Film Review: CREED

I’ve never published a film review on this blog before (though I have some in draft). Looks like the first one is on CREED, which I had the joy of seeing in its first week of release.

Bottom line up front: Go see this movie. It’s that simple. Unless you’re not into the whole combat sports thing, in which case don’t. But in my opinion Ryan Coogler directed, and Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, and Tessa Thompson acted what is pretty much a masterpiece of cinema.

Plot

The first thing to realize about Creed is that it’s a boxing movie that isn’t about boxing. Well, it is, as I’ll discuss further below, but like Rocky and Rocky Balboa, the boxing is a vehicle to tell a bigger story about humanity: what people do when faced with challenges, decisions, failure, and success. And that is what makes this film, like those other two, transcend the genre. It has heart. It’s what separates films like Creed from your average martial arts capers (There’s nothing wrong with those, I enjoy them for what they are; but seldom do they rise to the level of poetry. Creedoes).

As was clear from the trailers, Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the son of Apollo Creed, who as fans of the Rocky franchise will remember was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Who “Donnie” is, where he comes from, where he’s going, what drives him, are the central questions of the film–and the trailer, despite some criticisms I’ve read, actually doesn’t answer them very well. You have to watch the film. What is clear is that, as with classic hero-genre films (Star Wars, anyone?), the hero makes a journey, in this case literally, to Philadelphia, to find his late father’s nemesis-become-best-friend, Rocky Balboa. What happens next will surprise, amuse, and touch you: it is not a straightforward path to the finish line (and, since I love spoilers, I won’t tell you what happens). There are two major set-piece fights, both of which are important to the plot for different reasons. Along the way, Donnie meets the girl next door (or downstairs, as the case is), but that also is not a straightforward narrative, and viewers should be pleasantly surprised at the depth and complexity with which the character of Bianca is portrayed.

Direction

Ryan Coogler has a confident grip on things in this film, which is to be expected. Fans of the franchise will note many small details that tie in to earlier films, demonstrating his knowledge and love of the earlier series (Coogler has noted in interviews that he and his dad loved the Rocky series, and bonded over them in times of crisis). Perhaps Coogler’s trademark as a director is that his films are “believable”–you accept that these are real people living in a real world facing real problems. This certainly is the case in Creed. Adonis’ character is shaped in a completely believable way–the plot and direction leave you wondering, as he himself does, who he is. As people know from the trailers, one of the boxing coaches early in the film says to him, “You’re not built for this.” And Coogler creates a film where we are left wondering just that. When is that spark going to ignite the fire? When are we going to see human courage stand tall against unstoppable force? To me, that is a triumph of good direction.

Other aspects of the film speak volumes of Coogler’s craft. The authenticity of Philadelphia, especially north Philly. The fact that everyone in the film has their own story–the manager of what had been Mickey’s gym, the neighborhood street bikers, Donnie’s opponent in the final fight. And especially Tessa Thompson’s character Bianca, who is not the “obligatory” love interest, but a complex personality who has her own life.  Even Rocky himself seems more fully grounded than we often remember him: he knows the layout of the city, he knows the different trainers and their personalities, and he knows the technical aspects of boxing.

Acting

Of course, the actors shoulder a huge amount of the burden. Let’s start with Stallone, because he has been the face of the franchise for nearly forty years, and because I suspect a lot of people who didn’t know Michael B. Jordan went to see the film because of Sly. What they saw probably blew them away, because Stallone gives an Oscar-worthy performance here. Seriously, better even than his outstanding work in Copland. Whereas in Rocky Balboa Rocky faced issues of age and isolation with passion and optimism, this time you have to watch Stallone explore what it means to slowly fade into twilight. And how Rocky continues to discover things about himself, because of Adonis and Bianca, that he didn’t know had still survived. As he tells Adonis, “They don’t know what we’ve been through.” Watching Stallone shape such a beloved character in a way that is emotionally raw and nuanced at the same time, is simply extraordinary.

Tessa Thompson, as Bianca, has also been getting rave reviews, and with reason. As I said before, her character is realized in a way that isn’t common in sports movies, or fight movies in particular. While I wouldn’t say that her character parallels Adrian’s per se, like Adrian she is the character who sees the world as it really is, and its people as they really are. Yet she is not “the female sidekick,” but rather an aspiring musician with considerable promise, but who is facing degenerative hearing loss that will over time render her ability to pursue her career difficult, if not impossible (sorry for the spoiler, but it’s difficult to talk the character without mentioning this). While I will probably get skewered for talking at all about “disability” and the challenges (either real or imagined) that come with the gradual loss of hearing, it was this unexpected reveal, portrayed by Thompson and constructed by Coogler with an undramatic matter-of-factness, that raised the complexity of the character for me considerably, and the film overall. “Disability” is not avoided, dramatized, or made the focus of others’ projections. Rather, for Bianca it simply is, it is a part of life, and in the mean time she is working on her next recording and her next gig. This is the world that Donnie is joining; Bianca is not leaving it for him or for her own medical condition. And Thompson’s portrayal is riveting in its directness.

The core of the story, of course, belongs to Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed, and is simply a triumph for this talented young actor who I hope will be with us for a very long time. The task facing Jordan is a formidable one: bring a new character to life for audiences, give us a glimpse into his soul, and complete a physically harrowing journey while holding his own with one of the most beloved movie characters of the last forty years. That’s a tall order. Jordan delivers. The end.

Finality aside, the key aspect of Adonis Creed that Jordan manages to convey is the questing aspect of his character, that sense that, while he may follow a daily schedule, show up to work, show up to the gym, be technologically savvy (see: Rocky and “the cloud”), and strike up relationships, he remains a fish out of water. He does not know whether he is doing what he is meant to do, or whether he is wasting his life and his talents. He does not know what it means, if anything, to be Apollo Creed’s son. This is extraordinarily difficult to convey on screen, but Jordan does it with a subtlety that you could almost miss if you leave to get more popcorn. Which you shouldn’t, of course. Jordan’s emotional range matches Stallone’s, particularly in the scene in the jail, of which you can catch a glimpse in the trailers. The mesmerizing moments in this film, the moments where chills ran down my spine or I had the urge to shout “That’s RIGHT!” in the theater, belong to Jordan. The finale of the training montage, recalling the earlier Rocky films but this time filled with so much more poignancy, was delivered with such power by Jordan as to leave audiences breathless (it reminded me of that transcendent moment in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly when Tuco runs desperately around the cemetery, as actor, music, and camera create an overwhelming affect). And in the final fight, THE crucial moment (I can’t say what it is) will leave you with chills. Michael B. Jordan, well done sir. You are Apollo Creed’s son.

Boxing

I do want to touch on the boxing, because it is after all a boxing film. Coogler’s trademarks of realism and authenticity come through in a big way. Rocky, Adonis, and the trainers at the north Philly gym all get into the technical aspects of boxing in a way that we haven’t seen before. Whereas in Rocky Balboa Duke tells Rocky “You know everything there is to know about boxing, so there’s no use in going down that same road,” in Creed we are faced with the serious question of how to make a top-notch fighter out of someone who’s only fought south of the border and never had any formal training. So, we a treated to discussions of technique, drills, and conditioning that will make fans of the sweet science pretty happy. In fact, I noticed way back in the first trailer, as it opens with Adonis shadow boxing against the wall before fighting in a dive bar, that his form was wanting. Watch the trailer, you’ll notice that his punches are what I would call “semi-crisp,” and he drops his hand after the jab. Having seen the film now, I assure you, that was on purpose. Adonis gets better, and that transformation is a core part of the film.

Final thoughts

One final aspect of the film that bears mentioning is the way it handles race, largely because it creates context and lets its viewers interpret. The original Rocky was criticized for side-stepping issues of race in the 1970s. In Creed, Coogler largely follows that original formula, filling background of the canvas instead of foregrounding everything. Instead of commenting on race directly, Coogler lets viewers contemplate the intersections of race and class. As a young African-American male, Donnie experiences the foster system, winds up with a materially opulent upbringing, has a corporate job where he wears a suit and tie, and is told, when he shows up to the gym, that he’s “not built for this,” because sharing race doesn’t make up for differences in class when it comes to dedication to the fight game. Critics better read than I in African-American studies will find a lot to contemplate here. Some might argue that Coogler should have made a more overtly “racialized” film. Coming as I do from a lifetime of watching the Rocky franchise, I disagree. Coogler can make a provocative film about race–he’s shown that ability with Fruitvale Station. The Rocky franchise has always taken other themes as its topic, and Coogler follows that formula. Creed is filled with African-American culture, and absolutely does not exist in a “post-racial” society (this goes for Adonis’ opponents, not just for him). But Coogler, Jordan, Stallone, and Thompson focus on precisely those human experiences that take society and identity as a given, and ask, in the face of them, “How are you going to be a good person?” And that is a worthwhile question to explore, what gives the film its power, and makes Creed the triumphant new face of the franchise.

Go see it.

 

 

Leave a Reply