The underdog, the arrogant superstar, the training montage, the final fight–we’ve seen it all before. It’s a pretty typical setup, and Rocky wasn’t the first to use it. So why did people go to see it? And why would people want to see Creed, the newest installment in the series? Because of the passion. Take any story, even the most clichéd or overused, tell it with genuine passion and the audience will be moved every time.
Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, both made famous by their indie debut Fruitvale Station, team up yet again for Creed with Coogler in the director’s chair and Jordan starring. His character, Adonis Johnson, is the son of legendary fighter Apollo Creed, now deceased. He was born out of wedlock, hence the different last name, but ends up being mothered by Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne, played by Phylicia Rashad (Mrs. Huxtable?!). She’s a kind, wise, and wealthy woman who wants the good life for her son. Johnson, though, shares his father’s drive for boxing as well as a promising amount of his skill. He throws away the silver spoon that was handed to him and sets off for Philadelphia to find Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, obviously), who he quickly convinces to train him. He also meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), his new neighbor and a singer who quickly develops into a romantic interest. Adonis wants nothing more than to escape his father’s shadow and make a name for himself, a goal that becomes quite possible to achieve when an undefeated legendary boxer named ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan challenges him to a fight. Now all Rocky and Adonis have to do is train, train, train.
Seeing this all written out on paper makes it seem pretty typical, but it’s the movie’s quieter moments that make it worth seeing. Its greatest strength is in its writing. The four main characters all have something looming in their future that they can’t escape–Adonis will eventually have to own up to his father’s name, Bianca has a hearing loss issue that will one day render her completely deaf, Rocky has the ravages of old age sneaking up on him, and Ricky Conlan will have to face a prison sentence that will ultimately end his career. It’s how the characters deal with these inevitabilities that define them, and how they help each other cope that solidifies their relationships. There are many dialogue scenes, especially those between Adonis and Rocky, that are sure to get the tears going. A simple conversation about physical training can unexpectedly turn into a conversation about emotional struggles–the two are constantly intertwined. Like Rocky in the 1976 original, Adonis isn’t just fighting to be the best, he’s fighting to figure out who he is as a person. This makes it very easy to sympathize with him and will have you on the edge of your seat during the fights as you root for him to land a KO punch.
And of course, I can’t review a Rocky movie without talking about the fights. They are awesome. The fights in Rocky were filmed in a way that seemed to imitate television coverage–a real-time, objective view of the action that was very exciting. Creed takes it a step further and gets into the fighter’s heads, showing the bout from their point of view. Sometimes the light on the spectators dims so all that’s visible is the ring and the two fighters locked in combat. Time will suddenly slow, Adonis’s breathing and heartbeat the only sounds audible. This lets the audience empathize even more with Adonis, seeing his struggles through his eyes. In this way, Creed‘s fight scenes remind me of those from Scorsese’s classic, Raging Bull. And sometimes, they’re almost as bloody. One fight in particular that was extremely impressive was, unless I missed some well-disguised cheat-cuts, done all in one take. The camera stays close on the fighters, moving in a figure eight to show both sides of the action. I didn’t know I was signing up to see the Birdman of boxing movies, but it was much appreciated–very impressive.
Other than the fights, however, the cinematography left a bit to be desired. It’s not necessarily bad, but it didn’t add much to the film. There’s a lot of flat, shot reverse shot scenes that are visually tiresome and the camera is usually off the tripod, bobbing around with the focus loose. This is, of course, not inherently a bad thing, but after a while it simply seemed distracting. The only other major complaint I had with the film was the character of Bianca. I will say, the concept of a music-maker dealing with inevitable deafness is a touching story arc, but her struggle seems to be included solely to reflect Adonis’s and it isn’t explored any further than that. She ends up feeling more like an obligatory romantic interest instead of a truly fleshed out character like Adrian was in the original. Taking this into account, Tessa Thompson’s performance is still effectively engaging–I just wish Bianca didn’t feel like an afterthought.
Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky XXVII: Drago’s Revenge–all of these are fun movies, but they were missing something that the original had. Rocky was an underdog story made by an underdog–Sylvester Stallone was broke when he wrote it–and you can feel that energy of Stallone trying to prove himself in every shot. The movie really mattered to him. Creed harkens back to those days. The director, Ryan Coogler, was coming to grips with his father aging and becoming ill and he worked through his emotions by writing the screenplay for Creed. You can feel those emotions every step of the way and it fills the clichéd plot layout with something very real to hold onto, which makes each punch and dodge that much more epic. Just like Adonis strives to define himself in the midst of his father’s shadow, Coogler and Jordan strive to make themselves known as capable filmmakers in the midst of this megalithic franchise. I believe they have succeeded.
Written by David Goodliffe
Here’s the article about Ryan Coogler talking about how seeing his father struggle with illness inspired the movie: