This Thanksgiving, movie audiences were served an incredible combination of nostalgia and modern filmmaking in ‘Creed,’ a new entry in the ‘Rocky’ saga that effectively manages to play on both the fondness for an indelible film character as well as introduce a new one to carry on the mantle. In a surprising move, this under-dog story does not center on a hard-scrabble lug who’s handed a shot at the title. It’s about two lonely men separated by generations who form an unlikely bond based on questions of legacy and responsibility.
Writer-Director Ryan Coogler again teams up with his ‘Fruitvale Station’ star, Michael B. Jordan, to create Adonis Creed, the son of former champ Apollo, born after his father’s tragic death in the ring. Rather than ride his father’s coattails, he goes by the moniker Donny Johnson, and seeks out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), relocating from LA to Philly to help him come into his own as a fighter. What follows may seem like familiar territory to fans of the series, but Coogler and company have more to say about fathers and sons, young love, and the resolve it takes to ‘keep moving forward.’
The new movie works so well due to the overwhelming commitment of its’ cast and the aesthetic of its’ director. Adonis, as portrayed by Jordan, is damaged but strong, willful yet vulnerable, as a young man driven by an inner competitive fire and a desire to connect with a father figure. He meets Bianca, an aspiring singer-songwriter played with a realistically guarded edge by Tessa Thompson. The two have a ton of chemistry, elevating what could have been a rote romance into a blossoming connection between two ambitious young people who won’t allow circumstance to deter them from their dreams.
Emerging filmmaker Coogler displays a penchant for allowing actors to breathe with a screenplay that is loose, funny, poignant, and engaging. He shoots the wintry streets of Philadelphia with the same grit and gray cast that grounded the original film. The director brings a new modern cinematic style to the boxing scenes – the audience is literally perched on the shoulders of the fighters as they deal out and receive blows of devastating, resonating fury. He uses sound to his advantage, with a surrounding mix of the overwhelming crowds and the voices of the trainers in the ears of the audience, heightening the overall effect of being in the ring with Creed as opposed to watching ring-side or from the rafters (this is especially on display in an incredible extended one-take tracking sequence of Donny’s first professional fight from locker room to finish). Coogler and composer Ludwig Goransson riff on the saga’s recognizable scoring, and like the movie itself, pay homage to what came before and create something wholly new and modern, infusing the story of Creed with bombastic hip-hop cues and quiet moments of tinkling piano that carry the weight of the recognizable without total mimicry.
The secret weapon here though is Stallone, playing a weary, hesitant, but still inspired version of the character that made him famous. His aged Rocky Balboa is a logical, yet still surprising evolution of the hero of our youth, a man touched by both the highest levels of success and the agonizing losses of those closest to him. Revisiting a character that has obtained an almost mythical status in the collective subconscious might be a dangerous proposition, but this representation only strengthens the legend. Stallone truly turns in the greatest performance of his career by embracing where he is in his own life story, clearly relishing the chance to play his greatest creation once again.
In the assured hands of a director with an obvious penchant and love for the material, as well as stars fully committed to their characters both new and newly dimensional, ‘Creed’ is elevated to masterful heights of cinematic, audience-pleasing glory that rivals, and in some ways, surpasses, the original Oscar-winning classic . . .
Directed By: Ryan Coogler
Written By: Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington
Running Time: 133 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A