Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa THompson
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“What do you mean you’ve never seen Rocky?” That’s the response anyone who admits they’re unfamiliar with Sylvester Stallone’s underdog sports tale can expect to hear. 40 years on, one of the most surprising things about Creed is that you don’t need to have seen the original to enjoy it. Even more surprising? It just might be better.
When we catch up with Rocky (Stallone), he’s now something of a recluse – a man of the town, but no longer about town. But he’s dragged back towards the ring with the arrival on his doorstep of Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed. It’s no spoiler to say that Rocky eventually agrees to train him, but Creed’s achievement is to find fresh weight in those boxing movie conventions.
Donnie longs to follow in his dad’s footsteps, but he wants to do so under his own steam – it’s no coincidence that one of the film’s biggest plot points is the wider world’s discovery of his real surname and heritage (the double-meaning of the word “Creed” has never been more significant). Sly, meanwhile, steps nimbly into the role of pseudo-father figure, repaying the debt of Apollo’s training of him back in Rocky III. It’s the kind of emotional pay-off that has built up over the franchise, but it’s testament to just how good Stallone is that even without knowing the series’ history, you can see the years etched into Sly’s face: for the first time, Stallone isn’t writing or directing and it suits him to a tee. The actor hasn’t delivered this good a performance in years, comfortably inhabiting Rocky’s mannerisms yet quietly stepping to the side to offer the lead, weary wisdom, pathos and a fresh towel.
Their interactions are key to the whole film’s success, but it’s par for the course for Ryan Coogler, the man now behind the camera. Coogler’s previous film was the fantastic Fruitvale Station, a drama based on a tragic true story that was full of the kind of naturalistic conversations and tiny human moments that are second nature to him here; the film starts slow, with an introduction to Donnie via his stepmother (Phylicia Rashad) and even a teased romance with his neighbour, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an R&B artist with a habit for playing her music loud. In other hands, that might bore or annoy, but these are compelling scenes in their own right, laying the groundwork for a character who has a knack for convincing people to back him through sheer determination alone.
Coogler and his editors, Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver (both Fruitvale veterans), unleash that determination with a thrilling second half, distilling it through two superbly orchestrated fight sequences – the first, in particular, is a blistering standout, its opening round unfolding in a single take that repeatedly reinforces the claustrophobic intensity of the confrontation. DoP Maryse Alberti, who has previous with both documentaries and Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, brings the rest of the movie to life with a realistic immediacy that packs an equal punch. The climax, meanwhile, is a smart take on the archetypal final fight – the villain here is Liverpudlian cruiserweight Tony Bellew as “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, a world away from the outrageous cameos by Mr. T and Hulk “Thunderlips” Hogan in previous outings.
At the heart of this low-key story stands Michael B Jordan, an actor who has gone from strength to strength with every screen role. He’s a phenomenal talent, selling Donnie’s rage issues without the usual cliches, while bringing electricity to his scenes with Bianca as much as Balboa. That gives his in-the-ring performance huge clout, come the satisfying third act, and he embraces the physicality of the boxing with all the confidence and charisma of a Hollywood old-timer. While Jordan is magnetic whenever he’s on screen, though, the film’s script is notably generous to the last – when we see him stand up Bianca one night, we witness it from her perspective, not his. Most generous of all, though, is Rocky’s role as mentor, which explicitly passes the leading man baton to his successor. This is a study of legacy and loyalty, wrapped up in a human drama about fathers and sons. Who knew that the Rocky mantle could still move. four decades after his first first? A closing shot makes it clear that, while Stallone may have been the one to walk away from this picture with a Golden Globe, there’s a new generation of filmmakers making their mark. Whatever Coogler and Jordan do next, we want ringside seats. “What do you mean you’ve never seen Creed?” people will be saying in years to come.
Creed is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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