When the final fight had concluded my stomach was untying the knot that was building and twisting inside of me. From the opening frame I thought I knew what I was in for but slowly “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler built his new characters, returned old favorites to the frame and crafted a story that literally made me want to get up and cheer. No, this is not a brand new original idea with new characters. This is “Creed”. The seventh film in the “Rocky” universe , a series that like it’s main character never seems to want to retire.
However this isn’t “Rocky VII”. Rocky isn’t coming out of retirement again to fight another fight. “Creed” (like it’s title character) is a movie that looks to stand on its own but also please its previous fan base. If you’re a big “Rocky” fan you will love this movie. If you’ve never seen a “Rocky” movie you can still love this movie. It doesn’t rely on its franchise name or previous entries to win you over. But, the movie has enough little callbacks (placed at the right moments) that’ll make longtime franchise fans smile. “Creed” is a remarkable film that is easily one of the best of the year. This does something that no other film in the series has done, come close to the greatness of the original 1976 “Rocky”.
“Creed” follows the forgotten son of Rocky’s rival and friend Apollo Creed, Adonis Johnson. Growing up in foster homes and social services, even after being taken in by Apollo’s wife, Adonis has always had a bit of a chip on his shoulder feeling like he has something to prove. Johnson could have a nice desk job if he wanted but fighting is what drives him. Being rejected by the academy under his father’s name, Adonis seeks the training help of the only other person he knows that could help, Rocky Balboa.
As I’ve been alluding too throughout the beginning of this review, this isn’t Rocky’s movie. This is Adonis’s movie. This a film that just happens to have Rocky in it While it has some of the same beats as the original 1976 masterpiece it never feels redundant. Adonis is an interesting and multi layered character. He wants to be his father but not be in his shadow. Michael B. Jordan (who worked with director Ryan Coogler in his breakout role in “Fruitvale Station) is a dynamic presence on screen. We can erase this year’s disaster in “Fantastic Four” Jordan continues to prove himself as a power star actor. He has charisma, heart, depth, emotion and he carries himself along Stallone himself.
The character of Rocky has his own little story arc that serves as an extension of his own films but also as important development to Adonis’s story and character. Several things happen between the two that will surprise some viewers giving this film the edge of being more than a boxing film.
Stallone himself hasn’t been this good since “Cop Land” or even going as far back as the original “Rocky” (which earned him a Best Actor Nomination at the Oscars). Stallone has such a good grip on the character where he feels evolved but recognizable. Stallone shows again that he can be a strong actor and puts his name firmly back in the Oscar conversation for Best Supporting Actor of the year. That’s something I never thought I would say again.
Unlike 2006’s “Rocky Balboa”, Sly is not in the director’s chair. In the chair is Ryan Coogler, a young director with only one other film to his name. But don’t let that fool you. Watching this would make you believe he has been in the game for at least a decade. “Creed” is stylistically recognizable but at the same time most distinctive of the franchise. Coogler builds his film around the emotion and heart of its main characters. Never does he get bogged down in focusing on the fights and boxing (which we will get to in a second). He keeps the narrative centered around what’s most important to the film’s overall story.
There is a budding romance in the film between Adonis and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca. A strong supporting effort from the young actress, she has her own fully fleshed out character that serves a bigger importance to the story then just being the love interest.
I will go out and confidently say that the boxing scenes in “Creed” are easily the best and strongest of the series. There are two major fights in the film. The first fight is done ala “Birdman” style with a seemingly one take tracking shot of the entire fight that is both inventive and impresses. How can Coogler follow that first fight up? With a gut wrenching finale. The second fight has these long and gritty takes of our two main boxers trading blows that feel real and look painful as hell. All the boxing scenes are filled with suspense and ever rising tension as the stakes keep getting higher and higher. Adding the score of Ludwig Göransson made the fights even more thrilling.
Coogler’s entire tone is down and dirty. This isn’t bombastic like “Rocky III” or “Rocky IV”, “Creed” is very much like the original. Coogler captures the streets of Philadelphia and makes it a character onto itself. The movie has a sense of reality and honesty. The people feel genuine and the locations never feel fake or falsified. Coogler makes me feel like I’m walking in the city of Philly with him.
I suppose if I had one nitpick with “Creed” as a whole it would be the development of Adonis’s rival boxer, Rickey Conlan. The script written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington keeps the film so focused around its principal characters that it sort of forgets all about Rickey. The movie isn’t about him but then again “Rocky” wasn’t about Apollo Creed and he felt developed. It’s a nitpick, the character serves its purpose. But, with a few scenes that seem to try develop his character I felt like he was thrown a bit to the wayside. I only mention it because everything else is so damn strong.