The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.
The ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Rocky’ franchises couldn’t be further apart in style, but they do share several things in common. Both started in the late 70s, both are on their 7th outing, and both have returned to form after a period full of weaker entries (OK I’m stretching a little – only ‘Rocky V‘ and the prequels are truly bad!). Like ‘The Force Awakens’, ‘Creed’ is an effective return because it gets to the heart of what made ‘Rocky’ so successful in the first place, getting the balancing act right between beginning a new story and paying tribute to the past. In the hands of ‘Fruitvale Station’ director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, ‘Creed’ avoids the pitfalls that ‘Rocky V’ succumbed too with a similar premise, largely through strong performances, a good script and Sylvester Stallone’s best outing in years.
After a brief introduction to Adonis Johnson as a child and some narrative background to explain that he is Apollo Creed’s son, by virtue of an affair, the film gets into its groove as Johnson packs in his career in financial services to pursue a career as a professional boxer. After a couple of knockbacks from local gyms in LA he sets off for Philadelphia to track down his father’s boxing rival and friend Rocky Balboa. One of the things I liked about ‘Creed’ is how well it carries the weight of history and uses it to its advantage, both through Rocky himself and through Johnson carrying on his father’s legacy. This is done in subtle but suggestive ways and it never feels forced or tacked on, and that’s largely down to Ryan Coogler’s assured direction. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Coogler would bring a fresh and naturalistic approach to the material given his outstanding work on ‘Fruitvale Station’ but he shows a strong grasp of the story and he gets terrific performances from his leads.
Michael B. Jordan is a talented young actor and he is very good in the title role, delivering an intense performance that barely conceals the troubles and the doubts inside his head, but the performance everyone is talking about isn’t his one. It would be fair to say that Sylvester Stallone isn’t exactly renowned for his acting ability, but his performance here is so subtle, natural and he disappears completely into the character. ‘Rocky’ was the film that made his career and after 7 films playing the same character, Stallone knows exactly how to play him and he is extremely good here, understated, powerful, moving and warm in equal measure. He’s arguably as good as he’s ever been and he nails every single scene. The film is really about the bond between Rocky and Adonis, but there is time for a love interest (played well by Tessa Thompson) and small roles for the likes of Jordan’s former ‘The Wire’ alumni Wood Harris and British boxer Tony Bellew, carrying on the series trend of casting real boxers for key parts (and providing a solid showcase for Everton FC to global audiences!).
The film does tend to overegg the pudding so to speak as we come towards the conclusion, with the final fight well directed but overdramatised. That’s perhaps a symptom of the general high quality of fight scenes in recent boxing films, but I did feel the constant cuts to different people’s perspectives (particularly the really irritating trope of flashing to someone watching on TV, even if it was his adopted mother) was overplayed. Despite this, ‘Creed’ is well made, has a good story to tell and it tells it well. Although the story does search for some strong emotional material, the sentiment never feels forced and everything feels like its being told in a way that is consistent with the tone and narrative. Ultimately, ‘Creed’ is the ‘Rocky’ film many have been waiting for.
Directed By: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Gabriel Rosado and Ritchie Coster