Boxing might be the easiest sport to translate to film. Simply because of the simplicity and primal nature of the event. There are only two competitors in the ring, a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” depending on who you are rooting for. A lot of the drama can be told through direct action, much like a well timed punch can communicate a lot within the boxing ring. However, when boxing films are at their best, the fight outside of the ring is just as compelling as the fight within the ropes. The spin-off to the Rocky series, Creed, proves to be one of those rare films and is made up of its own championship material.
The story begins with a young Adonis Johnson in juvenile detention with clear emotional and anger issues. This is not an after school special version of a kid’s prison, it is shockingly authentic and signals that this movie will be taking place firmly in reality. It also is here that one of the many themes of the movie is presented. You are who you are, despite your circumstances. Throughout the course of the movie Adonis, and Rocky, prove to be fighters to the core and it’s fascinating to watch them discover…or rediscover this about themselves.
Once Adonis, played masterfully by Michael B. Jordan, decides to move to Philadelphia and track down the legendary champion, the movie’s true “lineage” is revealed. Some of the callbacks to previous Rocky films are obvious and others are subtle, but all of them are well-thought out and impactful. This is a world where the Rocky movies that we know actually took place and the effects of those events can still be strongly felt.
Creed is so engaging on its own merits, that you may forget it’s a film in the Rocky universe, until Sylvester Stallone shows up. However once he does, his impact is felt all over the movie. This is, simply put, one of the best performances he has ever given. Stallone is a raw nerve who delivers an emotional performance that may define his entire career. For the first time, perhaps since 1976, Rocky Balboa is no longer a bigger than life caricature of himself. He seems to be a real, breathing character existing in Philly and that is a credit to Stallone abandoning vanity and digging deep into the material, director and writer, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) provided him.
While this is a movie about the struggles in the life of a boxer, it really is about a son unknowingly searching for a father figure. Coogler gives both Adonis and Rocky a lot of fertile material to play with, which elevates both performances into a place where they both should be seriously considered for awards. While Adonis is on his own quest, Rocky is struggling with all of the loss that he has experienced in his life. The young boxer signals a way for him to reconcile some of the issues in his past, so that he to can move forward. The two share a complex relationship that is just as exciting and powerful as the punches thrown in the ring.
This is a drama, but it’s also a boxing movie and Coogler certainly does not forget to throw visual blows. Adonis’ first fight will probably be the most talked about bout from the movie. In what is made to seem like one long take (a la Birdman), we follow the boxer from his dressing room into the ring and through the entire fight. As each boxer gets punched, you can see the welts and cuts develop from each impact in real-time. Coogler uses the camera like a nimble boxer, dancing around the ring with the fighters. You can tell that the director was not only inspired by the great Rocky films of the past, but also other films, such as Raging Bull, which can be felt in the action and drama as well.
It isn’t often when a film’s sound mixing and editing really stand out, particularly in a grounded drama. However, many times in the film Coogler places the audience in Adonis’ shoes. So when he tunes out a conversation, so does the audience. When he makes his slow march from the locker room to the ring, you hear every foot step, scream from the fans, and every thrown punch in the match. It’s both disorienting and a completely visceral way to use sound. It also highlights the struggle that Adonis’ love interest Bianca. played by Tessa Thompson, is facing with her progressive hearing loss.
Typically the final fight of Rocky movies feel like a form of release for pent up emotions that have been building throughout the course of the movie. Creed is able to crescendo to similar heights at its climax. However perhaps for the first time in the series, there is a twist that occurs within the ring that reveals Adonis’ true motivations, which is both revelatory and heartbreaking. The fight at the climax of the film is not about the violence on screen, but the development of his character and it works on multiple levels.
Ryan Coogler has proven to be one of the most promising young directors around. It is clear that he has studied the masters, by the level of confidence he has both visually and as a storyteller. Creed is not a soulless money-grab, which is attempting to ride on the coattails of a legend. It’s a surprisingly intimate and heartfelt journey about the unseen connections between fathers and sons, the power of the human spirit, and the true courage of an underdog. Much like Rocky was a film that unexpectedly became one of the greatest franchises in movie history, Creed has now formally entered into the conversation as one of the greatest modern boxing films in existence. It’s that good.
Whether you are a fan of the franchise or not, Creed will entertain and take you on an unexpectedly emotional ride with some of the greatest performances behind and in front of the camera, that you will see all year. Creed has indeed proved its worth and the name should prove to be a legend on its own.