid pitfalls though. The idea of making Adonis the product of an affair is a pretty brilliant way to have your cake and eat it too in that it lets Adonis be an underdog from the streets and still be the son of a world famous boxer and it even finds a somewhat plausible way to get him into a championship fight at the end despite his inexperience. The film also benefits greatly from the fact that Ryan Coogler is, frankly, a much more talented visual stylist than John G. Avildsen (who directed 1 and 5) and Sylvester Stallone (who directed 2, 3, 4, and 6) ever were. The boxing scenes in particular are quite strong in the film. The fights aren’t terribly realistic (at this level boxing matches are a lot slower and much more defensive) but they are exciting and Coogler really finds a way to keep the camera at right at the fighters level and put the viewer right into the middle of the melees.
Creed is, if nothing else, a very smart career move for everyone involved. Ryan Coogler gets to show off his visual prowess and endear himself to the studios without having to resort to directing a superhero movie or something, Michael B. Jordan gets a starring role in a major film, Sylvester Stallone gets to reprise his most famous role without coming off as if he’s desperately going back to the well, and of course the studio gets to make use of a profitable franchise without having to make some kind of soulless remake. Indeed all these parties have put together a well made and audience pleasing sports movie, but they’ve done it through rather formulaic means. Deep down, I don’t know that this really has a single thing to offer that wasn’t already there in the very first Rocky forty years ago. For what it is, Creed is very enjoyable, let’s just not make it into something it’s not.
*** out of Four