Boxing. To some it is a brutal contest where people step into a ring and pummel each other until someone is knocked out. To others boxing is graceful and artistic, its display of athleticism unparalleled. Unable to disassociate the violence from the strategy and skill involved, the “Sweet Science” as it is called has lent itself to film better than any other sport.
While boxing has existed in cinema for more than a century, starting as far back as Veriscope’s “Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” from 1897, for all intents and purposes the lifeblood of the boxing film started the same year as America celebrated its bicentennial. The release of Rocky in 1976 came during one of the golden age eras of cinema, and its historical context is there on the screen if you’re willing to look beyond the tropes that would become commonplace in future boxing films.
A decade of social upheavals, full of fear and paranoia, ushered in director-driven films reflecting the same turmoil, with antiheroes and an air of cynicism. Rocky has none of that. It drips with schmaltz, like the way foam cascades down the side of a glass of cold beer. This was a film about the working class.
An underdog movie at its finest, Rocky also offered love, romance and redemption. The other Rockys would lose sight, going through the motions as the “Italian Stallion” battled Mr. T and the Soviet Union (let’s forget about Tommy “The Machine” Gunn, shall we?). Thirty years and five sequels later Sylvester Stallone left the ring for good in Rocky Balboa, a fitting swan songfor his most beloved character.
But now he’s back in Creed. Is this the seventh Rocky movie or the franchise spin-off we didn’t think we needed?
Creed is not a simple attempt at rejuvenating a franchise for just one more round. That’s on account of writer-director Ryan Coogler, who gets his first crack at a studio picture after putting Hollywood on notice a few years ago with his debut Fruitvale Station. He pictured a scenario that would honor the legacy of the Rocky films while forging a new identity.
Selling point: What if Apollo Creed had a son who grew up to be a fighter like his old man?
As the story goes, Apollo Creed, Rocky’s old nemesis turned best friend, had a son out of wedlock who grows up a product of the Los Angeles foster care system. Opening in flashback, the year is 1998 and twelve-year-old Adonis Johnson has to be separated from the rest of the kids in juvy. He is visited by a woman he presumes is a social worker, but she reveals details that causes Adonis to unclench his scraped knuckles and soften. The woman is Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). When the young man asks what was his name – about his father – the screen goes black and a singular title, big and bold, fills the screen.
Eighteen years later, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) is living in the Creed family mansion while driving down to Tijuana, Mex. to fight in underground boxing matches. Eventually, he quits his suit-and-tie job and looks to making it as a pugilist, much to Mary Anne’s dismay, her husband the victim of a fatal boxing exhibition match in the mid-’80s. She has seen what the sport does, recounting the times she had to help Apollo to the bedroom and bathroom for he was too punch drunk after a fight to walk or wipe without assistance.
Adonis leaves L.A. and heads to Philadelphia to find his father’s friend Rocky Balboa, who still runs the restaurant Adrian’s, named after his late wife. Adonis wants Rocky for a trainer but the Italian Stallion is reluctant. As he should be. Boxing took him from rags to riches to losing all those he held dear. Trainer Mickey. Friends Apollo and Paulie. Wife Adrian. Even his son is out of the picture, living in Vancouver with his wife.
Rocky likes the kid, who keeps his progeny a secret, wanting to make his name as a fighter based on his own accomplishments not his father’s name. Rocky hasn’t set foot in the old gym, which has undergone quite the facelift since the days Mickey told him he was gonna eat lightnin’ and crap thunder. He’s mellowed, but he’s still a lug. Adonis is a lug like him, only scrappy and hungry.
Formula dictates the foreseeable: Rocky trains Adonis in preparation for a big fight. Coogler accepts the formula but counters rope-a-doping the audience into a boxing movie that spends more time in developing characters and relationships than actual boxing. We have Rocky and Adonis, and then there’s Adonis’ romance with the musician that lives in the apartment below his, Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Their relationship is more than a simple meet-cute. When the romance goes through the movements of hitting an impasse and later rekindled, it doesn’t feel forced on account of the pairing of Jordan and Thompson.
Nine years ago, Rocky Balboa established the credo about life and that “nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.” The goal is to keep moving forward. But when a medical condition arises in Creed that forces Rocky to take account of his life and what it has amounted to, this is when the film is its most powerful. A solemn reminder that icons are more than aspirations of greatness. They are humans, penetrable. Rocky is ready to throw in the towel on life. He’s tired of being alone. He misses his friends. He misses Adrian.
The role reversal that occurs, first with Michael B. Jordan as star and Sylvester Stallone supporting, then with Adonis pushing Rocky to fight his disease, provides a rewarding payoff. The weight of their story defines Creed. There’s the build-up to Adonis fighting a British champ (Tony Bellew), but we’ve seen it all before. Nevertheless, Coogler shows his ability as a storyteller by reveling in the cliches we’ve come accustomed to seeing.
Audiences may not go for the character stuff, the stuff that makes Creed not just a quality boxing movie but a quality film period. But if it is boxing they are after, Coogler shows his savvy in the way he approaches each fight. Beginning with the Tijuana match, Coogler sticks close to star Michael B. Jordan, following him to the ring, the same approach Darren Arronofsky applied in The Wrestler. Then he stays with him, as if glued to his hip, a steadycam shot getting us up close and personal to the two pugilists. Maryse Albert, who photographed both Creed and The Wrestler, gives an identity to the three fights Adonis has, going from underground to the main event, as well as the training montages – the last of which is highlighted with Adonis running through the streets of Philly as local 12 O’Clock Boys (dirt-bike riders) pop wheelies as the music swells.
Creed uses up-tempo hip-hop that keeps the energy high, including tracks sung by star Thompson, but it is Ludwig Göransson’s score that gives the movie its spirit. The music reverberates low when Adonis is in juvy, but slowly creeps as Adonis makes his way to Philly, meets Rocky and goes on a first date with Bianca. The ebb and flow of moods and themes gives way to an intoxicating mix that culminates in the final fight. When Göransson’s take on the famed theme kicks in there won’t a person that isn’t on the edge of their seats, fingers interlocked below their chins as they try to close their agape mouths. Bill Conti would be pleased.
Creed is more than a contender; this is a damn good boxing movie. Michael B. Jordan continues to show that he’s a star on the rise and Sylvester Stallone surprises in his supporting turn, delivering his best performance in, well, ever. Fans of the Rocky movies should make it a priority to see Creed. If it doesn’t pump you up, then you’re not alive.
Director: Ryan Coogler Writer(s): Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on a story by Coogler Notable Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!