One can see where Ryan Coogler wants to go with Creed, his quasi-sequel/reboot of the Rocky franchise focusing on Apollo Creed’s son. He wants to try and replicate what Sylvester Stallone wrote and how John G. Avildsen directed one of the greatest scripts in Hollywood history for a new generation but adding a more urban twist to it. The film has so much going for it that it’s almost ridiculous in retrospect. He has a great young actor (Michael B Jordan) in a role he was seemingly born to play. Stallone is back, lending his star power and his greatest role in what might be the film that earns him an acting Academy Award (he won one already for writing Rocky). Ryan Coogler, who earned rave reviews for Fruitvale Station, is there to guide Jordan once again with a script he wrote with input from Stallone as well. Everything should be there for one of the best films of the year, right?
Unfortunately no as Creed winds up drowning in Rocky nostalgia and callbacks that it can’t find its own identity.
Simple premise. Adonis Johnson (Jordan) finds out he’s the illegitimate child of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, in flashbacks) as a young child. Taken in by Creed’s widow (an underused Phylicia Rashād) as a young child, Johnson grows up without the shadow of his famous father as his origins are covered up by the family. Fighting’s in his blood, though, as Johnson spends his free time fighting in smoker fights in Mexico when he’s not working at a securities firm. Quitting the job to pursue his passion of becoming a professional boxer, much against his adopted mother’s wishes, he winds up in Philadelphia to recruit Balboa to train him. Winding up knocking out a Top 10 opponent in what was supposed to his tune up, Johnson’s origins come out and the son of Apollo Creed is given a once in a lifetime opportunity.
He’s going to England to take on on the light heavyweight champion of the world, Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), as the son of Apollo Creed is thrust into the spotlight he never wanted as his father’s son inheriting the pugilistic legacy he always dreamed of. Adonis has a love interest (Tessa Thompson), a singer/songwriter who lives downstairs that’s losing her hearing, that ultimately doesn’t add much into the film.
The film’s problem is that it goes for little moments that never accumulate into anything substantial. It’s a laundry list of moments that either feel like they could’ve been expanded upon into something more or are just callbacks to the first film so that people really know this is a Rocky film. Ultimately they make the film feel smaller because they never explore things they posit out there and don’t do anything interesting with the callbacks.
The callbacks feel forced, as if they were shoved in there to really ram home the point. Adonis running through the streets, set to mimic Balboa doing the same in the original to “Gonna Fly Now,” doesn’t have much to it other than reference the original. There’s a handful of moments replicated from the original Balboa/Creed fight for the Conlan/Creed fight that don’t have the same punch to it. When the final bell is rang there isn’t the sort of emotional connection to Adonis as we had for Balboa, either, and that’s mainly because the film doesn’t develop him as much as it could. It’s a shame because all the parts are there.
Rocky at one point discusses the legacy of fathers and sons, and how his son (Milo Ventimiglia in Rocky Balboa, Sage Stallone in Rocky V) had a difficult time dealing with being Rocky Balboa’s son in Philadelphia. It’s a powerful, poignant little moment that any son of a famous father has to have experienced in their lifetime and that Balboa is cognizant of it is really self aware. Unfortunately the film doesn’t do anything with it beyond the perfunctory moments its needed. The film’s big punch with this, later in the film, comes up limp because there’s no power to it. It’s not established enough to really do something with it.
Compare it to the big finale of Rocky, where everyone is screaming at Balboa to stay down and he gets back up. It’s a huge moment because throughout the film it’s been established that Balboa is just a guy from the streets who’s gotten lucky to face the champ, mainly because he had a great nickname, and all Balboa wants is to go the distance. If he can last 15 rounds with Apollo Creed then he’ll have accomplished something. He won’t be just a bum from the neighborhood if he can go that far with Creed; everyone expects him to be torched early and Balboa going the distance means something.
Creed going 12 with Conlan for his own reasons doesn’t matter as much because it’s not established heavily why he wants to be a fighter so badly. We peak at his father’s legacy, and his son trying to reconnect with him via the sweet science, but the big emotional moment in the end doesn’t have any pop because so much of what could’ve been established beforehand isn’t. Coogler has all the emotional pieces, and his single take shots of the first two fights for Adonis are amazing, but he just doesn’t have the depth to them to really make the film hit home.
The other problem the film has, that Rocky didn’t, is that the one thing people forget about the first film is that it’s a love story about a boxer. Adrian (Talia Shire) is a fully developed character and her romance with Balboa is beautiful, charming one that is developed over time in the film. At the end, when Balboa is just looking to celebrate the win with the love of his life, feels powerful because their romance is established over the length of the film. Thompson, on the other hand, is just there to fulfill the check mark of “love interest” to the formula. It’s a shame because she’s coming off a great 2014, with great parts in both Selma and Dear White People, that being given a great character (a singer/songwriter going deaf, trying to do as much possible before full deafness sets in) that is demoted to love interest fairly quickly is disappointing.
She has the film’s best moment, though. Johnson tries to pass off Balboa as his “uncle,” a family friend, and the sheer bemusement on her face sells the whole scene. She knows that’s Rocky Balboa, the most famous fighter in a city that had “Smoking” Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston among others, and it’s a nice character nod. She’s from the city and would obviously have grown up knowing the legacy of Balboa; it’s nice to see the film realize this and not have her discover who Balboa is. Her eventual discovery of who Creed’s father is, along with the rest of the world, is a good one as well but the Balboa moment is easily the film’s best.
It’s a smart moment in a screenplay filled with a lot of half-hearted ones.
On the Rocky rankings Creed is right around the level of Rocky II, just hovering above Rocky V, as it’s a perfunctory sequel in the franchise and nothing more. It’s a film trying to rely on Rocky nostalgia and nods because it can’t quite forge its own path.
Director: Ryan Coogler Writer: Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington based on characters created by Sylvester Stallone Notable Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Graham McTavish, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew