Ryan Coogler’s Creed took the US by surprise when it was released last year at Thanksgiving, and it’s easy to understand why. While the film doesn’t exactly re-invent the wheel when it comes to the boxing movie, at least it successfully injects new life into a franchise that had pretty much given up the ghost with its fifth and sixth installments, released to not-very-much-acclaim in 1990 and 2006 respectively. In fact Rocky Balboa’s last two attempts at a comeback were so poorly received the announcement that Fruitvale Station‘s Coogler was helming a reboot featuring the offspring of Rocky’s early rival (and later friend) Apollo Creed was met with little more than a shrug by the internet. Even the presence of Sylvester Stallone in his most iconic role (albeit now a trainer) didn’t really offer much in the way of hope: it seemed like there was no way back for the punch-drunk Philadelphia brawler, and barely any interest in the idea of watching Creed Jr’s fledgling career take off.
So yes, it was a pleasant surprise to see all the good notices last year, and also to hear talk about the quality of Stallone’s performance, as well as that of the film’s lead actor Michael B. Jordan, who plays new pretender Adonis (aka ‘Donnie’). The movie itself is good, though not on a par with John Avildsen’s Best Picture-winning original, with which it shares plenty of similarities. Both films are primarily set within the less-affluent neighbourhoods of Philly, and there’s a firm rejection of state-of-the-art gyms and training equipment in Creed, a motif that has run through the series and which tends to turn the training montages into rather a lot of fun. (Why show someone punching a heavy bag over and over when you can have them chasing chickens around a coop?) Once again we’re presented with the familiar tale of an underdog without much of a chance, once again an older trainer takes pity on him, and once again the boxer’s journey to title fight contender is unrealistically rapid; at least Donnie’s sudden appearance in the limelight appears to be a criticism of the ridiculous pantomime behaviour that has engulfed the sport. Anyway, as you’d expect it’s quite easy to get behind Donnie cheer him on against his opponents, one of whom is even afforded a little bit of back story.
Although it’s predictable that the screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington plonks Rocky into the role of surrogate father figure, and there’s perhaps too much convenience in terms of what happens next to both characters, I should point out that the scenes between Jordan and Stallone are very enjoyable, and the pair share some fine knockabout chemistry. Coogler makes a good fist of the fight scenes, though it’s a shame that the single take used for Donnie’s first professional fight isn’t repeated for the high stakes finale, which falls back on tried-and-tested techniques like the faux-commentary voiceover; I always find that this takes me out of the action somewhat in boxing movies, which is the exact opposite of the desired effect. Some will no doubt prefer the fact that they get the full gamut of crowd shots, aerial shots, medium shots and close-ups in this later fight, as well as the slow-mo blood and sweat flying through the air or the informative graphic overlays of pay-per-view TV, but I much preferred the earlier bout, in which Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti make you feel as if you’re actually in the ring with the fighters.
One of the film’s strengths is in the way it keeps releasing its pleasant surprises. Creed isn’t quite the triumphant rags-to-riches tale that we’ve become used to, while the developing romance between Donnie and Tessa Thompson’s musician neighbour Bianca is more involving than you might expect it to be, as is the touching bond that grows between Rocky and his young charge. As the film progresses it becomes evident that Coogler and Covington have a good feel for the landscape of Philadelphia, too, as well as the city’s own culture and nightspots, and Creed offers an interesting glimpse of the city today. It was also a shock to see my own hometown feature so heavily during the final act. Everton’s Goodison Park, a football stadium in the city of Liverpool, is used as the location for the big fight, while Donnie’s opponent Ricky Conlan is played by local lad Tony Bellew. (Stallone has attended football matches at Everton for a number of years now, but it’s unusual to see celebrity patronage develop into something like this.) However the biggest surprise of all is Sly himself, who probably hasn’t been this good since 1976, and 40 years later his Rocky cuts a sad, lonely figure who fascinates just as much as the young, hungry fighter did in the mid-1970s. I feel like I should be talking about Michael B. Jordan, given that he’s the lead, but my attention kept drifting back to Stallone. It’s a performance that makes you believe in the character’s pain, and sorrow, and you end up rooting for Rocky to upset the odds he’s facing once again.
Directed by: Ryan Coogler.
Written by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Tony Bellew, Phylicia Rashad, Jacob Duran, Ritchie Coster.
Cinematography: Maryse Alberti.
Editing: Michael P. Shawver, Claudia Costello.
Music: Ludwig Göransson.
Running Time: 132 minutes.