Review: Creed – A worthy inheritor of the Rocky name

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CAN WE ALL TAKE a moment to reflect on how bizarre it is that Star Wars, Mad Max and Rocky, three successful franchises loved by adrenaline junkies but all hampered by dated cheesiness and gradually sillier sequels, all saw a fresh new instalment in 2015? And try to comprehend that all three were massive critical and commercial successes with serious awards buzz adored by fans of the originals and newcomers alike?

If you’d told me that one year ago, no way would I believe it. I had trepidations about all three but came out of them genuinely impressed. But unlike Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which viscerally entertained me but didn’t really grip me on an emotional level, Creed is one of the most heartfelt films of the year.

As sports films go, pictures about boxing have always had an upper hand. It’s a fast-paced man-on-man sport with direct contact, considerable risks, visible injuries and incredibly hard training. There’s a relatively small space, relatively few characters and relatively more dangers than in, say, a football or baseball flick. You can’t make a realistic boxing film into a pure feel-good affair, because no competitive sport pushes its solo athlete further, or closer to serious injury.

Raging Bull, The Fighter, The Champ, Cinderella Man, The Hurricane, Ali and of course Rocky are just some of the classics of the boxing subgenre. Not only does Hollywood love exploring boxing, but professional boxing has embraced Hollywood. Big-name fights are a huge business and growing every year, and boxing films set in the modern day need to include the pre-fight press conferences and weigh-in scraps and drug tests and sexy ring girls and bombastic entrances and (if you’re willing to pay the copyright for his catchphrase “Let’s get ready to rumble!”) Michael Buffer himself throwing some credibility in there.

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Boxing films often fill out their supporting and extra casts with actual boxers, which is also the case here, while the lead actors in the roles must undergo tons of training to fit in. Michael B. Jordan, who stunningly plays Adonis Creed, allowed himself to be properly beaten throughout the film and I swear it must have been shot in chronological order because he seems to gain pound after pound of muscle throughout.

Jordan (not to be confused with the basketball legend of the same name with the brief “acting” career) has been a rising star for a while, but Adonis is a star-making role and Jordan is excited by the possibility of returning to the role. Carl Weathers, who played Adonis’ late father Apollo Creed in the first four Rocky films, has given his enthusiastic approval of the film and his on-screen son.

Because Adonis never knew Apollo, with whom his mother had an affair and who died before his birth, the film explores his desire to build his own legacy beyond his father’s shadow. Privately though, he idolises his father’s legendary skill and an early scene where Adonis practices in front of stock footage from the original film’s bout between Rocky and Apollo is truly beautiful visual filmmaking.

The entire film exhibits exemplary craft by director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who isn’t even 30 yet but has already proven himself a prodigious auteur with his first feature Fruitvale Station. Many a film graduate will have their inferiority complex set off by Coogler, who has made the finest Rocky film since the Oscar-winning original. It might even be better than the original, but like Star Wars the legacy of Rocky is beyond fair comparison.

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It’s certainly a fantastic update, reflecting how boxing and film have changed in the past four decades. There are shots in this film which would be impossible in a low-budget 1976 film, including one fight which takes place in a single continuous shot from the changing room to the knock-out. Coogler is a bold underdog, challenged with continuing the legacy of an icon, and that subtext makes Adonis’ story all the richer.

Although Creed works on its own merits, it’s all the more remarkable as a sequel to Rocky. In summary, I think the first Rocky film is an inspirational classic almost beyond criticism; II and III are good sequels if a bit formulaic; IV is just downright goofy and undermines any attempt at gritty realism (Stallone’s ego was way out of control by then); V is better than its reputation suggests but still pretty lousy, and Rocky Balboa was a surprisingly pleasant and mature epilogue.

Creed rightly doesn’t contain the Rocky name, as the Italian Stallion is no longer the protagonist, but this is still very much a Rocky movie. Stallone enters the film a good 20 minutes in but, once he joins the story, he’s integral to tons of scenes and has his own subplot. His role is comparable to that of Han Solo in The Force Awakens in many ways, and is just as satisfying.

Stallone gives the performance of his life in this film. Rocky Balboa is the character he was born to create, and is always a joy to watch. Rocky is one of the great protagonists; thoroughly likeable, a little flawed, not too smart but completely engaging. Unlike in the 80s sequels or crap like The Expendables, Stallone hasn’t clung to his youth in his portrayal.

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Rocky is old now; all his closest friends are dead (Mickey, Apollo, Adrian and now even Paulie), his son has flown the nest and he doesn’t visit his old gym often anymore. He still runs the restaurant he named for Adrian and is very proud of his legacy, but Rocky is lonely and subtly misanthropic. He’s just plodding through life, and the film makes a few fun jokes about how technology and pop culture have passed him by.  Stallone finally assumes the Mickey role in this film, and both actor and character are clearly loving the chance to mentor a young up-and-comer.

Stallone plays every one of these beats beyond expectation, and he’s a serious awards contender. Stallone and Balboa are intertwined; Rocky is less a character and more an alter-ego after forty years of association. And, unlike Sean Connery or Leonard Nimoy or indeed most actors with one, inescapable role, Stallone seems to love coming back to Rocky and is well aware that his acting career outside of these films and Rambo is hilariously mediocre.

He never looks this at-ease in front of the camera in any of his other roles. Stallone doesn’t play Rocky so much as “become” Rocky, and when Rocky laughs or cries or advises Adonis, every moment is entirely genuine. This is the first film for which Stallone has no writing credit, which is surprising because every second of Rocky’s onscreen life feels genuine. It’s magnificent seeing Rocky age with his actor, and it’s something I’m always open to as long as the character is allowed to age and progress realistically and not be stuck in the past. This performance may or may not be Stallone’s final swan song as his signature character, but seven films in he’s never shown much commitment to quitting.

I can’t give much away about the subplots without major spoilers; even mentioning the other important characters will be too big a revelation. What I can say is that Creed is a perfect, compulsory movie. I laughed, I cried, I cheered, I winced and I never once felt like the film was too fantastical or cheesy. It’s a must-see whether you’ve seen every Rocky or not. You could go in not knowing who any of these characters are, and the film will cleverly fill you in on the cliff-notes. I loved every minute right up to the stunning last scene, and this could well be the first Rocky film since the original to be taking home an Oscar or two.

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