23 January 2016
Up until last week, I had never seen a Rocky film. Despite the critical acclaim surrounding the first two films in the franchise, they were an area of pop culture that I had just never indulged in - what I perceived to be dumb boxing movies simply didn't interest me, so I just never took the time to watch them. In fact, it wasn't until Creed started receiving good reviews and award buzz did I decide that I was going to change that, and ended up watching Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III and Rocky IV (in short, the Apollo Creed story) in the course of about a week. The reason I'm telling you this is so you realise that I have no real connection to this franchise - so when I say that Creed is a great film, you'll know that this isn't coming from nostalgia or a pre-existing deep love for these characters.
We follow Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of ex-heavyweight champion Apollo Creed, as he moves to Philadelphia under the name Donnie Johnson in order to make a name for himself as a boxer. After the opportunity to fight against the current champion in his weight-range appears, he begins training with the legendary Rocky Balboa in order to prove to himself that he is worthy of the Creed name.
It's a film about legacy first and foremost, which acts as a handy meta-commentary about the nature of Creed as a spin-off/sequel to a long running and hugely iconic franchise. Adonis Creed has a lot to live up to when he starts his boxing career thanks to the lasting impact that his father had on the sport he is now competing in, and in the same way Creed also has something of an uphill battle to get out of the shadow of that which came before. Fortunately though, Creed is nothing short of a resounding success, that rare kind of film that takes a fairly standard story (it's just Rocky again with different characters in a lot of ways) and becomes something much more thanks to an robust script, an incredibly talented cast and a brilliant director.
Michael B. Jordan is wholly believable as the son of Apollo Creed thanks to a script that understands how an illegitimate son might feel about his families legacy and an actor who knows how to make that work. Maybe more importantly, he's also phenomenal in the films boxing match scenes - I don't know how much training he went through for the role and nor do I want to, but it certainly seems as if he could really be a professional boxer in Creed in much the same way that Apollo does in the Rocky films. One thing Adonis doesn't have that Apollo did is a sense of showmanship, but I can understand that - as a boxer still looking to prove himself in the ring, it makes sense that Adonis would be focused on winning first and entertaining second.
Also excellent in Creed is Sylvester Stallone, reprising his role as Rocky Balboa for the seventh time. For the first half of Creed I was failing to see why he had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but at a certain point through the story he gets his chance in the spotlight, and certainly makes the most of it. I know full well that this might sound a little dumb given the franchise in question, but trust me - Sylvester Stallone gives a hugely emotional performance here, easily the best of his career and one of the few performances I've ever seen that genuinely affected me emotionally. I don't cry at films, ever - but Creed had me fighting back tears at three separate occasions, and when a film can affect me to that degree I know that something special is happening.
But really, the stand out element of Creed for me is writer and director Ryan Coogler. His ability to direct a scene is nothing short of masterful, as is the flair he brings to certain sequences, such as an impressive and engaging "one shot" boxing match we get at one point. But most importantly, he is able to make you feel what he wants you to feel when he wants you to feel it, which is (at least in my eyes) the sign of a truly great film maker. Everything is so well handled, from the characters to the pace to the structure the story itself, and it's a disgrace that he hasn't received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director when he so clearly deserves it. He's directing Black Panther next, and I can honestly say that I've never been more excited for that film - Creed shows us a director who may very well end up being the next big thing, and it's incredibly exciting to think that a Marvel Cinematic Universe film will have that person at the helm.
Creed is simply a great film, both as a standalone movie and as a continuation of the story told throughout the Rocky films - but maybe most importantly, it succeeds as a torch-passing of sorts, respectful to that which came before but still very much determined to do its own thing. It even manages to use the Rocky theme song well, something that I thought to be near impossible considering how much cultural baggage is attached to it now - but Creed knows exactly when it is needed, and cuts it before it over stays its welcome. And ultimately, it is this understanding of what a film needs that makes Creed as good as it is, not just worthy of the Rocky franchise but now the best part of it - and I can't wait to see the next chapter in the story of Adonis Creed.