This is a movie that was getting a high amount of positive buzz in the last two weeks. I had it on my radar since last summer when the trailer first came across my eyes and I was looking forward to it even before the publicity hounds started to work their magic. I am happy to report that this is not a case of professional hype managing to sucker in a few journalists and cinema fans, this is a very solid movie with two great performances. It does not do anything too different from it’s predecessors, except that it is as serious and well played as the original film was.
Basically, this is the seventh film in the “Rocky” series, but it is the first to feature a fighter other than the “Italian Stallion” himself. It was a bit of a stretch nine years ago when Rocky came out of retirement and fought an opponent nearly half his age. There is no way that this film could have sold us on Rocky as the protagonist despite the fact that Sylvester Stallone is in fantastic physical shape and probably could outlast someone a third of his age. He probably spent any credibility in that regard two years ago when he cashed in on the Rocky legacy in “Grudge Match” with Robert DeNiro.
“Creed” takes a different and much smarter direction. Rocky becomes the reluctant trainer of a new fighter, the illegitimate son of his old foe and close friend Apollo Creed. Donnie (Adonis) Johnson is an orphan with an attitude when he is taken in by Apollo’s widow eight years after his death. We sort of have to bend the rules of time and space to allow the events to play out as they do, because it is just twelve years later that he is trying to break into the boxing game himself. The set up of the story line ignores the real ages of the legacy characters, so that the young fighter is indeed barely an adult and still seething with anger and self doubt. Michael B. Jordan (who will probably use his middle initial for the rest of his career for obvious reasons) is a talented young actor,who is a veteran of several excellent television programs and had a breakout role in “Fruitvale Station” a couple of years ago. He manages to reach us through his hard headed demeanor and uncertain station in life. The physical gifts required to be a fighter are demonstrated pretty well, but there is an effective romantic angle in the film also. It is his scenes with Rocky though that make the performance resonate so well.
Jordan is matched in his performance by the man who created the character, the series and the trope of “Rocky”, Sylvester Stallone. Sly has not always gotten the credit he deserves as an actor. The Rocky series was dominated after the first original story, with plot lines that demanded less and less of him. The same thing was true of his other franchise character, John Rambo. The films made a lot of money, but the artistry was sometimes lacking. I thought his performance in “Rocky Balboa” would be his swan song with the character and he was excellent in that film. His work in this film however far surpasses that. He is more subtle here than anything he has appeared in in ages. Rocky is a little bit subdued by age and cognizant that time is not on his side. He puts on the role of Mickey, the Burgess Meridith character from the first three films, but plays the character as Rocky, the good hearted and loyal former Champion. There is an admittedly soap opera storyline in the plot but it plays out so honestly and with real emotions that a guy like Rocky might have, it is easy to accept it.
The movie is a boxing film with the Rocky heritage behind it, so it needs to be rousing and inspiring as well as dramatically satisfying. The director Ryan Coogler manages to make the old bits of Rocky films feel fresh, even when they are directly aping them. This is his second feature film and he moves the story forward with assurance and creativity. The first major fight in the film is staged in a marvelous fashion, as if it were shot in a continuous take. The climactic fight, even though it follows very familiar paths from previous films, still manages to arouse our spirit and build tension. Donnie’s story feels authentic because of the way he interacts with the world and the language and behavior of those characters he encounters. When he crosses over into the cinematic world of Rocky, the director manages to bring the credibility of the character to the formula of the fight film. This is one of the better films I’ve seen this year and I expect I will be seeing it again down the road in the annual “Best Picture Showcase.” Yeah, it could do that.