Creed, the seventh film in the venerable Rocky series, feels completely fresh despite revisiting some very familiar territory. Proving that his stellar 2013 debut Fruitvale Station was no fluke, writer-director Ryan Coogler cleverly disguises this quiet character drama as a boxing extravaganza. Coogler’s knack for perceptive dialogue and subtle characterization harkens back to the spirit of Stallone’s original masterpiece. The lack of a compelling villain prevents Creed from eclipsing the original, but it’s easily the second best film in the series and a quality picture in its own right.
When Apollo Creed died in the ring during Rocky IV, he left behind not only a brilliant boxing career, but an unborn son. The product of an extra-marital affair, Adonis ‘Creed’ Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) has spent his entire life shadow-boxing his father’s legacy. Creed puts a welcome spin on the financial hardships that consistently plagued Stallone’s iconic character by making Creed a trust fund baby. The battle for self-respect is still the tragic flaw that leads our hero into the ring, but this fighter has a decided advantage in the bravado department over the humble Rocky.
Creed hones his skills by boxing in underground Tijuana bars and mimicking other fighters in the gym. Frustrated that no trainer near his posh L.A. digs will take him on, Creed heads east to visit a ghost from his father’s past. Enter Rocky Balboa (Stallone). Rocky still runs his little Italian restaurant and makes daily visits to the gravesite of his beloved Adrian. He’s a lonely, broken-down old man, who initially rebuffs Creed’s efforts to recruit him as a trainer. Of course, it doesn’t take Rocky long to change what’s left of his mind. He assembles a group of crusty old dudes for Creed’s corner, and we’re treated to several of the classic training montages that make this franchise so popular.
Coogler is smart enough to avoid re-making a classic like Rocky. Instead, he focuses on telling an honest story that updates all the flourishes that we love. Not all of these updates are successful, of course. Rocky’s inspirational run through Philly and up the Museum of Art steps, for instance, has been replaced by a groan-worthy motorcycle serenade through the streets. The complete lack of a dynamic villain also hurts the film. ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) is a British boxer who’s cashing one last paycheck before he heads to prison. While the ‘real world’ parallels to Mike Tyson might be obvious, Conlan is less a ferocious beast and more of a paper tiger created for the grand finale.
Still, Coogler and his co-writer, Aaron Covington, get almost everything else right. Particularly affective is the slow-burning love affair between Creed and the girl-next-door, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Coogler, as evidenced by Fruitvale Station, has an uncanny feel for dialogue, particularly with how to use silence. When Creed and Bianca have lunch at a cheesesteak joint, it’s not your typical Hollywood gabfest filled with one-liners and lazy sentimentality. They listen to the other person talk, they consider their alternatives, and then they respond. These characters can’t allow their big dreams to be derailed by a few hours of escapist pleasure. Coogler gives the relationship time to grow, which is something a lesser filmmaker might have abandoned in favor of more boxing action.
And when the boxing action finally kicks into gear, it doesn’t disappoint. Herculean slugfests are meticulously choreographed, bringing us into the ring in new and interesting ways. Slow-motion blood spatters and the longest knockout in cinematic history highlight the outstanding work of Coogler and his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti. It’s also refreshing to hear so much boxing lingo in the corners. When Rocky gives Creed advice, he’s not just spouting platitudes about the ‘eye of the tiger,’ he’s actually trying to coach the kid up.
The performances of the three leads are strong. Michael B. Jordan has been biding his time for stardom and this might finally kick him over the edge. His intensity on the screen hints at a thoughtful young man who will listen to your opinion, but won’t take any bullshit. Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) is also wonderful, particularly when she’s discussing her character’s inevitable hearing loss. There is pain there, but also motivation; her disability dictates but it doesn’t define. Lastly, Stallone is a sublime treat. He’s to be commended not only for his wizened approach to Balboa, but turning creative control of his baby over to a new filmmaking team. It’s a brave and classy move that speaks to his respect for the franchise.
Creed is the kind of ‘small’ blockbuster filmmaking that keeps hope alive in the Cineplex. There is a spirit and soul to everything it does. Some audiences may find the running time a bit challenging, but those extra minutes are put to good use in the company of these characters. Boxing fans will love the intimate feel of the action, while those craving a little extra substance will find plenty to engage them. Creed may be the simple story of a son trying to escape his father’s shadow, but it delivers plenty of big emotional moments. This quality crowd-pleaser might be the biggest surprise of 2015.