After almost four decades and five sequels, the Rocky franchise was looking more than a bit beat up. Sure we got through much of the 80s with the pomp and circumstance of Mr. Balboa taking on Mr. T and the entire system of Soviet Communism, but for the most part what was lacking was the grit, the tenacity, and more importantly the crucial underdog nature of Rocky’s first fight.
Creed may not be to everyone’s taste, but for fans of the franchise they just may well be ecstatic. The film makes an argument for being the first truly worthy successor to Stallone’s original tale, checking off more than a few nostalgia checkboxes while crafting a narrative that’s still contemporary. In some ways it plays like a perfect cover song, requiring the emotional baggage of the previous works yet very much hanging in there on its own terms.
Cinematically the film is quite remarkable, once again echoing the groundbreaking Steadicam shots that thrilled audiences with the first Rocky. The first fight is a tour-de-force of sweeping Steadi movies, going from two-shots to closeups while swirling around the ring. Other homages are less elegant (a wheelie scene of triumph less effective than another, later iconographic climb up a steep incline), but it’s clear that director Ryan Coogler and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti carefully studied John Avildsen and Richard Halsey’s work from 1976.
Performance-wise we get a terrific turn from Michael B. Jordan, one filled with passion, intelligence and raw physicality. He was wasted in Fantastic Four, and every fan of The Wire knows how deep the man’s talent is. Stallone hasn’t been this rich and sympathetic in years, and while early talk of Oscar nom may be reaching, it’s a quite exquisite return to form for the performer who all to regular slips from his highs to his lows. It saddens me, for one, that something like Cop Land was almost twenty years ago – there’s a terrific talent who’s often lost among action trifle, and when it comes out in force like it does here it’s a blast to watch.
Tessa Thompson’s role is far more interesting than is usual in these cases, and Phylicia Rashād gives a terrific turn as Creed’s mom. The film is littered with non-actors bringing tremendous verisimilitude to the proceedings, from gym rats to cutmen to stage announcers, and it gives in some ways a documentary feel to the work. Its nemesis Tony Bellew’s physicality in the ring that gives the final fight much of its power.
This is a huge step up in terms of audience recognition for Coogan, whose last work Fruitvale Station showcased another blistering take by Jordan. The move from indie to studio franchise is rarely handled with this much dexterity, and Coogan immediately establishes himself as an A-level talent perfectly cable of being entrusted with big or small projects alike.
The best part of all, perhaps, is that the film manages to both satisfy fans and toy with expectations, twisting many of the clichés that Rocky helped propagate in order to craft a new bout of pugilism. Creed is a new testament to the fight film, borrowing poetry and process from what’s come before but adding a dash of urbanity and social consciousness that doesn’t feel hackneyed.
As awards season creeps up and films that can sometimes feel portentous make themselves known to audiences it’s refreshing to see another action-oriented film that gets things so very right (here’s looking at you again, Mad Max). It’s maybe easy to lay too much praise on this film, especially after misfires like Southpaw shows how this kind of flick can easily falter, but from its opening sequence in a juvenile detention center through to the final combat we’re led through emotions high and low, a bit of wisdom from an elder statesman of boxing film lore, and the recognition of some truly great filmmaking and performances by the rest of the ensemble.
Creed is terrific, a true invigoration of the Rocky storyline, and perhaps the most fitting ending of all for the narrative (it’s good enough you almost don’t want another one, if that can be convincingly argued). With ace direction and a rock-solid lead by Jordan, it’s easily one of the best films of the season.