Movie Review ‘Creed’
Director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) pulls off something of a minor miracle with Creed, the seventh installment in the Rocky franchise, breathing fresh and fertile life into a series that seemed appropriately finished. Coogler’s film moves a storied film series forward into present day relevance, avoiding cliché, keeping the humor and humanity of the original film, and if all goes well, it just may bookend Sylvester Stallone’s career with a Best Supporting Oscar nod. But while the film is clearly handled with care by a capable writer/director (Coogler shares writing credit with Aaron Covington), its the star’s (Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station) turn as the title character that makes this logical progression of the Rocky series worth the journey.
The chemistry that Stallone and Weathers enjoyed is evident between Jordan and Stallone, who has rarely been better
It’s been 39 years since fictional southpaw heavyweight Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa stepped into the ring and movie fan’s hearts to square off with heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Known as the “Master of Disaster,” the King of Sting, and The Count of Monte Fisto among other colorful nicknames, Creed was a heavyweight champ in the mold of Ali: business savvy, loquacious, funny and above all, a perfect fighting machine. Apollo Creed as played by Carl Weathers was a god of the sweet science, that rare antagonist who you loved to hate. Because of that, he was the perfect counter-balance to the very human Balboa. The two combined to take boxing movies to new heights.
While all the characters in the Rocky series, Adrien, the love interest to Rocky, Paulie, the negative counterpoint to Rocky’s eternal optimist, trainer with a heart of gold Mickey Goldmill, it is Apollo and Rocky’s chemistry that drove the series though the first four films. It made a rematch/sequel in Rocky 2 inexorable. It made Rocky and Apollo teaming up as fighter and trainer a wonderful inevitability in Rocky 3. Rocky and Apollo’s secret third fight, which begins and concludes as the final frame of that third film, left nothing but smiles on the faces of Rocky fans everywhere. Creed’s death at the hands of Ivan Drago in the Rocky 4 is the impetus to bring Rocky out of retirement. No movie fight fan will ever forget seeing Apollo twitching on the canvas and Drago’s words “If he dies, he dies.” By that time in the series, we’d grown to truly love the guy. An argument can be made that Rocky V failed because there was no Apollo Creed to be found.
It is precisely from this love and chemistry that Creed draws. The film begins without the usual Rocky scrolling across the screen and the flash to Rocky’s final fight from the previous film as all the other films do. Instead, it begins in a youth detention center where a teen-aged Adonis Johnson is getting into yet another fight. A seeming hopeless case, moving from group home to detention center to yet another group home, the young Adonis is caught in a dead end cycle. That is until Apollo’s surviving wife takes Adonis in. Cut to present day, Adonis, now working a dead end office job, sneaking out to Tijuana for off-the-books boxing matches. A self-taught fighter, young Creed is raw, angry and all talent, no technique.
I’ll spare you the book report review. This film is to be seen and enjoyed, whether you have seen the series or not. The chemistry that Stallone and Weathers enjoyed is evident between Jordan and Stallone, who has rarely been better. One of my fears as a fan coming into this was that the writers would not be able to capture Stallone’s humor. Rockyisms abound in Creed. The smart script takes it’s time building relationships so that the audience is emotionally invested in them rather than watching as a passive observer. This is evident in the relationship between Adonis and Balboa. And also in the relationship between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a burgeoning musician who takes no guff from her fighting man. Like Adrien to Rocky, Bianca is a woman with her own world apart from Adonis. She is no mere plot device.
When Rocky came out in 1976, it was the third film to employ a revolutionary piece of equipment known as a steadicam. Creed ably moves forward in that groundbreaking tradition, taking the viewer into the ring up close and personal. You can feel the punches, see the expressions change and momentum shifts as if you are in the ring. As an experienced fight writer who generally scoffs at the movie version of my favorite sport, I was very impressed. I found myself every bit as tense in the final fight as I have been at ringside of a top flight prizefight. The film also does a good job of mixing in real boxers and boxing people into the fictional world of Rocky.
Made for a little over a million dollars in 1976, the underdog sleeper hit directed by John Avildsen and written by an unknown Stallone knocked out the competition at the Oscars, beating out Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men. I’m not sure if Creed will quite get there, but if the cheering and raucous crowd I saw the film with is any indication, this is the first of many more films to come.
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