FRUITVALE STATION director Ryan Coogler is the latest of many promising young filmmakers to be swallowed up by the Hollywood reboot machine. His ROCKY spinoff CREED is too reliant upon the original series’ plot beats to be a total knockout, but despite some uneven moments, the end result is an engaging film with some superb performances and a strong and assured hand from Coogler himself.
Michael B Jordan takes on the role of Adonis ‘Creed’ Johnson, conceived during the extra marital activities of ROCKY antagonist-cum-eventual-ally Apollo Creed. Plucked from care homes by Apollo’s widow, ‘Donnie’ supplements a strait-laced office job by fighting in grimy Tijuana boxing matches. When his desire to go full-time hits roadblocks in LA, he heads for Philly, seeking out the guidance and training of his father’s rival and friend: Rocky Balboa. Naturally, when everyone knows there’s a ‘Creed’ back in the ring – albeit an inexperienced one (not unlike Rocky in the original) – the sharks want a piece of that box office chum.
At the heart of CREED, under the superficial glitz, there’s plenty of potentially engaging character drama. Jordan treads a fine line portraying Donnie – a man affected deeply by the fact his father died before he knew him, yet weighed down by his presence. He rejects the name, yet seems simultaneously inspired and burdened by it – drawn towards boxing as a connection to his father. His new neighbour Bianca (Tessa Thompson) supports him in pursuing goals which have an interesting motivation beyond plot mechanics.
there’s verve and deliberation to the camera work and composition in CREED that elevates these scenes.
Director Ryan Coogler is also an assured visual composer here. Donnie’s first professional US fight is fantastically put together in a long single take, proving that boxing is still one of the most cinematic of sports. Scenes such as this fight sequence are flamboyant when required, but Coogler tones it down when needed, showcasing both Jordan and Stallone’s character development. Although FRUITVALE STATION demonstrated Coogler’s visual skill and ability to draw out performances, there’s an additional verve and deliberation to the camera work and composition in CREED that elevates these scenes.
It’s hard to believe this is the same Stallone churning out sequels to THE EXPENDABLES with his arthritic chums, but his first return to the role since 2006’s ROCKY BALBOA (which was surprisingly not-terrible) works well. This is a believable version of ‘old’ Rocky, a man whose past is also following him around – Adrian, Mickey, his career – but in a totally different way to his young protege. A scene where Rocky reflects on his life – now that he has lost those truly dear to him – is touching and brings the franchise connection to the film in a far more meaningful manner beyond the ‘Rocky Legacy’ subtitle.
The film isn’t without some missteps – freeze-frames overlaid with opponents’ boxing statistics feel gamified and clunky. And in a film otherwise replete with strong performances, real life boxer Tony Bellew is stilted as opponent Ricky Conlan, struggling to hold scenes together if he doesn’t have supporting characters to help him.
While [the plot similarity] results in an effective story, it’s hardly a surprising one.
The film doesn’t stray very far from the ROCKY template established in the original film, with elements of ROCKY II and III woven in, and while this results in an effective story, it’s hardly a surprising one. Plans are already afoot for a sequel, and a betting viewer would know which plot points to put their money on. Cynics could easily latch on to the problems above and dismiss CREED as franchise smelling salts. To do so, however, would be to also dismiss the new talent Coogler and Jordan bring to the creaking joints of the ROCKY brand, breathing fresh air into familiar characters.