As the ageing Rocky Balboa himself states with such naked honesty “Time takes everbody out. Time’s undefeated”.
It is the premise of time, and of life inching further and further onwards with each passing day that sits at the heart of Ryan Coogler’s sophomore effort – following on from his excellent debut feature Fruitvale Station.
Here Coogler re-teams with his leading man from that film as the ever-improving Michael B Jordan dons the gloves as Adonis Johnson (Adonis Creed), the illegitimate son of legendary fighter Apollo Creed.
Rather than attempt to make just another episode in the Rocky saga this is intended as a fresh new look for a different generation. In much the same way that Stallone’s original captured the attention during the 70s and 80s the great hope for Creed is that it will thrust a similar character into the hearts of the modern audience.
Intelligently abandoning the somewhat cartoonish style of the mid to late Rocky instalments Creed follows the gritty, authentic template that was the very essence of the original Rocky film in 1976 and the more recent Rocky Balboa in 2006. As with those films there is a somewhat bleak outlook on life on the streets of Philadelphia as people struggle to make ends meet and hope is an almost precious commodity.
Jordan’s Adonis is fuelled by an inner rage at the father he never really knew and it is this rage that leads him to the former friend of his deceased father as he attempts to persuade Rocky to be his trainer.
In what is perhaps Stallone’s most naked performance we are presented with an aging, broken-down Balboa who’s past ardours are beginning to take their toll on him. Stallone plays the role superbly and totally abandons the cocktail of testosterone and machismo that made perhaps his most celebrated character so appealing.
Rather than the ‘lump of iron’ that appeared in Rocky IV this is instead a portrayal of a man who is at his most vulnerable, living out his days in the almost maudlin acceptance that his time may be growing short.
However, despite the towering presence of Balboa, this is Creeds story and it is a great credit to Jordan that he more than holds his own in a role that could easily have been overshadowed by Stallone’s popular pugilist.
With what is the first film in the Rocky anthology not to bear the Philadephian’s name in the title – and coupled with the fact Stallone doesn’t top the billing - this is a definite nod to the fact that things are moving into a new era and away from that of the ‘Italian Stallion’.
From the outset, Creed attempts to stand-alone as its own thing and be much more than the previous Stallone vehicle’s we are used to. In many ways Rocky here takes a back-seat as he handily assumes the mantle of his beloved former trainer Mickey (in a neat coincidence Stallone is the same age now that Burgess Meredith was when he lent his worldly wisdom to the original Rocky). There is definitely a feeling of things having come full-circle for both Stallone and his most famous character and the fact his performance has garnered an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor indicates that this is far from the nostalgia-trip that this could quite easily have turned into. This is as impressive as Stallone has been in years and it is a credit to both himself and the tight direction of Coogler that he never attempts to take the limelight away from his younger co-star.
The chemistry between both Stallone and Jordan is exceptional and turns Creed into a great two-hander that plays out as a part father-and-son narrative and a part comedy double-act. Moments of comedy are punctuated by more serious dramatic themes which allow both actors the opportunity to display their acting range. Jordan in particular comes out of this with a huge amount of credit as he proves he can carry the movie with a determined and focused portrayal that just about keeps a lid on the simmering anger within and turns Adonis into a likeable character that the audience will certainly be cheering for.
In her role as Adonis’ main romantic interest Bianca, Tessa Thompson is about as far removed from Talia Shire’s shrinking wallflower in the original Rocky as you could possibly get and provides a central female character who is every bit as independent and feisty as the lead character himself. In what could have been a thankless, unforgettable role amongst the punch bags, extreme workouts and former heavyweight champions it is a noteworthy accomplishment by Thompson that her character sticks in the memory as much as she does.
Whilst there is a passing-of-the-torch feel to Creed throughout amidst the obvious attempts by Coogler to not fall into the trap of making ‘just another Rocky movie’ there is the chance to include one or two franchise staples that will leave older Rocky fans with a knowing grin on their face. Whether it be the famous ‘chicken chase’ or the obligatory training montages there is a feeling of familiarity that breeds which is only enhanced by the inclusion of some of the most iconic locations from both the Rocky movies and Philadephia as a whole.
Coogler should be applauded for managing to strike a delicate balance between paying homage to the preceeding instalments whilst also abandoning the formula for something new.
Slight complaints could be drawn from the poor acting ability of real-life Merseyside boxer Tony Bellew but it would be cruel to criticise both the movie – and Bellew himself -for lacking in a skill that he quite obviously wasn’t employed for and it certainly doesn’t detract from what is a thoroughly entertaining offering.
What Bellew does do exceptionally well is box and the fight scenes themselves are pummelling and relentless with the camera thrusting us right in and amongst the action – each rapid 360 whirl yet more evidence of Cooglers growing stature in the directing business. The in-ring choreography itself is absolutely spectacular as the dizzying camera-work makes us as much a part of the action as the fighters themselves. Raging Bull aside this is probably as close to the frenetic action as audiences have ever managed to get and is yet another positive to laud Creed with.
In summary then Creed is an entertaining, diverting film that should thrill fans of the original Rocky saga and also the newer generation that the movie is quite clearly aimed at. Striking the perfect depiction of life in and out of the ring, this is a movie – much like its original inspiration - that isn’t afraid to pull the punches on the harsh realities of life.
As impressive as the fight sequences themselves are this is a narrative in which humility and authenticity seep from the screen and it is in the more personal scenes between master and protégé that the real power of Creed is felt, due largely to the impeccable chemistry between Jordan and Stallone.
“Your legacy is more than a name” is the powerful tag-line that is carried on the film’s release poster and with an excellently crafted and enthralling piece it is quite obvious that this won’t be the last time cinema audiences hear the name ‘Creed’.
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