How do you re-invigorate a franchise so completely that it feels at once a fitting tribute to its predecessors, whilst simultaneously becoming such its own thing as to be wholly original? The answer lies in Ryan Coogler’s Creed.
Coogler, whose directorial debut Fruitvale Station was so immediate and mesmerising as to make all industry heads turn in his direction, once again proves his knack for street-level grit, but elevates to much larger, more slick elements with a sure hand and dogged conviction.
In fact conviction is the key word when speaking of any single element of Creed. The story itself, about a young man stepping out of his legendary father’s shadow to carve a life for himself, that’s a story of finding your own conviction. Then there’s Adonis Creed himself – son of Apollo and the films titular character – played with an almost palpable belief and determination by Michael B. Jordan. I’ve always seen Jordan as an actor ready to work harder than any of his peers to get the job done right, and here he pushes the limits of both emotional range and searing physicality to get the audience fully invested.
On top of this Stallone gives one of his best performances, once again taking on the Rocky Balboa mantel, and imbuing the character with dignity in the face of loss, a world-weariness that still has room to let people in, and a bravura subtlety that cleverly underplays moments of high emotion. There’s a particularly incredible moment in a hospital when Rocky goes ‘one-on-one’ with a doctor giving him some harsh news, and its suddenly easy to see why Stallone got the Supporting Actor nomination; he’s a world-class performer when the script is right, and here it’s spot on.
There’s a great rhythm to the film, a punchiness that beautifully plays alongside the brutal training regimen and also the life of the musician/singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson: Selma, Dear White People), Adonis’ neighbour and love interest whose progressive hearing loss offers both motivation to our main fighter, whilst also making Bianca a fully fleshed out character on her own.
What’s really exciting though is Coogler’s direction, and the innovative boxing matches which deliver something that feels totally new and fresh. Adonis’ first bout is filmed in one unbroken take, from dressing room to KO, and it moves deftly between a hand-held style outside the ring (making us part of the crowd) and a stylish, smooth, always fluid motion when in the ring. I’m not sure how much rehearsing went into getting that right, but the work is there on-screen and its sensational stuff.
A later, more climactic fight is filmed in a more traditional way, with multiple cuts and brutally close slow-motion shots as fighters trade one devastating blow after another. But this too is perfectly paced, the hits like thunder and the editing snappy and musical. The important thing is the amount of empathy and nervous tension it creates. You are behind Adonis as if the world depends on his victory, and its a rare thing to be so supercharged by a film anymore. Funnily enough, the last film that had me so pumped up was Mad Max: Fury Road, another film that took elements of a historic franchise and updated them in such a way as to turn them into something greater.
And I think Creed is greater than all the Rocky sequels. I’d put in on a level with the original and I think that has something to do with the similarities between Stallone (at the start of his career) and Coogler, both being filmmakers with something to say and possessing the required enormous heart and passion to see it through in the way they know to be authentic.
It takes conviction to do that.