Sometimes you have to just lace up your gloves and fight for your pride! It’s time for my review of Creed.
Since 1976 there has been an enduring name added to the list of cinematic heroes that has stood the test of time in the forty years since he first punched his way into our hearts; Rocky Balboa. The Italian Stallion has gone up against everything that his writers could throw at him (even the horror of Rocky V!) and come out the other side, so when I heard that director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington had come up with another film in the Rocky saga I have to admit that my heart sank somewhat. I was convinced that despite the fact that his last outing, Rocky Balboa, was thoroughly entertaining that this would be nothing more than a cash-grab. Then I heard that the premise was that Rocky would be training Apollo Creed’s son and I perked up a little. Having seen the movie I am very glad to announce that my worries were entirely without foundation. Michael B. Jordan’s Adonis ‘Donnie’ Creed, the Creed family seemingly unable to use a name that does not come from Greek myth, is a young man who has fought his entire life to be himself all the while trying to get out from under the huge shadow his father’s legacy casts. He trains himself to be a boxer, as no one else will touch him after his father’s death in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, and sets out to earn a name for himself. Moving to Philadelphia he seeks out Balboa to convince him to train him properly so that he can finally make a name for himself.
This movie is ostensibly about boxing, but the real focus is self-worth, self-image, how that changes through life and what we leave behind. To this end the performances are absolutely key to selling this film, and Michael B. Jordan comes out of his corner swinging. He infuses Donnie with a completely believable combination of underlying vulnerability that is hidden to start with by a massive chip on his shoulder. His anger at the world for seeing him as nothing more than the heir to the name of a man he never knew is palpable and flares up regularly. I found myself feeling sorry for him on a regular basis, but his character needs this hurdle to have something to overcome. If he had stepped off the screen as a fully fledged reincarnation of Apollo Creed this film would have been nothing but the cash-grab I once feared it to be. As it is, Jordan sells his journey from angry young man on a mission to trained fighter who accepts the pain and hardships of the world and uses them to his own advantage. He is aided in this journey by Tessa Thompson who plays his love interest; Bianca. A lot of you will have just rolled your eyes at the mention of a love-interest, a Rocky replacement requires an Adrian to fight for after all! Although the script does not give her much more than this role to fill Thompson manages to give Bianca enough independence in her performance to make her more than just “the girlfriend”. She has fire, wit and a lot enough self-reliance for the both of them, so whilst Rocky is teaching Donnie how to fight in the ring Bianca is busy showing him how to live his life without fighting outside of it. Finally we come to Rocky himself, played for a seventh time by Sylvester Stallone. A lot of people malign Stallone as nothing more than a muscle-bound action star, and that is certainly something he has been a lot throughout his career, but in this performance he shows again that he has acting talent that completely eclipses that of most of his 80’s muscle-man colleagues. Rocky walks onto the screen as a man who has a huge history, much of which we have seen in the previous films, but in this film his loneliness and longing for a world that is only in the past is tangible. He is like an aged and wounded bear, still full of fight, but weary and ready to lie down one last time. He gives the film a grounding that makes its more emotional moments hit right in the heart.
I have talked a lot about emotion and feeling so far, and I am sure many people will be scratching their head saying “But… This is a boxing movie, right?”. Do not worry, the action is there in spades and it is made all the better for the care that has been taken to fill the characters out and make you care about them. When the fights came I found myself being both fired up and nervous for Donnie as he stepped into the ring. I desperately wanted him to win, but I equally did not want him to get hurt. There were times when I found myself physically shifting with him in my seat trying to dodge blows and throw punches, such was the intensity of the combat. This is where Ryan Coogler’s direction really shines, as he understands how to move the camera to give the fights momentum, but also how to angle and stop it at just the right moment to give the major punches impact and bite. As the camera bobs and weaves in an out of the combatants you really feel as though you are in the ring with them and that the danger is real. This is backed up by a truly immersive soundtrack that uses silence and thumping sounds of impact as much as it layers in the occasional sting from the original Rocky themes. It builds to something that is entirely enjoyable, but utterly impactful at the same time. Needless to say my heart rate went up a lot during the fights!
Luckily, Coogler also understands that to work well these highs have to be spaced out correctly, and there is plenty of the film that takes place out side of the ring. Fear not Rocky fans, the training montage is back, and I would argue that it’s better than ever! Because Rocky is now old enough that seeing him in the ring doing most of the training would strain credulity he has a team of trainers to help him beat Donnie into shape, and these are some of the most enjoyable parts of the film. Again, the adrenaline goes up, but it is joined by the joys and frustrations of hard work and people who clearly enjoy each other’s company. There is also plenty of humour to be had in this film. Lots of the interplay between the young Donnie and the old Rocky is positively laugh out loud, but it is played subtly so it does not jar you out of the flow of the movie. Everyone in this film is clearly having a whale of a time, but they are also working towards the same goals, and it shows as spending time with the characters outside of the ring or the gym is just as much fun as watching them when they are there. The only real disappointment comes in the shape of Anthony Bellew playing Donnie’s main opponent, Ricky Conlan. Despite being the current EBU Cruiserweight champion Bellew does not seem to carry a huge amount of weight in his fight scenes. This is probably because actual fighting never looks as good on screen as Hollywood fighting though. Unfortunately the main place that he seems out of his depth though is in the scenes where he has to act. He goes through the film with a scowl, but it never really feels as though that is what he is feeling. Again though, this may well be because he is acting amongst people who are at the top of their game. I will also say that the script does not really give him much to do other than be a bad guy, because it has spent so long filling out the other characters. This small issue aside though the film is one that had me completely engaged throughout.
Overall this could well be the second best Rocky movie ever made (the first one being an unassailable classic in my mind). It asks questions about what is to be your own person and to fight to be heard. It shows you that the way is tough, but that the rewards can be huge and it certainly left me with my heart uplifted and my face covered in a big smile. Definitely worth catching if you can.