With a perfect understanding of the original Rocky, and a clearly handled theme, Coogler’s sophomore film is an instant classic.
The relationships between fathers and sons may be one of the most commonly used tropes for drama in films. It’s always a question of what one generation leaves for the next, be it trauma (of a kind) or too long a shadow. Legacy is in modern filmmaking as well: the continuation, via restart, of dormant franchises. Jurassic World, Terminator: Genisys, Mad Max: Fury Road, and of course Star Wars: The Force Awakens, are all examples of this phenomenon in only the last year. Creed is of the same trend, and follows the theme of legacy intently. By some alchemy of the old and the new, it’s not just the best Rocky film since the original, it’s the equal of Fury Road in the franchise restart leagues.
Adonis ‘Donnie’ Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) spent his childhood moving between foster homes and juvenile institutions after the death of his mother, fighting wherever he went out of instinct. When Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) tells him that his father was legendary boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers in the original films), he’s transferred from a poor upbringing into a world of wealth, privilege, and a name that pins him down. Unable to find a willing trainer in L.A., he moves to Philadelphia to enlist the help of his father’s former opponent and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). From there, Donnie and Rocky work together to forge their own futures away from the hands that everyone else assumed they should settle for.
This is the first film in the franchise that Stallone didn’t personally write, but writer-director Ryan Coogler (and writing partner Aaron Covington) has made it as true to the original as possible, down to a few of the structural beats. Like J.J. Abrams with Star Wars, Coogler gets what made the original Rocky so meaningful. He’s not simply homaging either, with nostalgic moments purely for fan service. Every frame, every beat, every musical cue: they’re true to the spirit and feel of John Avildsen’s 1977 masterpiece, without just being remixes. Coogler’s debut Fruitvale Station was great filmmaking that reflected the real story, but his second run behind camera here shows him embracing more than just the streets of Philadelphia. He’s got oodles of style, unafraid to get up close and to go for dramatic, powerful framing in simple circumstances; in a real triumph of control though, the frequent long takes – including a mesmerising one-shot boxing match, excellent work by cinematographer Maryse Alberti – are purpose driven, without the cocky, attention-manhandling nature of Iñarittu’s. It leaves you asking why all films don’t look this good.
Coogler’s understanding of Rocky means that Stallone gets to showcase the acting muscles he’s always had; he turns in possibly his best-ever performance as the heart-of-gold boxer. Alone again, with both his wife and best friend gone, Rocky’s waiting for death, on his own. There’s a huge amount of pain and loneliness behind his signature mumble, although he’s as sweet and down-to-earth as he was almost 40 years ago. the most emotional parts of the film belong to him, and it’s what’s finally caught Stallone awards notice, but there’s no melodrama, just honesty. He’s part of a trio of great leads. Tessa Thompson takes on the usually throwaway girlfriend part, showing that Dear White People was no fluke. Her Bianca, further thanks to the stellar writing, is given the same amount of depth and complexity as the lead. Thompson digs her teeth into it and provides a perfect, electrically charged partner to Jordan’s Donnie.
As great a Rocky story this is, the focus is always on Donnie’s struggle. Jordan’s performance is as equally awards-worthy, with a smile that could break granite and a right uppercut that will do the same. He’s hungry and charming, and has a confidence masking a lot of insecurity and anger, about being the son of a legend he never met. This is the conflict at the heart of film and filmmaker: can you leave your own mark on the world when everything you do can be compared to the past? Coogler’s answer is a resounding, loving, heart-breaking, thrilling, and empowering hell yes.
Creed (2015), directed by Ryan Coogler, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures. Certificate 12A.