CREED Movie Review – Spin-Off, Sequel, (Adopted) Son
Almost forty years ago, a struggling, little known actor-turned-screenwriter, Sylvester Stallone, wrote and took the title role in Rocky, a modestly budgeted, effects-free entry in the boxing genre, scoring not just a major international box-office hit (Rocky earned $225 million on a $1.1 million dollar budget), but 10 Academy Award nominations as well, including Best Actor (Stallone), Best Actress (Talia Shire), Best Original Screenplay (Stallone), and Best Picture, ultimately winning Best Director (John G. Avildsen), Best Film Editing, and Best Picture. Rocky beat out All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, and Taxi Driver (acknowledged classics or near-classics of American cinema) for Best Picture, a recognition — not for the first time and certainly not for the last — by the Academy that crowd-pleasing, mainstream entertainments can resonate just as strongly with Academy voters as they do with general moviegoers. In a much criticized statement at the time, Roger Ebert compared Stallone’s emotionally bruised, vulnerable performance to a “young Marlon Brando.” He wasn’t wrong, though Stallone’s subsequent career as a movie star first and an actor second seemed to prove otherwise.
Multiple sequels followed, beginning with Rocky II in 1979 (Rocky defeats Apollo in a rematch), Rocky III in 1982 (Rocky loses, then re-wins the heavyweight tittle against the fearsomely named Clubber Lang [Mr. T], with Apollo relinquishing his role as foe and opponent to become Rocky’s friend and trainer), Rocky IV in 1985 (Rocky transformed into an oiled up, hypertrophied example of Reagan-era America/foreign policy, with Apollo tragically losing his life to a hulking, cartoonish personification of the “evil empire,” Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren), Rocky V in 1990 (the series’ regrettable nadir, with a brain-damaged Rocky turned mentor/trainer to an ungrateful protégé), and Rocky Balboa in 2006 (a middle-aged, out-of-shape Rocky, now a restaurant owner and widower, comes out of retirement for one more, last fight, unsurprisingly proving himself the equal of his much younger opponent), ending the series on a relative high note while implicitly, maybe inadvertently, embracing the idea that time defeats even the greatest of athletes, a rarity in the typically one-and-done genre.
For writer-director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), however, there was still one more Rocky-related story to tell, one where a retired Rocky takes on the role of mentor and surrogate father to Apollo’s son, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). The central character we meet in Creed comes from two, vastly different worlds, one defined by deprivation, poverty, and hopelessness (a prison-like juvenile detention center), and the other by wealth, status, and security (his adopted mother’s, Apollo’s widow). While the first world haunts him, along with his illegitimacy (the unacknowledged, possibly unwanted son of a popular heavyweight champion), into adulthood, the second feels alien and remote to him, largely because he doesn’t feel it’s a life he earned or even deserves. He’s also haunted by his father’s shadow, legacy, and untimely death, a sense that he can’t truly find himself or his identity until he pursues a title in the ring. Even with a gaudy 15-0 record — albeit obtained through no-profile fights on the other side of the U.S.-Mexican border — no one in LA, however, will train him, an apparent bias against his inherited wealth and social status, ultimately compelling Creed to leave LA for the more hospitable environs of Philadelphia.
Creed might have the drive, enthusiasm, and energy of a future champion, but he doesn’t have the skills or the experience — at least not yet — to become a champion. Coogler indulges his inner love of emotion-engaging, emotion-elevating training montages, a sign — one among many — that he fully understands the conventions he’s willingly, unironically, and it should be added, refreshingly embracing. Following the template laid out by the first and best Rocky film, Creed throws a myriad of obstacles in the title character’s way, from his own stubbornness, pride, and self-doubt, to his inexperience in the ring, a problem that Coogler semi-magically waves away by having Creed, outed as Apollo’s biological son, accepting a title fight against the light-heavyweight champion, ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), partially as a stunt and big-money payday (Conlan faces a lengthy stretch in prison for gun charges), but also (extra- and meta-textually) as a deliberate mirroring of how Rocky, an unremarkable, undistinguished club fighter, obtained his unlikely shot at the heavyweight title the first film, a marketing gimmick to promote Apollo’s bicentennial beneficence.
How Creed gets his shot at the title may be just as contrived, but it also resets the film’s dynamics turning Creed into the the kind of root-worthy underdog moviegoers love to embrace. That Creed otherwise hews closely to naturalistic motivations for the title character and not just simplistic, reductive explanations helps to elevate what otherwise potentially generic, derivative material. Jordan more than fulfills the promise he’s shown throughout his relatively young acting career, but the quality performance wise doesn’t end with Jordan. Stallone gives a subtle, nuanced performance weighted by personal losses more than professional losses while singer/songwriter/actress Tessa Thompson, who broke through in last year’s Dear White People, takes the obligatory, slightly underwritten romantic interest and gives her depths and complexities of her own. Thompson also co-wrote several trip-hop-inspired songs on the soundtrack, adding a hip, contemporary flavor to Creed. Bill Conti’s soaring theme song for Rocky also makes an appearance, initially layered into Ludwig Göransson’s score, but later far more fully, mixing old and new musical cues, appropriately reflecting the triumphant arc of Creed’s story.