Review: Ryan Coogler's 'Creed' is Early Contender for Best of the Year
by Jeremy Kirk
November 25, 2015
Ryan Coogler's Creed is the best film of the year. That may come as a shock for some of you especially if you're among those old enough to remember many of the hokier directions the Rocky series took. After six films and several ups and downs, it didn't seem reasonable to go back to the Balboa well once again. Instead, it was time to revitalize the series for a newer, younger audience. I know what several of you think of the word "reboot," but, when it works – and those exceptions are few and far between – there's no denying it. Everything in Creed works perfectly, and the movie not only spins off from the Rocky series in the most organic and best way possible, it stands on its own as a flawlessly realized work of cinema.
It was high time another filmmaker got a crack at the story, anyway. Sylvester Stallone, returning here only to reprise his role of the Philadelphia pugilist, pretty much put the stamp on Rocky's boxing career with 2006's Rocky Balboa. Stallone steps aside from writing and directing duties to give Ryan Coogler, the filmmaker who floored audiences in 2013 with the drama Fruitvale Station, a shot. To put it succinctly, Coogler absolutely nails it.
From his previous film Coogler brings along Michael B. Jordan to star as Adonis Johnson. Early in his life Adonis (Alex Henderson in the early scenes) is an orphan whose mother has just died and who has no knowledge of his father's identity. Angry at his place in life and the world that put him there, Adonis is constantly fighting other kids, and he's good at it, too, a little natural talent he inherited from someone. You get the impression this child has spent most of his life with his fists clenched.
Two bits of magic occur in an early scene in Creed. Adonis is introduced to Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad taking over the role from Rocky III and IV's Sylvia Meals). Mary Anne is the widow of Apollo Creed, former heavyweight boxing champion and widely regarded in this world as the best prize fighter of all time. Yeah, even Rocky. Mary Anne tells Adonis, fist still clenched, that he is the illegitimate son of Apollo and that she is going to take the child in and raise him properly. Adonis' fist loosens, the mean glare he's giving her softens, as well, and the second bit of magic occurs. You realize early on that this film is going to be anything but another, run-of-the-mill reboot. You realize the Rocky franchise – now the Creed franchise, I guess – is in the hands of a filmmaker and one with some amazing talent.
There is a definite paint-by-numbers structure that could have been followed, and it would have probably been the Rocky franchise reboot we were all expecting. Lord knows the original Rocky spawned enough rip-offs to reboot the series ten times over, and it isn't as if the sequels strayed too far from that mark either. Creed doesn't completely eschew these trademarks that kept the Rocky movies popular enough to span across four decades. Rather, what Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington understand is what made those trademarks last for such a long time. The training montages, brutal bouts, even heartwarming love story are all familiar territory that Coogler and Covington revisit, but all of those elements are pulled off with a phenomenal amount of emotion, grace, and surprise. The filmmakers' ability to play with the rules of this world without ever breaking them is one of Creed's biggest strengths. Don't worry. There are plenty of montages, each more enthralling than the previous. And the crescendos. My God, the crescendos!
Coogler and Covington match the Stallone-written screenplays with equally colorful characters. Sure, their boxing antagonist for Adonis, the Irish Ricky Conlan, played by Tony Bellew, isn't as glaringly eccentric as Clubber Lange or Ivan Drago. This is just one of many indications that the story told in Creed is more down-to-earth than many of the Rocky sequels that came before it. That isn't stopping the film from being both a love letter to the entire Rocky series as well as a superb launching point for this new Cinderella-story protagonist.
What Creed benefits from the most is having Coogler directing. Nearly every scene plays out against expectation. Aided by cinematographer Maryse Alberti, Coogler's camera tracks along with his subjects for long stretches of time, one particular bout in the ring completely unfolding in one, continuous shot. It's such a simple idea that you can't believe no filmmaker has pulled it off before, but Coogler's execution of the whole scene tells us it will never be done quite as well ever again. The same goes for his handling throughout the rest of the film, as well. The confidence in his image is felt in every scene, every shot with which the director presents. It's not always the flashiest visual Coogler is giving us, but every time it's the best.
Coogler's confidence bleeds into the performances of the actors he's directing, as well. His performance in Fruitvale Station put Michael B. Jordan on the map, but the young actor has continuously impressed in nearly every role he takes. As Adonis, Jordan shows a broader range. More importantly he shows a broad potential for range, but he is able to keep the character focused and naturalistic at all times. He projects a vulnerability yet forces a presence throughout the film that rightfully calls to mind the flamboyance and charisma Carl Weathers previously brought to Apollo Creed. It's more than mimicry or even homages in the performance. It's a natural lineage in Jordan's character. He looks like Weathers at times, but, as the subtext of the screenplay relays, he is his own man. Jordan projects clear emotion when the time arises, and it's just one aspect of a stunning and varied performance.
Elsewhere in the cast, Coogler's handling of his actors is as sophisticated as the rest of his film. Key among these is with Stallone, giving here his first legitimately solid performance in decades. This time around, Rocky is retired from his battles in the ring, but his role doesn't begin and end as Adonis' veteran trainer. He fills the paternal hole left in Adonis since birth, and, with Coogler directing him, Stallone gives a performance that is more honest and heart wrenching than anything he's given us probably since 1976.
Since then, the Rocky series has gone through some rough patches, turning things upward nearly 10 years ago with Rocky Balboa. That course correction Stallone began for the franchise reaches its full potential with Ryan Coogler's Creed, easily an early contender for best film of the year and, strike me down, film fans, a more complete, better told, and more perfectly executed film than the original. Those are, pardon the pun, fighting words, but not without the evidence to back them up.
It's due to Coogler's clear fondness for this series with which he has grown up that he has been able to reverse engineer an even better version of the original. A fine, film fan has aged to be one of the finest filmmakers working today, and those Rocky fans out there were just waiting for one of their own to take over in the finest fashion. Creed is that evidence, and whether the man behind its success continues on with this series or something completely different, you can be certain it'll be another game-changer. With Creed, Ryan Coogler has definitely made his presence felt in the film industry.