In a year that has been filled with remakes, sequels and reboots it’s hard to imagine that what seems like another attempt to reboot the Rocky franchise (most recently was 2006’s Rocky Balboa) wouldn’t have a need to even exist. But make no mistake, this isn’t a seventh Rocky film, it’s the first Creed and it stands on its own. Not only is it one of the best boxing movies ever made, it’s one of the best films of the year.
It’s a rags to riches to rags story, essentially. Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) starts out as a troubled kid in juvie when his father’s wife (but not his mother) Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) takes him in. It’s there he leads a pampered, wealthy life in a luxurious house with a high paying job in finance in Los Angeles. But the fighter in him is always bursting to come out and he routinely trips down to Tijuana for illegal fight clubs to itch his scratch. The itch becomes too much and he quits his job to pursue boxing full time. This brings him to Philadelphia to seek out the elusive Rocky Balboa in hopes of getting him to train him.
Michael B. Jordan is perfectly cast as Adonis Creed and it’s a star-making performance. Thankfully shuffling off the disaster that was the Fantastic Four remake this summer, his Adonis Creed is wounded but strong, he still has a babyface but his body is tough. Jordan’s humanity breathes through every pore and every punch.
Tessa Thompson has built a fantastically exciting résumé of films and performances that started with TV’s Veronica Mars, and also includes Dear White People and Selma. She’s impossibly beautiful and reminded me of Lisa Bonet back in the 80s. Her singer-songwriting character isn’t quite as fleshed out as I’d like it to be but she also isn’t merely window dressing for the male lead. The chemistry between her and Jordan is effortless.
Stallone, free of writing and directing duties and being the ‘star’ is allowed to stretch his acting legs and results are amazing. There isn’t an ounce of ham in Stallone’s seventh portrayal of the one of the most iconic film characters of all time. His 2015 Rocky Balboa is quiet and reserved, out of the boxing limelight. He’s recognized everywhere but people don’t make such a big deal about him anymore. He’s old and tired, but his heart is still pure. For Stallone, it’s the comeback performance of a lifetime.
Throughout the entire film, Coogler ducks and dodges every moment that Creed could have spent too much time in sentimentality or held too tight to its reverence for Rocky (the film and Balboa). Like watching Stallone tell Jordan to weave in and out of the ropes faster and faster, Coogler’s control of his film is so firm, so adept that even as it runs through certain tropes it feels fresh and vibrant and real. Every montage doesn’t feel like we’re just going through the motions. The jokes aren’t underlined; the pain isn’t trivialized.
Coogler also directs his fight sequences with such acuity you’d swear he was a more seasoned director. The first major fight in Creed is done in a single take and it’s a whirlwind (sometimes literally) of breakneck speed and suspense thanks to cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who shot the Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle, The Wrestler. He also peppers the familiar Rocky refrain just enough to get you pumped up but never too much to do the storytelling for him. It’s reverence but it never begs.
I don’t consider myself a fan of too many sports but one thing I really love is a good sports movie. It fills in the gaps for me, if you will, on a subject I don’t pursue interest in and often I find a great sports movie rather thrilling. The original movie of Friday Night Lights (before the TV show, after the book) is something I always go back to as a perfect example of that. I come from a small town that has a deep passion for its high school football but it was never something I understood. That film helped me understand the emotional and communal ability it can have. Creed does the same thing. I don’t watch boxing but I was fascinated by every moment of the film because it pulled me in. It made me care.
This is the second collaboration between director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan after Coogler’s debut, 2013’s brilliant Fruitvale Station. The duo is set to work on another film, about a school cheating scandal. There is something vital and important about these two. The combination of strong African-Americans telling stories they want to tell and being given the opportunity to do so. They need their stories, to quote Selma director Ava DuVernay, to allow them “to be vain, humble, strong, weak, sexy, goofy.”
With Coogler and Jordan, I think we could be looking one of the all-time great film pairings to do so.