Review: Creed (2015)

Creed is a special film. I walked into it fully aware of the ecstatic response from critics and viewers and I was still impressed. Creed hits every narrative beat that you’d hope a good sports movie to hit. The final fight is enthralling, for instance, and Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone have a few intimate chats that’ll wring tears out of you. But Creed’s worth doesn’t lie solely in the fact that it executes the sports movie conventions excellently. It’s that all the ancillary material is equally, if not more, fascinating than all the rousing speeches and fights. Few films combine the wise intimacy of Creed’s smaller scenes with the fireworks of its climaxes. This combination delivers a film that is emotionally powerful and entertaining, but also smart and sensitive.

Creed is technically a sequel to the six previous Rocky films, but you don’t need to have seen them to enjoy this one. The passing familiarity with the series that almost every North American adult already has will suffice. In Creed, Michael B. Johnson is Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who was killed in the ring before Donnie was born. We meet him when he’s a boy in juvie, locked away after fighting with another kid. Creed’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) visits him and agrees to take him into her mansion and raise him. Flash forward over a dozen years and Donnie works in an office by day and fights in Tijuana at night. He’s not hurting for cash, but he’s still hurting, and heads to Philadelphia to pursue a boxing career like the father he never met. In Philadelphia, he tracks down his father’s greatest challenger and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who’s living a quiet life of retirement managing his restaurant. Donnie wants Rocky to train him and after persistent pestering from Donnie, Rocky finally gives in.

The narrative structure of Creed mirrors that of Rocky, but the finer details have changed. Instead of a low-class Italian American as the hero, here we have an upper-class African American. Director Ryan Coogler, whose only previous film is the tremendous Fruitvale Station, also starring Jordan, knows the particulars of the world he depicts. He knows just the kind of high-end sports clothes Donnie wears when he’s not training, or the way that his inflection will shift depending on the colour of the person he’s talking to. He knows that Philadelphia has shifted into a largely African-American city in the almost-40 years since Rocky came out and that the racially-charged world we live in makes the way he depicts his black hero ever so important. It’s Coogler’s instinct as a storyteller that gives the film much of its power. It’s the way he steers the film towards what’s truthful in the moment, like how he frames a tender kiss between Donnie and his neighbour-turned-girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), from above their heads, or the way his camera briefly pans to Donnie’s clenched fist relaxing in the opening scene. These small moments make the big ones register as natural and honest, even if those larger moments conform to genre conventions.

It helps that Coogler is working with a sensational cast. Michael B. Jordan is one of the best young actors working today. He’s the sole person to emerge from the Fantastic Four debacle unscathed and anything he dedicates himself to is worth our interest. In Creed he balances formidable, almost aggressive physicality with a tenderness that makes you root for him. Donnie is a hero, but like Stallone did in the original Rocky, Jordan infuses his character with dimensions that aren’t always flattering, like his quick temper that lands him in a jail cell after a backstage encounter with a rapper. But he’s also sensitive, almost achingly vulnerable at times. In the jail scene, tears burst from his eyes at Stallone’s words and Donnie instinctually wipes them away without losing a beat. In the scenes where younger black men look to Donnie as an inspiration, you understand what they admire in him.

Another thing that makes Creed special is that Stallone is back in form, not letting himself be outdone by the young Jordan. Stallone has become something of a joke in the current cinematic landscape, but here, where he’s not trying to be the action hero but instead allows his age and vulnerabilities to wear openly on his droopy face, he’s excellent. Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington give Stallone the film’s largest character moments, but Stallone infuses these tearful and inspirational speeches with genuine emotion, almost torment. Tessa Thompson also registers sharply in her smaller role as Donnie’s musician girlfriend. Her chemistry with Jordan is comfortable, lived-in. The scenes of the two of them merely existing together, whether grabbing a cheesesteak or watching Skyfall on the TV, speak to the film’s intimacy. They demonstrate the reality of Donnie and Bianca’s connection, while also hinting at the depth of their story together that exists between scenes.

Combine this kind of intimacy with gripping fight scenes, and you’ve got a great film. Coogler’s filmmaking has sharpened since Fruitvale Station. He’s more confident in his close-ups here, steadying his camera and allowing each shot to linger a second or two longer on the actors, letting us see more than a glimpse of their thoughts. The boxing scenes demonstrate his formidable formal skills. The standout scene is Donnie’s first professional fight which Coogler shows in a single take, the camera gracefully circling the boxers as they go against each other round to round. Coogler’s style brings us into the ring and his choice not to cut forces us to acknowledge the physical endurance needed to be a boxer. But even the other fights consist largely of long takes, and are often stunning. The final fight brilliantly utilizes the famous “Gonna Fly Now” theme from the original Rocky, while also containing one jaw-dropping super-slow-motion shot of a knockdown.

The ending of Creed will have you exhilarated. I left the theatre heart-pumping, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly playing on my iPhone, wanting to jog the chilly streets on my way home, enthused by the triumphant story that I just watched. But in the time since the screening, I find my mind turning to the quieter moments like that tender kiss between Donnie and Bianca or the way Stallone’s voice breaks when speaking of his dead wife. As I said at the opening, this is a special film, even though it’s familiar. I hope people treasure it.

9 out of 10

Creed (2015, USA)

Directed by Ryan Coogler; written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on a story by Coogler; starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Andre Ward, Gabriel Rosado.