Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

Creed is something special. It’s an entirely sincere, entirely reverential sequel to the Rocky movies, but one trying to do something different with the “franchise.” Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, while extremely important in the film, isn’t the protagonist. He’s not even lead Michael B. Jordan’s sidekick. He’s a cute old man who doesn’t understand cloud computing. Director Coogler, along with co-screenwriter Aaron Covington, occasionally stumble fitting Stallone into the movie. For a while, it seems like his presence is a condition of the franchise license, as Coogler carefully transitions the viewer away from the idea of Stallone as the hero. Jordan doesn’t start the film–the film starts in flashback–so when the handover is complete isn’t just when Creed stops playing at being a Rocky movie, but also when Jordan fully takes on the picture.

Coogler and Covington’s script is deliberate and careful in how it brings the viewer into the world of film (the approach owes a lot to how Stallone’s own Rocky Balboa handled viewer familiarity with the characters). Even though it’s a boxing movie, with some fantastic fight sequences thanks to Coogler and his cinematographer, Maryse Alberti–though without much input from the editors, as Coogler likes to show off how close he and Alberti can get to the bout without cutting, Creed more often relies on Jordan as an intentionally tragic character, juxtaposing him against Stallone’s own intentional tragedies. That concept, the personal, conscious responsibility for misery, isn’t Creed’s point. It’s just an observation from Coogler and his actors. (One has to imagine both Stallone and Jordan loved getting to essay these roles).

Because Creed is, deep down, a rootin‘, tootin’ crowd pleaser. It’s just an exceptionally well-made one and an exceptionally thoughtful one. Coogler’s ambitions for the film are to tell its entirely absurd story well. And Coogler’s not afraid to take shortcuts. He casts Phylicia Rashad as Jordan’s foster mother (he’s her husband’s illegitimate son) and there’s no one possibly better for the role. Rashad brings a gravitas to her (too few) scenes and is always present in the film, even when she’s off-screen (too much of the time). Because Coogler knows how his audience is going to respond to her general presence, not just her performance.

Also very important is Tessa Thompson as Jordan’s love interest. She doesn’t get enough to do, though Coogler and Covington give her a lot of ground situation, but the romance gives she and Jordan some great scenes. Thompson does really well.

And Jordan’s great. He’s got a great role, even if the film isn’t about chronicling the character’s internal struggles. Or even representing them on an epical external scale.

Because Creed isn’t meant to be high art. It’s meant to be high entertainment, just from someone better suited for high art. Coogler, Jordan and Stallone do something really cool. They figure out how to make soullessly commercial nostalgia entertainment entirely, undeniably sincere.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Coogler; screenplay by Coogler and Aaron Covington, based on a story by Coogler and characters created by Sylvester Stallone; director of photography, Maryse Alberti; edited by Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver; music by Ludwig Göransson; production designer, Hannah Beachler; produced by Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler, Kevin King Templeton and Stallone; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky Balboa), Tessa Thompson (Bianca), Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed), Tony Bellew (‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan), Ritchie Coster (Pete Sporino), Graham McTavish (Tommy Holiday) and Wood Harris (Tony ‘Little Duke’ Burton).


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