The low budget crowd pleasing underdog story Rocky won the Oscar for Best Film in 1977, made a star out of Sylvester Stallone, and spawned a number of sequels of varying quality. This seventh film in the long running franchise is the first to be written by someone other than Stallone himself. He felt that he was too old to write a boxing movie aimed at a younger audience. It was a wise move to bring in a fresh voice to take the series in a slightly new direction, as some of the other films in the Rocky saga suffered from Stallone’s ego.
The writer and director of Creed is Ryan Coogler, who came to our attention with the powerful drama Fruitvale Station. The film focuses on Adonis Creed (played by charismatic Michael B Jordan, from Fruitvale Station), the illegitimate son of the late boxer Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers in the first four Rocky films.
When we first meet him as a youngster, Creed has been in and out of the foster care system and is serving time in a juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles, where his propensity for fisticuffs gets him in trouble. He is taken out of the system by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Creed’s former wife, who takes care of him and raises him as her own.
Many years later the adult Creed works as a financial analyst, but on weekends travels across the border to Tijuana where he engages in bouts for money. He has established a formidable reputation with a record of 16 knockouts. But he wants to go legitimate so he quits his job and heads off to Philadelphia to track down his father’s opponent and friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone). Content to manage Adrian’s Restaurant, Rocky is no longer interested in the fight business. Reluctantly he agrees to help the young Creed train and prepare for a title fight against an arrogant and loud mouthed British champion (Tony Bellew) with an unbeaten record.
The film features some of the more brutal and punishing boxing scenes, and it is obvious that Coogler has studied some of the classics of the genre like Raging Bull. This is a worthy follow up to Fruitvale Station, and cements Coogler as an exciting director to watch. He handles the material with confidence. An early boxing match unfolds in one continuous take, which adds to the immediacy of the scene.
Creed basically follows the template of the first Rocky, offering up another underdog story that is a little predictable in its arc. There are lots of references, both visual and aural, to the original Rocky, including sampling of Bill Conti’s inspirational score, some vision of Rocky and Apollo trading blows during their championship bout, and the narrative itself follows the template established by the original. Coogler ticks off all the right boxes including the cynical jaded trainer who offers life lessons, training montages, glimpses of the neighbourhood and its history and personalities, and even romance when Creed meets sultry nightclub singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson, from Selma).
Stallone, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work in the original but who lost to Peter Finch, delivers a more rounded performance here as an older Rocky who realises that his life is behind him. He has the same easy going charm, but there is a melancholy air to the material as he recognises his own mortality. Here he gets to invest time in creating the character and delivers a performance of greater depth than anything we have seen from him before. Throw in a late stage cancer diagnosis and he gets to hit a number of emotional moments.
But this is Jordan’s film, and he brings plenty of swagger and anger to his role as the confused young man with a lot of unresolved father issues, trying to cope with living in the shadow of a father he never knew. The bond that develops between Creed and Rocky becomes a sort of surrogate father-son relationship and also adds emotional heft to the film.
Creed reinvigorates the forty year old Rocky franchise in exciting fashion, and this crowd pleaser seems to be setting itself up to become another franchise.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Release Date: 26 November, 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television