In an era where franchises are all the rage and sequels/reboots dominate the box office, it is easy to look back at the Rocky movies as a potent example of why such things have come to pass. The commercial success of all six up to this point is undeniable, and that license to print cash is a strong motivator. But things have been much iffier on the quality front. Rarely has a franchise of anything swung so wildly between the intensely serious (Rocky, Rocky II and Rocky Balboa), the cartoonish (III and IV) and the downright awful (V).
Many would have agreed with Stallone’s assessment that, for all the ups and downs of the Rocky behemoth, the series ended on a decent note with Balboa in 2006. But Hollywood is an insatiable animal, and getting old properties back on the go is becoming part and parcel of the way studios operate in the 2010’s. So, Creed, an attempt to both re-invent and revitalise that most famous of boxing films. Does it go the distance, or is a regrettable step too far for a franchise that should have been allowed stay out for the count?
Donnie Johnson (Michal B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, is taken in by Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) as a child, and grows into a restless young man with an untapped talent for the sweet science. Looking to make his way in the boxing world and maybe live up to, or get out from under, the memory of his father, Donnie travels to Philadelphia, seeking the coaching talents of retired legend Rocky Balboa (Stallone). The memory of Apollo’s death still haunts Rocky, but he is drawn towards the task of training Donnie nonetheless. While romancing downstairs neighbour Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Donnie sets out to make his own legend in the ring.
If The Force Awakens was essentially a remake of A New Hope, then Creed is basically a remake of the first Rocky. The same elements are all there, especially in terms of general plot structure. But director Ryan Coogler, following on from the well-regarded Fruitvale Station, pulls the same stunt as JJ Abrams in many respects, in the creation of something resembling a facsimile, but which succeeds regardless due to the not inconsiderable focus on characterisation and changes in tone and message, in this case wrapping the familiar underdog boxing story in issues of living up to an already existing legacy and racial divides.
While Coogler never gets too blunt with it, Creed is a film all about African-Americans and their place in America. Donnie struggles and struggles, and Bianca struggles and struggles, and while there is never hint of active racism from antagonist characters or the powers that be, the subtler hints are there everywhere: discussions on Apollo Creed’s tarnished memory when it is discovered he has an illegitimate son, Donnie and Rocky’s training work in an impoverished African-American neighbourhood or that searingly effective opening with a young Donnie locked up in a violent juvenile detention facility. Dropping the “N” word and fighting with other children constantly, the younger Donnie could be a stand-in for too many African-American children, and his rescue from the vortex of the system is a miracle in itself, one that he struggles to make good on. Over everything looms Apollo Creed himself, seen only in footage from previous films, an African-American icon, and Donnie’s attempts to follow the same path could seem like heresy.
And this is Creed’s story, the new Creed that is. Jordan, a wonderful young talent I was worried might vanish into the ether, Taylor Kitsch-style, after Fantastic Four, gives a gutsy performance as Donnie here, dominating things from start to finish, not an easy thing to accomplish when sharing screen time with someone like Stallone, and in such an iconic role. Just as following the younger Stallone was a captivating experience in Rocky, so is following Jordan’s Donnie in Creed: an energetic, bordering on reckless, young man, who is caught between wanting to live up to the ghost of the father he never knew, and the possibility that such a quest might actually be beneath him.
Jordan really gets across the kind of pain a man of his position is called upon to bury deep down inside until he can’t any longer, and that mission to find purpose, belonging and a place (a name, even) to call his own is something that truly drives Creed along. It’s in every other scene: as he reluctantly tells his adopted mother he has quit a stable job to pursue boxing; as he first tries to romance Bianca; or as he deals with the public reaction to the revelation of “Little Creed”. That kind of masculine pain, masked but intense when released, is something Jordan delivers vividly.
But we cannot overlook Stallone either. In a time when drek like The Expendables franchise seems to be his primary focus, it comes as a consistent surprise to be reminded that Stallone can actually act, and act well. Rocky might be the mentor, the sideshow, but his performance, reminding us of just why it was so easy to like and get behind this struggling Philadelphia down and out so long ago, is exceptional. Stallone imbues Rocky with all of the charm he can muster, in scenes where the increasingly aged icon chats happily to the headstone of his deceased wife, or as he is slowly brought round to becoming the trainer Donnie needs to succeed. But amid all of the happier stuff, Stallone and Coogler’s story is careful to also portray a man living in desperate loneliness: in a ramshackle house, with few friends or confidantes, whose life is rapidly transformed by the sudden appearance of Donnie. Mentor and pupil need a bond: that bond here is a shared searching for meaning in their lives.
Creed goes through much of the motions that any audience member will expect, but the quality sheen is evident everywhere, especially in the cinematography of Coogler and Maryse Alberti, which has an independent tinge at times, when it isn’t trying somethings more audacious, like a thrilling one shot exploration of Donnie’s first legitimate boxing match around the halfway point. Indeed, those sequences are Creed’s great visual highlight, and no one will possibly be disappointed by the presentation of the finale, where the thunderous hooks and knock-downs will surely leave viewers wincing and dodging in their seats. Along with the suitably big and booming score of Ludwig Goransson, the expected montages are present, in spades, but never fail to entertain, even if an attempt to match up to the famed “Rocky steps” sequence at the end of the second act came off to me as a bit overblown.
Where Creed gets more serious kudos from me is in its romance plot. It would be all too easy for Thompson’s wonderfully endearing Bianca to be a one-note character, meant to be a slight foil for Donnie and nothing else. But, like Adrian in the first Rocky, she manages to make her mark on the film, a young woman making the most out of the rather crappy hand she has been dealt in life, providing another effective contrast for Donnie. While Bianca is supporting for sure, it’s nice to see the primary female character of the movie be an actual character, with their own life, aspirations and goals, and who both gives and receives something important when it comes to the titular character. One can only hope that in the inevitable sequels, Bianca does not go the way of Adrian, and be just another female prop.
I should also make mention of Rashad, stepping into the role of Mary Anne Creed. Though she appears in only a few scenes, she shows some wonderful heart in portraying a woman not only confronting the human evidence of her husband’s infidelity, but embracing and sheltering it. It’s only briefly noted that Rocky and Mary Anne haven’t spoken since Apollo funeral: I wonder if there was material about a reconciliation between the two that was cut or never filmed, because it seemed like Creed was the kind of story that would have included such plot beats. It would have been good to give Rashad just a bit more, maybe in place of some plot strands I didn’t care for as much (see below).
Coogler’s script too is an understated delight. Johnson and Stallone spar verbally in a really wonderful manner long before the older man is training the younger, and Thompson’s scenes also abound with a vibrant verbal energy. I wouldn’t even say that Creed is really a quotable movie in the same vein as previous efforts in this franchise, aside from the required boxing knowledge about “the toughest opponent you’re evet going to face” but there is something very powerful in simple declarations like “If I fight, you fight” when Donnie urges Rocky to consider treatment for his increasingly dire medical problems, or Rocky’s “Time takes everybody out; time’s undefeated”, in reference to Apollo Creed’s downfall but perhaps speaking as well about his own life, character and actor.
Of course, Creed does have its flaws. There’ some editing weaknesses where Coogler essentially stops the main plot of his movie for around 20 minutes or past the midway point, to focus purely on serious problems for the Rocky character. While some of this stuff was effectively emotional, I felt that it did slow the film down to a negative extent, and was overly-sentimental to a fault. There is almost something perverse about seeing the icon that is Rocky brought low in such a fashion. Creed, as a natural extension of this problem perhaps, is also a touch too long, at a very lengthy 133 minutes.
In terms of the general narrative, Creed also suffers from a poor showing for Donnie’s primary opponent, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, a Liverpool native played by boxer Tony Bellew. Rocky’s adversaries might have run the gauntlet between deadly serious to caricatures, but you could never say that any of them were boring or uninteresting. Even Ivan Drago, as a personification of the ruthless, indomitable perception of the Soviet Union, had a somewhat serious point to make.
But Conlan, a Mersyside tough guy with a half-baked backstory and little screen time before the blows start to get thrown, is low on the list, and that final fight loses something for that. Coogler perhaps took Rocky’s key training mantra, that Donnie’s real opponent was himself and that the other guy is just “in the way”, a bit too literally, to the extent that Conlan is a practical non-entity outside of his showy entrance to that final punch-up.
Still, that finale does manage to hit (ha!) the right peaks for the most part, as Creed wraps itself up in themes of finding your place in the world and being happy with it, the perseverance to go the distance and a recognition of how important some people are too your life. The end result is a film that puts a bright 2016 gloss on past plots as it looks to the future of a now revitalised franchise.
There are times, loath when much of the movie-watching public must admit it, when Hollywood does reboots and sequels right. Creed, the latest in a line of “soft” reboots, is an example of that. The story is familiar, but looks as new as it can possibly look. The cast does great work, with the help of a decent script and great cinematography. The little details all come together, and despite some pacing problems, Creed is the kind of film that can easily slot in beside Rocky, II and Balboa as one of the better offering in this now lengthy series that I for one cannot wait to see continued. Creed II, when it inevitable comes, is going to be the crucial indicator as to whether this franchise has the legs to keep going: if this director and this cast can be kept on-board, I see little reason why it can’t. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyers Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures).