“One step, one punch, one round at a time.”
Forty years after we first saw Rocky Balboa take on champ Apollo Creed in Philadelphia in Rocky, putting together another film in a franchise that had some pretty extreme ups and downs was a definite risk. With a literal 50% success rate across the series, you’d be forgiven for going into Creed a little dubious. Thankfully, the series has now all-but-retired its original hero and in his place, given us a new underdog to cheer for.
Seventeen years after Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, was taken in by Creed’s widow Mary Anne, Johnson jacks in his job and decides it’s time to follow in his father’s footsteps and heads to the ring. Having been boxing on his own for years, Donny realises he needs a trainer – and when his brother refuses, he heads to Philadelphia in search of the man that beat his dad. Whilst Rocky might not be the guy Johnson expected, after he track’s him down at the restaurant the long-retired boxer spends his days in, Donnie sets about convincing the Italian Stallion to get in his corner and teach him how to go from the rough-around-the-edges brawler he is to a refined fighter ready to take on anything.
Donnie starts to make a bit of an impact locally, getting himself known around town and soon takes a fight with another local guy who’s had his upcoming bout cancelled. Expected to be a bit of a squash match, Johnson takes it to the more experienced fighter and beats him decisively. An impressive win is one thing, but once it gets out that Johnson is in fact Apollo Creed’s lad, the publicity sky rockets and the call comes in from the reigning champion’s guys offering Donnie a chance to climb in the ring with Liverpool’s Ricky Conlan in what could be Conlan’s last fight.
After last year’s Southpaw, and spending my Christmas holiday catching up with the Rocky saga, I thought I’d be all burnt out on boxing movies. It turns out that all I needed to blow the dust away was a great film, brilliantly made, with a stellar cast.
Starting with Michael B. Jordan, a guy I’ve been waiting to appear in something big and special since he finished his time in the awesome Friday Night Lights, plays the titular Creed. Cast perfectly in the role of the upstart son of a champion, Jordan; and his in-film brother played by The Wire‘s Wood Harris, not only look enough like each other to be brothers, but look like they could easily be Carl Weathers’ sons. Having been disappointed by half of the films in this series, I wasn’t sure even a guy I thought was great would be able to make a watchable film. But Jordan not only took to the role and made it his, he managed to embody everything that the original Creed was and bring it to the screen. Having clearly trained hard to not only look good for the role but to make his boxing convincing, Michael B. Jordan is nothing short of a revelation in his performance.
Similarly, Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Rocky is just wonderful. Over the last forty years he’s gone from bruising boxer to sage-like mentor and he just plays it so well. Spending his days sharing stories and advice, the retired champion finds a new lease of life training Donnie and it’s evident that Stallone feels the same way playing the role. Slipping himself into his most familiar, comfortable slippers, Sly looks at home in his position as Donnie’s trainer, taking on the Mickey role from previous films and passing the torch on, in more than one way, to Michael B. Jordan and Adonis Johnson. The same goes for his audience; Rocky’s dulcet tones have a calming effect on us watching him, like listening to a war veteran in his rocking chair telling stories of his time battling, Balboa is the wise old man we all feel comfortable with.
I’ll be honest and say that my biggest surprise came from Ryan Coogler’s writing and direction. I had never heard of him prior to the film’s release and I haven’t seen his previous work. Although the fact he’s being tapped to helm Marvel’s Black Panther gave me a little confidence – add to that the fact that for the first time in the series, Stallone relinquished writing duties and handed them over to Coogler as well; hopefully getting a completely fresh perspective on Philadelphia’s hero and the boy he’s training.
It turns out that Ryan Coogler is actually a damn good director. Starting relatively straight and by-the-book, Creed’s direction is very good throughout, but it ramps itself up to amazing in Johnson’s first time in the ring under Rocky’s tutelage against Leo Sporino, a local light heavyweight. Coogler takes a page out of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s handbook and films each round, from within the ring, on a steadycam in one long take. Each round lasts three minutes and you can’t help but be on the edge of your seat, fists clenched, wanting to throw punches with him. Any longer than that three minutes and there would be people passing out from holding their breath with tension and fear. Coogler’s writing and direction are outstanding and let you care for everyone on the screen; this guy has a hell of a future.
Creed is a stunning film. Heartfelt, beautifully acted and a joy to sit and watch. It’s kept enough of its legacy to feel like it’s part of the Rocky series, whilst simultaneously feeling new and fresh enough to stand on its own two feet and be a film on its own. That, in itself, is a slight miracle. This year’s Oscar race has finally heated up for me.
Now, it may seem like an insult to the film to say that Creed isn’t the best film I’ve seen chasing an award or three, it is second only to The Revenant in my book; both surpass anything else I’ve seen from this year’s race up to this point that I’d be happy for either or both of them to be taking home the statues next month.