Among the many films up for Academy Awards at the end of this month, there has been minor uproar over the lack of colored persons nominated for anything at all in the major categories. I briefly discussed my thoughts in my review of that hollowed out DiCaprio frontier vehicle. And again I iterate, this could have been easily resolved on two fronts: I- Giving Straight Outta Compton a Best Picture nomination for the sake of appeasing the crowds who flocked to it. II- Give Creed a Best Director and Best Actor nomination.
Now, to be fair, I had only read opinions at the time on the latest Rocky Balboa-verse installment. But, I had not yet seen the film to adequately surmise its merits.And I am here to stand by those words as I have now seen Creed, and I must say I did not expect to enjoy it nearly as much as I did. Not to say I expected to dislike it, not at all. But over the years of viewing the Rocky Balboa franchise, I never was truly struck with the story of the boxing worlds greatest underdog, aside from the classic first entry. The first two movies are considered classics in their own right, telling Rocky Balboa’s tale with care and tenderness, but quickly devolved into silly, showy camp once Stallone took over directing duties, starting with ROCKY III. True, he has been the one behind the writing and conception of the character, but sometimes creators need a bit of distance between their darlings and them.
The exception to the silliness was the seeming conclusion to the franchise, 2006’s Rocky Balboa, where the tone was much more morose and Lazarus-esque, with Rocky having lost his wife to cancer in between the last movie and had truly retired from the world of prize-fighting to be a restaurateur. The sixth entry had a tone much closer to the initial film, focusing on Balboa’s relationships to old friends and his family rather than the outlandish fight situations he manages to land himself in. True, there was a fight at the center of the picture, but the story was much more based in Rocky recognizing his paternal relations with his son and the one he has with his community at large. Seemingly, Stallone was content with retiring Balboa with that entry, ending it with a sense of grace not too common in today’s big and bombastic film community.
Ryan Coogler had other ideas, apparently. And with Creed, he injects fresh vitality into the weathered Rocky Balboa universe. Instead of remaking the original film as any other director or studio would have happily done, Coogler takes the risk of telling a side story, one taking place in the same shared universe and community of a franchise, but focusing on entirely new characters with connective appearances by key characters from the original franchise, in this case the only living in-universe lead, Rocky himself.
The new film focuses on young Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan, Fant4stic, Fruitvale Station), illegitimate son of Rocky’s sparring partner Apollo Creed, who was killed in the ring during the events of Rocky IV. Johnson grew up in and out of foster care, until finally being discovered as a pre-teen by Creed’s wife, Mary Anne, and taken in to her home. As an adult, he nurtures a talent in the ring, and leaves for Philadelphia when L.A. refuses his services. He connects with Rocky Balboa at his restaurant over Creed’s memory and eventually Balboa comes to appreciate the fiery fighting man. Adonis starts romancing a local songstress and starts to train for small-time events to hone his skills. After his parentage is revealed in the aftermath of his first showcase, an opportunity comes to Johnson for a major headlining fight against world light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, where Adonis hopes to go the distance, as Balboa did in the initial Rocky.
Once upon a time, George Lucas infamously said of his Star Wars series, “it’s like poetry, they sort of rhyme” in reference to recurring plot developments and action set pieces. Now, The Force Awakens has received reasonable amounts of criticism for seemingly rehashing the storyline of much of the original STAR WARS for a multitude of its plot and structure. Arguably, Creed could be seen to suffer from the same problem, but here’s the thing that prevents me from calling both films lazy: differences in approach and the journey itself. In Episode VII, JJ Abrams had to keep the grounds familiar to fans of the franchise while taking baby steps in a different direction for the franchise, which he did.
Creed starts out a wholly different creature from the Rocky franchise as possible, a study of a young man struggling to make a name for himself doing what he enjoys and has a knack for. While Adonis does not quite have the ability to take punishment like Rocky could in his prime, he does have a constantly sensitive rage boiling underneath his seemingly zen demeanor. His is a story about finding and nurturing your talents with the right supervision, much like the original Rocky, with nods to Balboa in Creed acting as mentor to “Donnie” as Burgess Meredith’s Mickey did originally. As mentioned, there are parallels in this film, with the long shot chance to prove his worth being the most obvious, along with the rigorous training ol’ Rock puts Johnson through while Donnie simultaneously finds love with Bianca, a level-headed musician played with compassion by up-and-comer Tessa Thompson.
Most audiences and Academy patrons would write this film off as a Stallone comeback vehicle alone that just happens to continue with a black protagonist, but that is being unfair and cynical. Rocky has had comebacks before, and so has Stallone, proving his dramatic chops with choice titles such as Cop Land and First Blood. This movie does give Rocky a choice role, but he is not the focal point. If there is one, it’s shared by both Adonis and Balboa equally, as it is primarily Johnson’s story that happens to lead to Philadelphia, and Rocky by association. Coogler takes the existing material and takes what he wants freely from the mythos of the Balboa backstory, but fashions it into a lively and reborn sports drama that thrums with energy and skilled visual storytelling, one of my soft spots.
The prologue where we meet young Adonis in juvenile detention and learn of his parentage is shot not sappily, as Stallone may have, but honestly and it cuts to the title at the perfect moment. Immediately we are thrown into the seedy prize fights in Tijuana, where the now-grown Johnson seeks his sport. There are a couple of solid long takes during the fights that truly put audiences in the ring with the fighters almost as if participating as an unofficial referee, dodging hulking masses of muscle and spinning around the fighters without making viewers queasy.
Coogler crafts a magnificent picture more than worthy of awards attention, never stooping to the clichés that the Rocky franchise has set the stage for in previous years. There is never a sense that the writers insert conflict for the sake of scripting, the foils and foibles are organic to the characters and their faults. The camerawork is simply splendid. Michael B. Jordan was robbed of an awards nomination for no obvious reason. Eddie Redmayne has no standing for the Oscar this year compared to Jordan’s living, breathing sense of ferocious ingenious. He broods, lashes out at his loved ones, cries for recognition as his own man, not just living in his father’s immense shadow of legacy. And Stallone also has his moments of quiet understanding, watching Adonis as a sort of reflection of himself as a young fighter. Both are equally deserving of recognition is what I’m saying.
Are You Listening, Academy? You Goofed Again!
Creed is one of those near-perfect cinematic experiences that proves you can still instill life into an aged franchise provided the right point-of-view. I can only hope more filmmakers attempt to tell similar stories in other beloved franchises after Coogler’s success here. I look forward to his next work as well as the ongoing success of Mr. Jordan. Bravo, sirs.