Scott F. Evans
I’ve never been much of a Rocky fan. Created and played by Sylvester Stallone, Rocky’s popularity and staying power is undeniable. Rocky Balboa is simply a likeable icon, even to us non-fans. However, I also found the racial politics – buried at the franchise’s core – repellant. A casual perusal reveals some troubling events in the six films that make up the bulk of the franchise. In Rocky 1 and 2, Balboa’s main opponent is Apollo Creed, played expertly by Carl Weathers. Black, arrogant, and highly skilled, Creed is clearly based on Muhammad Ali. By the third film, Balboa and Creed have become best friends and Creed must train Rocky to fight the stronger, tougher Clubber Lang played by none other than Mr. T. In Rocky IV, Creed is killed (sacrificed?) in the ring in an exhibition match against the Russian fighter Ivan Drago. Balboa returns in Rocky V to train and mentor young white boxer Tommy Morrison. Morrison is corrupted by the evil boxing promoter George Washington Duke, a character modeled after Don King. Finally in the sixth film, this one simply titled Rocky Balboa, our hero goes up against Mason Dixon, played by real-life boxer Antonio Tarver. It’s tough to believe in the odd coincidence that every Rocky film contains either a black villain or sacrificial character.
But that’s just me.
Along comes director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington to make it all better, with the unofficial Rocky sequel Creed. Before his untimely death, Apollo (in another troubling stereotype) has a son out of wedlock. The boy, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) has fighting in his blood. He’s got natural ability but no formal training. In an effort to gain credibility (and respect) Adonis tracks down his father’s old friend Rocky and asks the former champion to train him. What follows is a heartfelt examination of family and legacy wrapped in a sports movie.
Creed is one of those rare films that work on nearly every level. In only his second feature, Coogler proves that he is a director to watch. He pulls wonderful, naturalistic performances from his entire cast. His camera floats about effortlessly, never calling attention to itself, moving only when absolutely necessary. There are a couple long, single take fight scenes that are masterfully shot. His first feature film, Fruitvale Station, while excellent, was unable to escape its modest indie look. Creed looks beautiful by contrast and stands shoulder to shoulder with films at twice the budget.
Using every bit of his natural charisma, Jordan turns in an excellent performance as Adonis Creed. Jordan and Coogler make the wise decision to never allow Adonis to sink into the “arrogant punk who develops humility through the love of a good woman” trope. He’s a troubled individual, but that never defines him. They allow him to behave like a real human being instead of a screw up transformed by a bunch of cheap dramatic situations. His body transformation is amazing, but he doesn’t rely on his physique to do the acting like Stallone used to.
Speaking of Stallone, the actor gives his best performance in years, effortlessly embodying the loveable palooka he created forty years ago. This is no vanity role for the aged actor. He puts in real work. Looking at most of his films, one almost forgets that the man can actually act when he’s not mainlining HGH and desperately holding on to past action film glory. There are rumors that Stallone may get a best supporting nod for Creed, and he absolutely deserves it.
Tessa Thompson rounds out the cast as Adonis’ neighbor and love interest Bianca. She is solid, and easily holds her own against Jordan and Stallone. Instead of shoehorning her into a thankless girlfriend role, Coogler and Covington take their time and let the romance between Bianca and Adonis build organically. Although she fades into the background a bit towards the end, the narrative makes sense. Thompson and Jordan have such effortless onscreen chemistry that you’ll want to see these two young actors paired up in future projects.
We’re in a troubling cinematic era right now. Easily marketed nostalgia has swallowed the movie business. Studios lazily sell us the same products we bought barely a generation ago. But we are just as complicit, voting with our dollars, sending the message that we demand more of the same. Sure, Creed is something of a sequel to a franchise well past its expiration date. But instead of being another retread, it forges new ground that is just familiar enough to please old fans and fresh enough to attract new ones.
It’s so good that I’ll even pop Rocky into the ol’ Playstation and give it another go.