As I’ve most likely mentioned elsewhere, I’m a Rocky buff. For someone who usually balks at the thought of parking myself in front of the next, cookie cutter, inspirational sports movie on the bill (Raging Bull, Slap Shot, Any Given Sunday and Dodgeball are really the only contridictions to my opinion on the subject) there’s something unique about that big, slow-talking lug that really hits home for me. That an amiable, honest and earnest character has persevered in cinema so long is not only a testament to Stallone the actor but it genuinely makes you feel good that the world in general has come together to embrace something so uncynical.
So when news broke that the fan favourite fist flinger was returning in a brand new movie where he passes his mantle on to a new protege my opinion was torn. On one hand the concept that Rocky finally becomes Mickey, his legendarily craggy trainer and father figure was utterly mouth-watering in it’s symmetry but in the other, wasn’t everything left to be said about the Balboa story told in Rocky Balboa..?
Apparently not because it’s a huge pleasure to report that Creed is truly fucking great and certainly the best movie to be set in the Rockyverse (as no one calls it) since the original by far.
The secret behind it’s success is a rather impressive and seamless blend of the new and the familiar; the spectacularly named Adonis Johnson is an angry young man and he has every right to be as the late, godlike, boxing messiah Apollo Creed is his illegitimate baby-daddy who was right-crossed into Valhalla by Russian punch-tank Ivan Drago before he was born. After a toubled couple of fight-filled adolescent years, he was adopted by Apollo’s wife in an act of selflessness. Fast forward a few years and “Donny” has a bright future in his office job but still has the rage, sneaking off to Mexico on the weekends to channel his self-taught boxing talents in unsanctioned slug-fests. He eventually on a whim quits his job, goes to Philadelphia (STILL looking like a bomb hit it) and seek out the man who was his late father’s friend in and out of the ring to train him. That man (obviously) is Rocky Balboa.
Eventually, in true Rocky style, the two bond as he works his way up the ranks, trying not to get by on the late father’s name while balancing a burgeoning relationship with singer Bianca, but destiny is on the horizon. When the boxing community learns of Donny’s lineage and fast tracks him in line for a title shot he’s destined to follow in Apollo’s footsteps whether he’s ready or not but can he bottle that rage that still seethes within and can Rocky muscle through potentially the toughest fight of his life when he falls ill?
The fact that this movie would work wven if you’d never seen a Rocky movie is testiment to it’s success, Donny’s journey is involving and relatable, but it’s the sheer level of respect to everything that has gone before that’s meat and drink to long term Rocky watchers. While wisely never overwhelming the plot with cheap shots that dwell on the past, the edge-of-frame detail is nothing short of miraculous. The chair tucked in the graveside tree, old fight footage being watched and rewatched, Mickey’s hat, the film smartly drip feeds you familiar imagery to make the world lived in and real. Try and watch Donny shadow boxing side by side with a projected image of his father fighting and tell me that lump in you throat isn’t real…
The perfomances are cracking, Stallone (surely the best he’s ever been – he was robbed of that Oscar) portrays Balboa as a kind but lonely husk, bereft of loved ones yet still surrounded by casual, yet useless, respect. A proud man slowly aging in the harsh Philadelphia cold, waiting for his time to be up, until fate, again knocks on his door.
Michael B. Jordan, as Donny, rises phoenix-like from the ashes of Johnny Storm and somehow does the impossible. He takes an angry punk kid who has a stable life and a loving adopted mother who desides to give it up to take boxing seriously and somehow makes him relatable, likeable and (most importantly of all for a Rocky movie) rootable. As Donny really doesn’t actually have that much to lose, and he is literally surrounded by people who have far less than him, it’s a huge pat on the back to actor and script that his quest to live up to his father’s legacy is as riveting as Rocky’s quest for respect all those years ago.
The fights are straight up awesome too. Infused with some realistic common sense (fighters actually blocking? In a Rocky movie?) yet bristling with cinematic style (check out the bout shot in one continuous take) the fights are as uplifting and as pure edge of the seat as they always were, if not more so.
Director and scriptwriter Ryan Coogler, who went on to work similar magic on Black Panther, does a phenomenal job making, what is essentially the seventh installment, his own, infusing it with his experiences growing up in Oakland much as his did in the Marvel box office buster.
But, fittingly, the last words gotta go to Stallone. The Rocky movies have always been short-hand for the man’s carreer. 1 & 2 detailed his struggle to the top, 3 & 4 were his glamour years as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, 5 predicted his spiral and 6 his comeback. I guess Creed could signify his change as an actor (watch as the film goes on as Rocky, in mannerisms and appearence, slowly becomes more and more like his own trainer, Mickey). The fact that he’s recently retired that other iconic character of his, the sleepy eyed Vietnam vet John Rambo may suggest he may eventually look to a future career as a character actor and based on this evidence, that could only be a treat.
Whatever happens, Creed triumphantly stands both alone and as part of a legacy that still has some rounds left in it.
As the man said: It ain’t over till it’s over.