Back in 1976, a struggling Italian-American actor moved to California where he was striking out at every casting call and audition. Down on his end and even having sold his dog, the man watched the heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Inspired, he goes home and writes a screenplay which he fights for with his all. This is the story that gave us the classic Rocky and in many ways, it is cut from the same cloth as the Rocky story. Rocky has always been about loss, about determination and the rise of an unknown. Ryan Coogler’s Creed is about all of those things, and yet distinct from anything we have seen so far. With the biggest name in boxing history casting a shadow over him and with the motivation that only Rocky Balboa can dish out, Adonis Creed is a story straight from the streets of Philly back to inspire a whole new generation.
The film begins as we see a young Adonis getting into fights in a juvenile home, where he is visited by Mary Anne, wife of the late Apollo Creed. Donnie (as he likes to call himself) is the illegitimate child of Apollo who he had right around the time of his last bout with Drago. He does not want to be associated with his father and he knows boxing is in his blood. This thirst to make it on his own compels him to leave his white-collar job and the wealthy estate left to them by Apollo’s career, to head out to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s best friend and old-time rival. Unlike Rocky, here is a man with an easy ticket to the limelight, but refuses to identify with a legacy he was never a part of. Donnie is a very different character as well from Rocky, flying to Mexico for fights between office hours at the finance corporation he works for. With his life starting in Philly, we are introduced to the city we fell in love with in Rocky but seen through distinctly different eyes, and a fresh perspective.
Donnie, who has taught himself to fight so far – mostly from videos of old fights from his dad’s era – which also gives us one of my favourite shots from this creatively directed film: that of Donnie putting up the Apollo v Rocky fight on screen and mirroring not his father’s, but the Italian Stallion’s. In that one shot, we are let into the mind of Donnie who never knew his father, and therefore doesn’t want to be identified as his son, going so far as to change his surname to Johnson. In a way, we feel that the feeling of abandonment and the fear of being a mistake makes Donnie direct his anger at his dad, his training being for overcoming him in the end. It is for this purpose that he specifically looks up Rocky, the ‘nobody’ who held ground against Apollo at the peak of his career. It also leads to one of the film’s best conversation scenes, the exchange between the two at Adrian’s Diner giving us both perspective of a journey that is past for one, and the future for another. The revelation that Adonis is Apollo’s son comes ever so smoothly and right there, we see a bond develop between the two, both harbouring strong emotions about him. Creed is full of such smartly sweet moments, which is what powers the heart of the film.
All said and done, despite being the seventh film in a long franchise that has had its ups and downs, Creed does not ride on the coattails of its predecessors, and instead recreates the same emotion of the original Rocky, with a very different outlook. It is at the end of the day, Adonis’ story: he has a love who sticks by his side, a worn out old trainer, and a street-racing display for his museum equivalent. Although it treads very similar steps, and despite having an overarching plot that is predictable, Creed uses perspective to become its own thing. It is very easy to forget through Donnie’s journey that this is not a rags-to-riches story; it is the story of a young man who is afraid of the pressure that comes with his name, and has only expectations to live up to, however self-imposed as they might be. Rather than a street ruffian surprisingly coming into fame and glory, here is a boy who has always had something to prove – the same something that made him keep stepping back into the ring no matter where he was in life. While Rocky is told to believe in himself and his skill which has the potential to put him at the top, Adonis is told to use the surname that will put him right there. Interestingly, his final opponent is the world champion Ricky Conlan who sees himself as of the same blood as Rocky, a ‘nobody’ risen to the top from the streets. We have been conditioned for so long to root for the ‘nobody’ who perseveres to the top that we fail to see beyond the big name that is attached to the ‘privileged’ one. This is the reason why Adonis chose to hide his bloodline from the public, and it is only by looking through it from his eyes that we can appreciate the struggle behind every person who wants to be somebody.
Earlier this year, I reviewed Southpaw, another boxing film which also dealt with heavy emotions of despair and loss and yet failed to deliver where it would separate itself from the ordinary sports movie. It might therefore be surprising to hear me praise this film which also does not do anything incredibly special with its plot. What has for kept the Rocky franchise above every other boxing film is the heart that is central to the character. It is surprising therefore to see this heart carried over even when the story follows an entirely new character that represents something different, too. The movie hits the right beats and meanders through Adonis’ family, his disconnect with the father who abandoned him, his budding romance with Bianca and the most endearing master-student relationship (one very different from what we saw in Whiplash last year). The film is about legacies being passed on, support that sees itself through the toughest of times and facing what matters about the fight beyond the ring. And when Rocky points to Donnie’s reflection in a mirror and calls him the toughest opponent that he will ever have to face, both in the ring and in life, even someone who hasn’t seen any of the prior films can almost see the journey that lies behind the words. In another of the film’s best shots, Rocky is seen peeking out from the window of Front Street Gym as Adonis runs through the street cheered on by street-racing kids and chanting Rocky’s name. It is very descriptive of the angle the film is taking: an old master helping the kid up to where he once was, as the kid in turn learns the value of the streets and how it is that fighting spirit that makes champions. It is the sweetest tribute to Rocky there ever was, while paving the way for a new champ, the son of his oldest rival and friend.
It is in a fulfilment for both central characters; for Donnie that of a father figure he never had, and for Rocky that of a spiritual son to pass the torch on to. It is special to see the legacies of both fighters of the final bout in Rocky honoured through new blood, who has his own story to write. All this is easy to write on paper, but what elevates Creed to a laudable level is the craftsmanship both on and off camera. The images have a cool and fresh tone to them, letting us peer out onto the Philly landscape bathed in new light and carrying with it the energy and hope of the amateur. The way the film is directed is also geared to finding perspective, in every action of the hero who does have some hard challenges in his journey to the top. Another sequence which lingers in my mind is the uncut tracking shot of Adonis’ first fight under the apprenticeship of Rocky Balboa. Miles better than the approach taken in Southpaw for putting the viewer in the protagonist’s shoes, Coogler brings the camera down to the level of the boxing stance, and leaving the spectators in the dark takes us and the fighters alone on a rollercoaster ride through the beats of the fight. Creed is also bold with how different the culture and music is from back in the 70s in Rocky and embraces it with all its soul to give rise to something that feels like an wildly experimental indie film in atmosphere. The man who directed Michael B Jordan in Fruitvale Station proves his finesse in character pieces; by introducing a new character at the very end of a dusty franchise and making us feel his story weighing down on us. He also truly understands the essence of the franchise, and takes it to new grounds building on all its predecessors.
The film also gives us a Sylvester Stallone we have never seen, a champion at the end of his life, left behind by everyone he ever loved who is presented with unexpected hope and inspiration. I had been reading that his performance in this film was Oscar-worthy and while I thought those to be tall claims to be met, I was only impressed at the depth and sadness he was able to inject into his debut character. There is a lot left unsaid in Creed, but I argue that is because of how unnecessary that would be in this film where the four character central to the hero’s journey all speak so freely with their faces. With every weary smile and quiver, Stallone is turning Rocky’s knowing eyes to Donnie, telling him and the audience the familiarity he holds to Donnie’s own struggle. Jordan’s Adonis is at the other end, his face exploding in loud emotion that truly shows the focus and work he is putting into his training. Between the two forms a chemistry that the audience yearns for, and is woven together with exchanges both light and serious, bringing a smile to anyone watching.
Creed is the worthiest sequel to the original that succeeds in paying a tasteful tribute to Rocky without relying solely on audience nostalgia and positioning itself as a masterpiece in its own right. The audience is introduced to a new character and with him, a new style and atmosphere that poignantly traces the journey of Balboa as well. The film is perhaps also talking about itself through Donnie, both facing the inevitable pressure that is brought on by stepping into a cherished legacy and both coming out on top. The film itself is an endeavour in mirror-boxing, bringing together the journeys of two heroes, at the end for one and the beginning for the other, as well as that of a son finally knowing his father through his old rival. It is a film with incredible depth, having a lot to say and yet not using too many words to say them.