Director: Ryan Coogler
Primary Cast: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
US Release Date: 25 Nov 2015
As 2016 approaches, I’ve decided to try something new with Words on Films. From time to time, I’ll be publishing “guest posts” written by people other than myself. In doing so, I hope to bring a wider range of perspectives to the site while also covering a larger number of films.
Today’s review was written by Austin, a self-proclaimed film buff and a student at the University of Colorado. In his free time, Austin regularly reviews films on his blog, which can be found here.
A Review of Ryan Coogler’s Creed
Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Rocky series isn’t concerned with being a bland nostalgia trip. Instead, it’s an achingly beautiful film that presents a new creation while still managing to pay tribute to one of the most beloved film franchises (and characters) in cinema history. 40 years of franchise weight would be enough to buckle the knees of many experienced directors, but the relative newcomer Coogler proves that Fruitvale Station was no fluke and has now cemented himself (potentially) as one of his generation’s most promising and emotionally charged filmmakers.
It would have been easy for Coogler to simply dip back into the well of formulaic franchise films when crafting Creed, but he wisely choose to evolve the series by moving the story out of Rocky’s shadow instead. Enter Adonis Johnson (Jordan), the son of Apollo Creed who desperately wants to create a name for himself that is independent of his father’s (in a way, Adonis’s struggle parallels that of the film). When Adonis seeks out Rocky Balboa (Stallone), both men begin the greatest fights of their lives.
A barebones synopsis of Creed would reduce the film to a formulaic underdog story; structurally speaking, we’ve all seen this story before (many of us, a few times within this particular franchise). And yet, Coogler’s version is filmed with such tremendous heart and is executed with such brilliant energy, that I cannot bring myself to fault the film for any of its potential predictability. While Creed is brimming with the spirit of the original Rocky, it is equally emotional and feels just as authentic.
As with best Rocky films, the actual boxing in Creed is secondary to the characters and their stories. Adonis is driven by a desire to carve out his own legacy, and watching him accept the weight of the Creed name—as Coogler simultaneously makes a name for himself behind the scenes—is powerful stuff indeed.
One of the most remarkable things about Creed is how seamlessly the film’s new protagonist is integrated into the existing franchise; in fact, Coogler weaves Adonis so organically into the Rocky mythos viewers may feel that he’s been there all along. For the most part, the film focuses on Adonis’s struggle, and the results are undeniably compelling. That said, Rocky’s side of the story—through smaller—is equally as strong.
Paulie is gone. Punchy is gone. Only one of the turtles is left. Rocky is truly alone, and he would comfortably accept death if Adonis didn’t walk into his life. Ultimately, Creed is a powerful examination of how determination to never give up a fight reaches far beyond the boundaries of the boxing ring. As simple as such a story might sound, Coogler’s presentation of it is powerful, moving, and entertaining enough to transcend the realms of more formulaic and less innovative sequels.
The strength of the film’s tremendous lead performances are also crucial to Creed‘s success. Despite a misstep in this year’s Fantastic Four (which was riddled with problems that had nothing to do with him), Michael B. Jordan has been continually showcasing his incredible range and ability in recent years, and he does a great job in Creed. Physically, Jordan carries himself like a champion, but his performance also contains the perfect amount of vulnerability for the story.
And then there’s Stallone. My god. Because Sylvester Stallone has become a larger-than-life figure, its often easy for viewers to forget the depths he’s able to reach when he cares about a character. He’s always been compelling as Rocky, but this time around he reaches a place of pain and agony that he’s never blessed audiences with before. His performance here is moving, complex, charming, and even comedic, and he revitalizes an iconic character who could have easily become a caricature by now.
Besides Adonis, the other major new character in Creed is an immensely talented musician named Bianca (Thompson). Coogler could have easily used Bianca to essentially recreate Rocky and Adrian’s relationship, but he doesn’t. Bianca is a much more compelling character in her own right, and Thompson is terrific in a role that (quite fortunately) never veers into cliché. Bianca’s dreams and aspirations are just as interesting as Adonis’s, and after seeing the film, I wouldn’t mind an entire movie dedicated to her character. Together, Bianca and Adonis motivate each other to be better and to never give up in their respective struggles.
Other supporting cast members have their moments as well. Tony Bellew could have been nothing more than one-dimensional opponent for Adonis, but he’s given just enough attention and backstory to invest viewers in his side of the fight as well. Phylicia Rashad is also terrific as Mary Anne (Apollo’s wife and Adonis’s adoptive mother), but I do wish that her role had been a little larger.
I know I said that boxing takes a backseat to the characters in Creed, but when it comes time to fight, Coogler more than delivers. In the film, every hit is like a bullet hitting Adonis and audiences alike. Adonis’s first major fight was shot in one take and is one of the year’s—perhaps, even the decade’s—most impressive sequences. Boxing is notoriously hard to capture effectively on film, but Coogler and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti, weave the camera in and out of the boxers to produce some of the most unique and dynamic fight imagery I’ve ever seen. While not quite as impressive visually, Creed’s climactic final fight has so much weight and fury behind it, that it is just as powerful and as memorable as the first.
Hopefully, Creed’s cinematography won’t be overlooked this awards season (which is well underway). Not only are the fight sequences incredible, but Coogler and Alberti also bring the city around them to life. Creed is overflowing with truly impressive technical work, and though I could be wrong, I imagine that residents of Philadelphia may feel that they are actually breathing the air on the streets while watching this film.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the film’s amazing soundtrack before ending this review. In brilliantly honoring the franchise’s legacy while forging its own, Creed’s soundtrack takes cues from classic Rocky themes in just the right places while also utilizing powerful new music. When that iconic theme finally does kick in, it’s emotionally overwhelming and all the more powerful, because it is used judiciously, and I even teared up when I heard it.
Viewers who have never seen a Rocky film will still be able to appreciate the quality of the story and the filmmaking presented by Creed. That said, those who are fans of the franchise will be utterly mesmerized by what Coogler and company have achieved. The original Rocky was and always will be a masterpiece, but now Creed can stand proudly by its side at the top of those Philly steps.
Until Next Time
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