In 2015, with Terminator Genisys and Creed, 80s action icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have both appeared in their signature roles as “old guys” passing on the reigns of that franchise to a younger generation. To his credit, Schwarzenegger was the best part of a bad movie. To his significantly greater credit, Stallone may be the best part of a great one.
Have you ever seen a movie where literally every decision made was the correct one? Director Ryan Coogler has given us this in Creed, a movie we had no idea we needed until Coogler showed us how terrific it could be. Creed stars Michael B. Jordan as the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the former boxing great and both rival and friend of former champion Rocky Balboa, played in the first four Rocky movies by Carl Weathers. Apollo died at the beginning of Rocky IV, within months of cheating on his wife with another woman. That’s something we audience members didn’t know at the time, but it explains the existence of Adonis Johnson (Jordan), who grew up without knowing anything about his father, and lost his mother before she could bring him up to speed. Brawling is in Johnson’s blood, and at about age 12, while in solitary confinement at juvenile hall, he’s rescued from his orphaned existence by an unlikely source: the very woman Apollo cheated on to give birth to Adonis. Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) raises young Adonis into an upstanding young man with a white collar job in Los Angeles, but Adonis still has the fighter in him, sneaking off to Mexico for underground fights, where he’s been undefeated. Eventually the itch gets too great for it just to be a pastime, and Adonis decides to go pro. Not wanting anyone to know of his famous parentage, he crosses the country to Philadelphia, where he hopes to be trained by his father’s old pal, Rocky (Stallone), who is happy running his restaurant and hasn’t set foot in a boxing gym in years.
Creed seems like it should be a consummate cash grab, and also another in a long line of Stallone’s vainglorious attempts to extend his acting career into his seventies. There was little to think that it would be anything but an assignment and a stepping stone to whoever was chosen to direct it. But no one told Ryan Coogler that. Coogler decided to make the best goddamn movie he could possibly make. With a passion for the material that’s unexpected and almost frightening, Coogler has given us one of the most rousing and exciting movies of 2015. From its camera movements to its sound design to the remarkable performances of its actors, Creed is the most legitimate new entry in a long-running franchise in ages. What’s most astonishing is how much Coogler “keeps it real.” This movie is funky and moody and disarmingly natural. It shows an absolute command of the tools of filmmaking, which it now appears Coogler was only beginning to sharpen when he burst on the scene working with Jordan on 2013’s acclaimed Fruitvale Station.
You could start almost anywhere in praising Creed, but since we started at the top with Stallone, let’s return to him here. While Schwarzenegger was only just the star of the Terminator movies, Stallone has been intimately involved in the writing and direction of this series from way back when Rocky won the Oscar for best picture in 1976. And though there have been definite missteps along the way, Stallone’s will to do right by both the series and the character is clear. The comfort born from nearly 40 years of playing Rocky is evident in Stallone’s performance. It’s relaxed and funny and occasionally intense; it’s gentle and warm and fiery when it needs to be. There is little doubt that Creed represents one of the top three performances in Stallone’s career, but what’s so remarkable about it is the way it lives and breathes in small moments. Stallone gets emotional at times in this movie, but what he’s emotional about and the ways he’s emotional are stunning. Who knew this nearly 70-year-old man could still surprise us; the even bigger surprise will be when there’s an Oscar nomination waiting for him come January.
The series is still serving as a metaphor for Stallone and the evolution of his career, even as the last few entries have had their share of contemplations on mortality. Here, the symbolism is passed off to the third lead, Adonis’ love interest, played by the incandescent Tessa Thompson. Far surpassing any of the normal limitations of “the girlfriend character,” Thompson plays Bianca, who sings a sultry kind of trip hop in local clubs, but who also is suffering from the early stages of progressive hearing loss. At one point she talks about how we’re all just trying to do what we love for as long as we can do it, and though she’s speaking to Adonis, she’s really speaking to (and for) Stallone. This is perhaps the clearest expression of the passion that drives Stallone to continue making movies beyond the point where people are joking about it.
It’s interesting to see the ways both characters and actors are wrestling with their demons in this movie, and that brings us to Jordan, equally as remarkable as the other two. Adonis the character and Jordan the actor are both trying to live down the associations of famous names, as Adonis goes by the last name Johnson to avoid the inevitable associations and comparisons to his famous father. Meanwhile, Jordan happens to share the name of perhaps the most famous basketball player of all time, something that has surely weighed on him even though he has no relationship to the former Chicago Bulls star. The entirety of what Adonis is fighting for does not become clear until near the end of the movie, at which point it is an immensely meaningful commentary on things that go beyond this individual character.
Creed is overloaded with technical bravura. It has some of the crispest editing of any film this year, but it doesn’t always need it. In fact, Adonis’ first Philadelphia fight, against the son of the owner of his gym, is a three-round bout executed at least with the appearance of only a single take. That’s right, that’s a good five minutes of that camera ducking and weaving and panning and bobbing, putting us right in the centre of the fisticuffs. This whole film similarly immerses us, and its soundscape drenches us with a combination of hip hop, traditional orchestral score and enthralling percussive punctuations.
When assessing whether to hand a film a perfect score, a critic shouldn’t primarily consider whether it’s one of the best films of the year (Creed is) or one of the best of its genre (Creed stands tall in a field of great boxing movies). What a person really wants to know is if it’s the best version of itself it can possibly be. Creed is, and then some.