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November 25, 2015

The Rocky series has so long been a punchline of ’80s franchise filmmaking that it’s easy to forget that the film that started it all was nominated for ten Academy Awards, and won three. Sylvester Stallone became a fixture of big, dumb action movies, and his sleepy face and voice made it easy to think of him as just a big, dumb guy, especially as boxing started to lose a lot of its cultural cachet. But the man earned both his nominations in Rocky — for best actor and best original screenplay — before the series slipped into self-parody.

So there’s room for quality in the latest installment, Creed, but we have to get back to what made Rocky great. Cut out the stunt casting and the Cold War proxies. Break it down to what makes most boxing movies actually work: a man overcoming adversities through grit and determination to prove something to the world and to himself. Or occasionally a woman, but this is a very testosterone-soaked genre.

Of course, a protagonist overcoming adversity is basically every story out there, but boxing movies boil that down to a concentrated essence. There is no vague metaphor here; the adversary is the guy in the other corner who is literally trying to knock the hero down. And, in the best examples, the build-up starts from nothing: boxing movies inhabit hardscrabble urban neighborhoods where athletic skill can often feel like the only way up and out. Boxing, unlike team sports, concentrates that skill and drive into one person.

So writer/director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington have their work cut out for them if they want to transfer focus from the Italian Stallion to the son of his most famous rival, Apollo Creed. They manage to come up with something, though: Adonis “Don” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) was the product of an affair, and was born after Apollo died. His mother died soon after, and he was left to orphanages and group homes, where he had to fight to survive until Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) adopted him. So Don has all the money and comfort his father’s career could provide, but laid over a hard-edged kid from the streets who wants to thrive on his own name, not his father’s.

So Don quits his cushy California finance job and moves to Philadelphia to find Rocky (Stallone) managing his restaurant, Adrian’s. He meets a love interest of his own, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), who provides a counterpoint to his training: Don needs to control his temper both inside and outside the ring.

The overall shape of the story is a pretty standard lead-up to the climactic title fight with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), the British fighter who wants one last big cash grab before serving a jail sentence. Overcoming the shadow of his father’s name adds a certain twist to Don’s story, but it still follows in a well-worn track.

Where Creed really shines, though, is in Coogler’s direction and the camera work by The Wrestler cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Her camera is always inside the ring with the fighters, as close as they are to each other, and as tightly choreographed. There is no chaotic editing to cover a fight in a flurry of cuts; everything is impeccably clear. The pinnacle is the fight at the film’s mid-point, which they capture in a single long take.

Even outside the ring, Coogler goes for a lot of long takes, but always keeping to natural phrases in the story. He makes sure we can see his skill, but never turns unnecessarily flashy. This isn’t a film about a showboater, after all. Like Don, Coogler is an immense talent, just starting to make a name for himself. He knows how to impress us, but also shows the discipline to make a truly great film.

And the same goes for Jordan, whom Coogler directed in his first feature, Fruitvale Station. Even in his lesser roles, Jordan is usually the most interesting actor on the screen, and Don is one of his best. And yet he easily shares that space with Stallone, who turns in what may be his best performance in decades.

The Rocky series dug way down over the years, chasing its own ghosts. Creed finds new blood in Coogler and Jordan, respecting and honoring the past, while finding new ground where the franchise can be as great as it once was.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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