Those who experienced the thrilling and unexpected rush of the first Rocky will be surprised at how adroitly Creed taps into the sensibility and adrenaline of the original.
Creed directed by Ryan Coogler. At screens around New England.
By Glenn Rifkin
One of the surprising aspects of hearing about a seventh iteration of the Rocky film franchise is that there are only seven. I would have thought this was Rocky 15 or 16. But even more surprising, this film, called Creed is good, in fact, very good.
And the surprises just don’t stop coming. Creed is first-rate mostly because of a terrific performance by Sylvester Stallone, the erstwhile Italian Stallion who burst upon the scene in the original Rocky in 1976, a boxing film he wrote and carried to a Best Picture Oscar that year. His forceful portrayal of a small-time club fighter’s improbable shot at becoming the heavyweight champion of the world made Stallone a movie star and kicked off a series of seemingly endless sequels. That, plus the subsequent Rambo series, established Stallone as an action hero and box office gold. But no one ever accused him of being an actor of substance (though he drew much deserved praise for his portrayal of a small-town New Jersey sheriff in 1997’s Cop Land).
In Creed, deftly written and directed by Ryan Coogler, a 29-year old filmmaker who gained much deserved acclaim with his spare but powerful Fruitvale Station in 2013, the moribund Rocky franchise comes to life in a stirring manner not experienced since the original film. (Note: I say that having only seen Rocky and Rocky II. If I’ve offended Rocky IV or V aficionados, my sincerest apologies.)
Stallone portrays a world-weary but hardly pathetic figure, running a small Philadelphia restaurant named after his dead wife Adrian. He is idolized in his native city but chooses to remain beyond the sidelines, out of the spotlight, content with a quiet life in which his most important people are gone. He wears his signature porkpie hat but he has left Rocky Balboa behind, more by choice than by pathos. Time takes its toll, even on superstars, and Stallone’s performance is not so much a coda as a wisely crafted exploration of what happens to our sports heroes when the cheering stops.
Despite the nearly 40-year long gulf between Rocky and Creed, those who experienced the thrilling and unexpected rush of the first film will be surprised how adroitly Coogler (and co-writer Aaron Covington) has tapped into the sensibility and adrenaline of the original Rocky. Creed works not only because of the spare but cliché-free script but due to the on-screen chemistry between Stallone and the gifted Michael B. Jordan who portrays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s first nemesis and later friend Apollo Creed.
If the goal is to revitalize the franchise, Coogler has taken an innovative, unexplored approach. Unlike the 2006 Rocky Balboa, where an ancient Rocky tries to get back into the ring, Coogler transforms Stallone into a wizened, Yoda-like mentor for a young boxer who is clearly in way over his head. Jordan, a talent to be reckoned with, became familiar to television audiences with his stellar performance as a star high school quarterback in the much lauded Friday Night Lights series. In Creed, he is able to demonstrate a deeper range of emotions; a poor kid/privileged kid in search of his backstory and the source of the raging fire in his belly.
Coogler pays homage to the franchise throughout the film. But he does it with an unexpectedly nuanced story line that mirrors the past but never caters to trite platitudes. Young Creed is born out of wedlock, the product of an illicit affair. Apollo Creed, whose character was modeled after Muhammed Ali, was a legendary talent whose gene pool bathed his son in raw, native talent. Apollo died a tragic death in Rocky’s arms in the ring in Rocky IV but left an indelible mark on Adonis. His son was born after his death and though Adonis never met his father, blazing fists, which he uses regularly enough to land in juvie, clearly run in the family. Having no contact with or benefit from Creed’s enormous wealth, the boy turns to petty crime and fighting, and a long prison term seems inevitable.
But Creed’s widow, in a poignant performance by Phylicia Rashad, takes the boy in and raises him as her own. With a foundation of street plus privilege, Adonis is smart and passionate and very clear that a career in corporate finance is not for him. Unable to get anyone in the Los Angeles boxing community to train him (they all are aware of his father’s tragic death), Adonis heads to Philadelphia in search of the man who knew his father best. He confronts Rocky, who expresses a clear disdain for the ring. But when Rocky realizes that he is talking to Creed’s son, he acquiesces.
Not unlike Rocky’s own meteoric climb (in the original, Apollo Creed seeks out an unknown boxer for a shot at the title), Adonis unexpectedly lands a title bout with the reigning world champion who is nasty, undefeated and may be fighting his last bout before starting a long prison term. Besting insurmountable odds is the heart of the Rocky franchise and one can almost hear the iconic Rocky score (by Bill Conti) regardless of its absence through most of Creed.
The story may ultimately seem familiar but its telling is well worth a look. Add a terrific Tessa Thompson as Adonis’s singer girlfriend, a first-rate score by Ludwig Garonsson, and stirring boxing sequences that provoke memories not only of the original Rocky but of Scorsese’s Raging Bull, and you come away unembarrassed to admit that the Rocky legacy can still stir the juices and provide some excellent entertainment. And it wouldn’t be a spoiler to suggest that a sequel seems inevitable.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.