REVIEW: “Creed”

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If you had told me at the start of the year that I would pay money to go see a “Rocky” spin off with old man Stallone training the son of Apollo Creed I would have laughed in your face. Nothing about that concept sounds appealing. If you would have told me I would not only see the movie but thoroughly enjoy it, I would have called you insane. Yet despite my closed-minded skepticism “Creed” turned out to be one of the bigger surprises of 2015.

A ton of credit can go to the film’s director and co-writer Ryan Coogler. You may remember him from 2013’s “Fuitvale Station”. Coogler reunites with his Fruitvale star Michael B. Jordan to give us a film that is one part spin-off and one part sequel to 2006’s “Rocky Balboa”. On paper this sounds like an all-around bad idea but Coogler does something special. Much like Fruitvale there is an earnest dedication to telling its story through human lenses. There is such a genuine humanity to the film that even when we get the big crowdpleasing moments, they feel completely earned.

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The movie begins by introducing us to Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Jordan), a young man living in the shadows of a troubled childhood. He is the son of the late boxing great Apollo Creed and born from an extramarital affair. Apollo’s widowed wife (Phylicia Rashad) finds Donnie in a juvenile facility and takes him in. She gives him a plentiful life and helps him get a good job with a promising future.

But there is a perpetual inter-turmoil inside of Donnie. He is filled with anger and angst that he releases through fighting. First it’s small-time fights in Tijuana, Mexico, but later he quits his job to go pro in hopes of carving out a name for himself. He heads to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s close friend Rocky Balboa (Stallone). He asks Rocky to train him but the aged former champ turns him down. Donnie’s persistence combined with loyalty to an old friend leads Rocky to take the young fighter under his wing.

You could say Coogler is simultaneously telling two different stories. Donnie’s is a search for his own identity. He wants no part of his father’s legacy and he keeps him a secret. He wants to make his own name and plow his own path. But at the same time he needs guidance and stability in his life and in the ring. We genuinely like the guy because he is an underdog. That’s why audiences first embraced Rocky way back in 1976. Jordan has the same charm and authenticity to win us over.

But there is also the story of Rocky. Gone is his swagger and larger-than-life persona. Replacing it is a melancholy contentment with where he is at in this stage of his life. He’s tired, older, grayer and Stallone wears it truthfully and without an ounce of show. The physicality is gone yet Sly is given a lot more to do. It’s a deeper and dramatically meatier role and I would call it easily one of the best performances of his career.

Boxing is certainly a key part of this film, but it mainly serves as a support for the true meat and potatoes. Coogler is interested in his characters and their relationships. Every boxing scene whether training or an actual fight tells us more about Donnie or it builds up his relationship with Rocky. Then there are other characters like a local musician (Tessa Thompson) who Donnie falls for. She opens up an entirely different side of Donnie. But these relationships work because Coogler takes his time and allows them room to grow and breathe.

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Coogler also shows a remarkable technical ability especially for a young filmmaker. There are so many things I liked about his presentation. There are several fabulous tracking shots that cleverly use lighting or darkness to give the appearance of long takes. And how many boxing sequences have we seen over the years? Yet Coogler’s slow-moving camera and his knowledge of when to pull the camera back and keep it still result in some exhilarating boxing scenes.

There are other impressive touches such as the way he shoots Philadelphia and the handling of the music (often teasing us with variations of Bill Conti’s original “Gonna Fly Now”). It all works to service the characters and their stories. “Creed” has its clichés and its big mandatory crowd-pleasing moments, but even they are handled well by a confident filmmaker who is a true rising talent. For Coogler this is a step up from the admirable “Fruitvale Station”. For Jordan it’s a bold ‘getting back on track’ after “Fantastic Four”. And for the 69 year-old Stallone it could equal and invitation to the Oscars. Now that would certainly bring a smile to my face.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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38 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Creed”

  1. Yeah, wouldn’t it be something to see Sly nominated? He really is that good. And I really like your analysis of how Coogler seems to be telling two different, but interrelated stories — one of redemption for Donnie (that in no small way mirrors younger Rocky) and that of the older Rocky, who must face his mortality and a life he’s now reflecting back upon.

    Those moments where they get into a verbal sparring match when he says they’re not “really family” was a moment I was not anticipating to be so heartrending. This was a great film.

    • Oh that scene is strong! As I recall it takes place in the jail cell. Great moment. Both of these characters desperately need each other. It just takes them some time to truly appreciate how much.

      If Sly gets a nomination I just may shout. He knocked it out of the park. I think he is asked to do more emotional lifting than most of the other Rocky films combined.

      And how about Coogler’s technical savvy? There are a couple of scenes that show off such a cool technique.

  2. Had the biggest grin throughout this film. Loved the main characters, and they ALL had stories. Extremely well written, and the boxing sequences are edge-of-your-seat quality. They are that good.

    • This is hands down my biggest surprise of the year. Totally hooked from start to finish. Hats off to Coogler. Like you said, all the characters had stories but it works because Coogler allows his characters room to develop. And I’m with ya, those boxing scenes are filmed with such craft.

      Would you agree that Coogler is one of our very best young directors. Only 29 I think.

      • 100% agree. I really liked “Fruitvale Station” even with its few rough spots. This shows he can handle just about anything. Small indie or bigger franchise. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

    • Thank you! I’ll be completely honest, even with the many good reviews there was still a level of skepticism. It went out the window pretty quick. It doesn’t take long to get sucked in by what Coogler and company are doing.

      So what do you think? Possible Oscar nomination for Stallone ?

  3. Really pleased to see this get so much positive word of mouth during the past week or so. It’s not out over here yet but I’ll try and watch it. I still haven’t seen Fruitvale Station, which I need to catch up on at some point.

      • I would say I am, but I can’t remember much from 3 or 5 and didn’t see Rocky Balboa! It’s only the first one that I consider to be a very good film though, and it’s been a long time since I sat through it. Very intrigued by this, particularly as the boxing itself is secondary.

      • Those are two things you’ll appreciate then. This is more like the original and boxing is definitely secondary. It is mainly there to serve these two personal stories. Good stuff.

  4. Haven’t seen it yet, but happy to see it getting such a positive response from just about everyone. Especially happy for MBJ to get the stench of the Fantastic Four off of him.

    • I didn’t just run out and see it because I didn’t see any way that it would be something I would care for. But like you said, those positive responses! Everyone has had good things to say and I now know why. And MBJ absolutely puts FF behind him.

      Are you a fan of the Rocky series?

    • It really is Natasha! As I mentioned to others, I went in with no expectations. I absolutely love being surprised. And I think this movie will resonate whether you are a Rocky fan or not.

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    • Are you a fan of the “Rocky” series? I liked the first film but I could take or leave the rest. The great thing about “Creed” is you don’t have to be a die-hard to really latch on to this one.

      • I loved the first Rocky and I do tend to enjoy the sequels as guilty pleasures (aside from Rocky Balboa which was actually closer to the first film) but the idea of Creed being more on the level of the first Rocky at least in terms of story is enticing!

      • There is a striking similarity between Creed and the first film mainly in terms of its human-level focus. I really liked that about it. I think you will too.

  6. Great review! When I saw this board up at the cinema, all I saw was Stallone and boxing and made a joke to my other half about Rocky needing to throw in the towel. Then it turns out it is really a film in the Rocky canon. I laughed. Still, will check it out at some stage, seems to have gone down far better than expected!

    • Zoë I made all kinda of jokes about this thing. In my mind there was no way it could be good. Happy to be wrong. Stallone (brace yourself) deserves an Oscar nomination. He puts aside a lot of the corn from the past movies and gives a strong dramatic turn. Give it a shot.

    • LOL. Honestly it’s not that bad. I’m not a huge fan myself. The first movie is really good. But I would put this one with it. It really stands on its own while also linking to the franchise. You should give it a look.

  7. Really enjoyed this movie. It well exceeded my expectations, and I had the opportunity to attend the premiere a few weeks ago. Already lots of energy in the movie, but that was the loudest crowd I’ve ever been in for a movie.

  8. I really loved it even though I am not a fan of the Rocky movies. Agree with your review a lot. I think Jordan is great and Sly even more so, would love if he got nominated and even won Best Supporting Actor. But ultimately I think Coogler is the one who deserves the most praise, he’s an incredibly gifted filmmaker, I was absolutely exhilarated by that one one-take scene in particular

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    • Coogler has an incredible cinematic eye. I can’t wait to see what he brings to Black Panther. As a whole this was such a wonderful surprise. Such a wonderful story that goes so far beyond a simple ‘boxing movie’. You kinda have me itching to see it again.

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