‘Creed’ marks the seventh instalment in the Rocky franchise, after Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed and starred in the original back in 1976 – guiding it to Oscar glory for the best picture win, and giving him his one and only acting nod for his iconic turn as Rocky Balboa, beaten posthumously by Peter Finch for ‘Network’. His only nod until now, that is, as his emotional return to the character saw him deservedly nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar, whilst Michael B. Jordan takes the lead playing the titular Adonis Creed; illegitimate son of Rocky’s original opponent Apollo Creed, who was of course wonderfully portrayed by Carl Weathers in the first three movies.
Written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, and directed by Coogler who worked previously with Jordan on their hit ‘Fruitvale Station’ (13), the film suffers initially from a lack of any emotional connection to the central character. Taken out of juvie and the foster care system to be raised in opulence by Apollo’s widow, Adonis shows a determination to fight just as his father did, but as the screenplay points out he has all the advantages in life that his father before him did not, giving him many more avenues to explore. In the beginning we see him receiving a promotion and promptly leaving his office job to pursue his fighting career, and whilst his office job presumably wasn’t all that fulfilling, he is wealthy and educated enough to try his hand at any sport or endeavour, there’s no need to pick one that could leave you fatally wounded or brain damaged.
The screenplay acknowledges this conceit, and there’s a wonderful piece of dialogue from Phylicia Rashad (playing Mary Anne Creed) where she explains she had to wipe Apollo’s ass because he couldn’t do it himself after some fights. The whole premise is that Adonis is trying to prove his own self-worth given his roots and his never having even met his father, but lack of emotional depth early on still leaves this feeling like a struggle foisted onto the main character by a plot blind to its weaknesses in its eagerness to make and justify another Rocky film.
Similarly, we find the young character of Bianca (Tessa Thompson) who is working as a singer, her passion in life, but suffering from permanent gradual hearing loss, although she seems quite content to listen to music full blast in her apartment; without so much as a thought for her neighbours let alone herself. Later on a key theme of the movie is anchored when Adonis tells someone who is sick to fight it and not give in – but this is completely at odds with the character of Bianca, as she says she just wants to do what she loves for as long as she can, and yet is actually caving in to her condition by propelling it ever forward at the fastest rate possible, doing things that would stand a good chance of damaging anyone’s hearing.
From a writing stance all of this fails and comes across as far too naïve, good general concepts poorly realised, but then enter Stallone, who reluctantly agrees to train Adonis and the two develop a father-son relationship that is both convincing and touching at times, and it looks for all the world like that very relationship had its effect on the performers too, as all the raw nerves that were only really there in print in the beginning exist on the surface by the end. Jordan delivers not only a likeable, and believable given how ripped he is for the role, performance throughout, but also a vulnerable and sympathetic one by the end, with Stallone on top form and really operating as the pulsating heart behind the movie.
Coogler has managed to shoot the film in such a way as to make it feel modern and down-to-earth, perfectly in keeping with the original, but also reasonably cinematic where it needed to be, although they’ve tried too hard to fit in bites of the original soundtrack into the new one and it usually feels out of place. When the story gets going though, the pace and momentum is such that it’s easy to be carried along with it, and Stallone’s guidance grounds and carries everything forward, not particularly hindered by the weaknesses of the first half.
It’s well shot throughout, although some scenes don’t come off as well as intended – such as a fight ambitiously done in one take, all the rage these days, that sees the camera in all the wrong places and a distance created between us and the action, and although the performers have done the scene well, the nature of it being a fight means the slightest of hesitations and going through their paces is really noticeable. Comically, the ending sees Adonis given an affectionate shove by Thompson, who unintentionally pushes him back several feet – at the culmination of that arduous and probably stressful scene, the irony isn’t lost on the cast.
Oddly enough, they watch ‘Skyfall‘ just afterward, which not only has a parallel with a protagonist deemed physically below par compared to his task, but also had Sam Mendes in his next instalment, ‘Spectre‘, attempt his own one-take scene.
‘Creed’ marks the best instalment in the Rocky story for decades, and although it doesn’t have the thrills and spectacle of ‘Rocky III’ or ‘Rocky IV’, its character based realism, for the most part, delivers a very ‘real’ feeling film.