The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.
When I saw the first trailer for Creed there were two thoughts that crossed my mind, 1) how am I just hearing about this?; 2) oh come on!
I’m a fan of the Rocky series, and other than the atrocious Rocky V, I can watch the movies over and over again, and curled up on the couch catching a marathon on television is a great way to spend the day for me. Though the films generally decreased in quality over time (with Rocky Balboa being the outlier) the franchise is one of the most enjoyable out there.
Walking out of Creed, not only have I watched the best “Rocky” film since the first (and in many ways it challenges the first), but also one of the best films of the year.
Directed by Ryan Coogler (who also has a writing credit), the film is a modern take on the Rocky myth, with Michael B. Jordan standing in for Sylvester Stallone, and Stallone taking on the mentor role. With Coogler behind the camera and Jordan in front, we also have one of the freshest films this year. It should be no surprise these two put out such an excellent film as they both shot to stardom with their first collaboration Fruitville Station.
Coogler’s choices are fantastic when it comes to direction, as well as story, with shots that modernize much of what we’ve seen. Subtle moves of the camera, especially during the boxing scenes, amp up a genre where we see mainly the same framing and use of the camera. Here a camera may start facing one boxer and in a single tracking shot back up and pivot to bring another in. We follow a knocked out boxer down, as if we’re knocked out. A face is placed low on the screen showing off the surroundings. Training is presented in a way that I feel it’s something I’ve never seen on the screen. The mitt training in particular feel like a choreographed dance with a flurry of arm movements, just beautiful and mesmerizing to watch fly through the air. It’s all masterful, as Coogler realizes the surroundings are as important as those who occupy them.
The story is almost a complete remake of the first Rocky film with some twists and turns. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, a troubled youth who gets in to fighting then boxing. He seeks out Balboa as a mentor, and eventually fights for the championship. We’ve seen this plot, but how it’s presented and with such fantastic acting, are two ways this very much differs.
Coogler as a director clearly has the ability to bring out the best in his actors. Jordan is not shockingly fantastic. I’ve yet to see him in a role where he didn’t shine. He plays the role fantastically well with an air of privilege and trouble mixed together. He also gives an emotional performance, one which I have no problem admitting got me to choke up a few times. What’s truly surprising is Stallone’s performance, who lets face it, isn’t known for his acting ability. Here though, he plays the aged mentor well. The vulnerability he shows is amazing, especially when his life is on the line. You truly feel that this is a man who is struggling to decide if he should give up and see his wife and friend again, or keep on fighting. This film is as about Johnson’s fight for the title as it is Rocky’s fight to go on with life.
Of note are two other actors. Tessa Thompson plays Jordan’s love interest Johnson. She’s excellent for the subtlety of her performance. Her character Bianca also has an aspect not mentioned in much of what I’ve seen, a character who is losing her hearing and thus struggling with a disability. It’s an aspect of the movie I didn’t expect, and the way she talks and deals with it, you can feel her struggling to cope and having to cope. It’s wonderful to see on screen. For those also familiar with the boxing/MMA world Jacob ‘Stitch’ Duran is a fixture in the second half of the film bringing an air of authenticity. Duran is a real world cutman working in boxing/MMA/kickboxing, and though he doesn’t have much as far as lines, it was great to see him on screen.
Like a championship passing from the champ to challenger, we may be witnessing the passing of a franchise. If what’s to come is as good as this first film, I’m quite ok with that. One of my favorite films of the year, and possibly one of the bests, it’s also one of my favorite films in a while.
Overall Rating: 9.6