Legacy Storytelling – A Review of ‘Creed’

Legacy Storytelling – A Review of Creed

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[Editor’s Note: Mild spoilers throughout]

Rocky Balboa is up there with Superman as one of the greatest fictional characters of the 20th century, the original Rocky is generally considered one of the greatest American movies ever made. It spawned a franchise with an inspiring but uneven legacy. Watching Rocky IV, the character, though still written and portrayed by Sylvester Stallone, is unrecognizable compared to who he was in the first couple of films. Rocky V was an attempt to correct that, but was deeply flawed and very poorly received. To this day, when most people think of Rocky, they think of the utter ridiculous that was Rocky IV. Even if Rocky V was a much better film, I still do not believe it would have been embraced at the time of its release due to audience expectations of what a Rocky film should be. The franchise was all but dead (as the character would have been if Stallone went with his initial idea to have Rocky die at the end of the fifth film). Fortunately the failure of Rocky V paved the way for the sublime Rocky Balboa in 2006. No one, myself included, expected the film to be much of anything. Stallone wisely used that perception to his advantage, crafting the most fitting companion piece to the original film and giving the character a most deserved and well-earned send-off. But just as Rocky’s story comes full circle, the story of Adonis Creed begins.

Rocky offering pointers to his new protege.

Rocky offering pointers to his new protégé.

Like me and many other people born in the 80s, director/writer Ryan Coogler grew up on Rocky films. He possessed a connection to the character that many people do. And after establishing himself as an important new voice in cinema with Fruitvale Station, Coogler surprisingly chose to follow up with Creed, the latest entry in the Rocky franchise. It’s positioned as a spin-off rather than a direct sequel, but it’s foundations are in the films that came before it, honoring each one–from the humble original to the over-the-top fourth entry. The decision to take on a revered franchise as a sophomore film is a curious one and I do not think many people in Coogler’s position would do it. The decision takes guts. Coogler rocketed himself into mainstream film stratosphere where the world was watching. Had he made another small film like Fruitvale and it under performed, he most likely could have rebounded fairly unscathed. But to take on Rocky? That requires the smarts and bravado of Rocky’s friend and once-rival Appollo Creed or, in Coogler’s film, Creed’s son.

Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, born after Creed died fighting Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Adonis bounces in and out of foster care after his mother also passes away, and seems headed toward a life of incarceration before he’s taken in and raised by Apollo Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). He has a privileged upbringing and the promise of a successful career in finance. But he also has an unshakable desire to fight and is willing to throw away his job and risk damaging his relationship with his adopted mother (who does not want to see Adonis wind up like Apollo) in order prove he has what it takes to be a great boxer. When no one in Los Angeles will train him–more on that later–he ventures to Philadelphia with hopes of recruiting Rocky as his mentor. Adonis finds Rocky where the audience left him nine years ago, working at the restaurant named after his beloved Adrian. Rocky’s not just older, but also seemingly at peace. There is a somber calm around the aged fighter, having found resolution he sought in the previous film. He initially shows no interest in training Adonis, but soon comes around. Adonis wants to make it on his own, without his father’s name. That becomes much more difficult once his lineage is leaked to the press after his first successful fight in Philadelphia. In an instant, the whole world is watching what he does next (a little reminiscent of Coogler’s position once he decided to make the film). The plan to quietly train and build up a respectable fighting career is no longer an option. Adonis is given the opportunity to fight the reigning champ and with Rocky at his side, he can’t pass that up. He’s not the only one with a fight ahead of him as Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. But unlike Adonis and Rocky’s own younger self, he doesn’t see the need to fight this battle despite Adonis’s urging. It falls on Adonis to inspire his new mentor in addition to preparing for his boxing match.

Michael B. Jordan is terrific as Adonis. Between his roles in The Wire and Friday Night Lights, he’s been an actor on the rise. He’s perfectly suited for this role. Now focusing on a film career, he too has something to prove. As Adonis, his default state is quiet and subdued, like he’s always on guard. When he drops that guard, either in anger or joy, the emotions leap off the screen. It’s a wonderful sight. Jordan and Coogler use it to the film’s advantage.

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Director Coogler on set with Stallone.

As for Rocky… I have zero hesitation saying this is one of the best performances of Stallone’s career, equal to that in Rocky, if not surpassing it. The moment in which his character receives the life-changing news and how he reacts–starting with removing his hat–is masterfully performed and will be remembered for ages. Watching that scene and others made me wish Stallone had put himself in the hands of more directors like Coogler in his 40-year-long career.

I feel remiss not bringing up Adonis’s love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson) until now. She’s an aspiring singer who suffers from hearing loss. It’s going to one day cut short her career, but she refuses to let it get in the way of the present. She’s smart and assertive, and most importantly strong. Adonis can come off as intimidated by her, which is wonderful to observe. All the reviews I’ve read have made an effort to applaud Thompson’s performance. They’re not wrong, but I have some pause by all the comparisons to Adrian in the original Rocky. That film is as much Adrian’s story as it is Rocky’s. Bianca isn’t given that sort of weight. With the focus on Adonis and Rocky, the love story here feels a little tacked on, regardless of how good Thompson is and how great the chemistry is between her and Jordan.

My main criticisms of Creed mirrors that of Fruitvale Station. Coogler often employs a gentle touch, favoring subtly to convey his messages. Unfortunately some times that subtly can come off as–at best–hesitation or–at worst–poor storytelling. Story beats just happen, without an adequate justification. With Fruitvale, Coogler could be excused for recreating a true story. Here, at times it feels like something is missing. Rocky initially turns down Adonis’s request to train him. We’re then treated to a bittersweet and perfectly executed scene in which Rocky visits his deceased loved ones. As he sits by their graves, reading the newspaper, we’re meant to infer this is very much a routine for the character. His meeting with Adonis has broken that routine, but we are not fully allowed into his head to know why he changes his mind about training Adonis. All we know is that he did. This issue is even more prevalent when we learn of Rocky’s health and his decision not to seek treatment. In another beautifully acted scene, we’re given an understanding why he doesn’t want to even attempt treatment. Two scenes later, we see him change his mind, but the justification for the change isn’t necessarily presented on the screen. To Coogler’s credit, I feel Stallone would have handled the scenes in a much more blunt, everything-on-table way if he were writing and directing the film (something along the lines of this scene from the previous film), though that wouldn’t necessarily have made them better. Incidentally, there was some additional dialogue in the second theatrical trailer that alludes to a more heated exchange about Rocky’s treatment. I’m curious to see if there is a deleted scene with that dialogue on the blu-ray release and how it would have affected this moment in the movie. I can’t help feeling there’s a happy medium between Coogler and Stallone’s styles which would have conveyed these scenes more meaningfully.

Early in the film, Adonis seeks the help an L.A. trainer (Wood Harris). The trainer refuses, citing the dangers of boxing and reminding Adonis that it’s how Apollo died. The trainer goes as far as saying that he’ll make sure no one in L.A. will train Adonis. It seems like an overly harsh response and on the surface it’s difficult to understand the trainer’s position. It’s very easy to miss that someone else refers to the trainer as Little Duke, but that detail is essential to the scene and the trainer’s motivations. Tony “Duke” Burton was Apollo Creed’s trainer. He was right there with Rocky when Apollo died. This story being one of generations and legacy, it’s meaningful to know that Little Duke carries his father’s sins (a presumed complicity in Apollo’s death that Rocky shares) and his attitude toward Adonis is informed from by a wish to not repeat that. It’s a wonderful sentiment that gets lost even if the viewer is well-versed in Rocky lore.

Conversely, Coogler uses this subtle approach to deftly handle the reveal of a key piece of the Rocky legacy –who won the behind-closed-doors third fight between Rocky and Apollo. It easily could have been an overblown reveal, but instead is presented in a touching matter-of-fact manner. It’s more meaningful this way and true to the characters in how it’s presented. Even if you don’t agree with the outcome, the care Coogler applies makes the moment immediately heartfelt.

Rocky and Apollo's first fight.

Rocky and Apollo’s first fight.

I can appreciate that Coogler does not pander to us, but in some key scenes, I wish he would allow us to get a bit closer to the characters. He’s playing a long game, and it’s certainly risky. For most of the film, I never fully felt Adonis’s desire–or hunger–to fight. He wasn’t like Rocky in the first film, trying to prove he’s not just some bum. I know he wants to fight, but the why of it all is understated. Adonis never fully expresses where his drive originates until an 11th round proclamation. And while the moment was powerful, had Coogler built towards it with a slightly more sure hand, it would have delivered like an even harder punch to gut.

All that’s not to say Coogler doesn’t deliver. In addition to the performances he brought out in his actors, he crafted a beautifully shot film that’s distinctly his own. You’d think by now that there were no more ways to shoot a boxing match, but Coogler brings something new to the ring. The camera holds on the fighters in a way that pulls viewers in to the point we’re feeling the punches. It’s confident and effective, providing a physical intimacy essential to the success of the fight scenes.

All and all, Creed pays off. It’s a bigger gamble than the unexpected Rocky Balboa. And while it doesn’t reach the highs of that film, the film’s intent was never meant to be the same. Unlike Rocky Balboa, this film is not about a single man, but a legacy. Adonis is not just the product of Apollo Creed, but also his biological mother and the woman who ultimately took him in, along with Rocky as well. Adonis is the sum of all these people, and this film is his journey to reconcile these disparate parts and understand for himself who he is and what he’s capable of. It’s inspiring to watch, the way a Rocky movie should be, but additionally rewarding to see someone other than Rocky take the journey.

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The two fighters looking out on the city that defines their story.