by Adam Nayman
Dir. Ryan Coogler, U.S., MGM
A small detail in Creed, fleeting but worth catching: after winning his first major professional fight, aspiring light heavyweight contender Adonis Johnson (nĂ© Creed) (Michael B. Jordan) dozes with his girlfriend in front of a television set blaring an action set piece from Skyfall. This is one venerable MGM property nodding to anotherâ€”Rocky Balboa, meet James Bond. But itâ€™s also a strategic pop-cultural allusion in a movie thatâ€™s urgently seeking a split decision between realism and ritual.
Ever since Joe Frazier showed up to bless the main event in Rocky (1976) and smile off the staccato, Ali-esque taunts of Carl Weathersâ€™s Apollo Creed (â€śYou next, Joe! You next!â€ť), the franchise has shaped and embraced a reality where recognizable boxers and celebrities rub shoulders, if not trade blows, with fictional creations. Whatever else one thinks of Rocky III (1982), its images of the Italian Stallion frolicking with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show and staring down both Hulk Hogan and Mr. T (both playing themselves under thinly veiled fake names) just three years before the first WrestleMania event are hardly digressions. Rather, they represent screenwriter Sylvester Stalloneâ€™s clumsy, earnest, and understandable attempts to integrate his uber-palooka alter ego into the very sports-gone-Hollywood nexus he opened up with his first blockbuster outing.
So when Adonis, who has designs on becoming a world champion despite his skimpy Tijuana-based track record, cues up a YouTube video titled â€śBalboa Vs. Creedâ€ť on a playlist that also features Ali-Foreman and then proceeds to shadowbox against the grainy, rear-projected avatar of Apolloâ€”thus mimicking Rockyâ€™s body-shot blowsâ€”itâ€™s a deliriously complicated multimedia tableau: a visual prĂ©cis of everything that the character and the movie bearing his name mean to accomplish. It suggests that the central tension in Creed is how the film, directed and cowritten by Ryan Coogler with Aaron Covington, will style itself as a series sequel-cum-remake in the context of both an onscreen world where Rocky is alive and well and a real world where his exploits loom even largerâ€”and which comes with a built-in audience thatâ€™s getting almost as old as its hero.
The first part of this equation is arguably trickier. For instance: how to square the gravitas of Adonis Johnson as a fatherless child agonizing over his pugilistic birthright with the memorably silly circumstances of his dadâ€™s death, beaten to a pulp in the aftermath of a James Brown concert in Rocky IV (1985)? Is it possible to re-contextualize Ivan Drago and his murderous exploits as anything but a dated 80s-baby joke for the likes of Bill Simmons to giggle over on podcasts? The increasing ridiculousness of the roman-numerated Rocky sequelsâ€”which reached an apotheosis in Rocky IV, with its smiling Gorbachev lookalike rooting for the pride of Philadelphia in a bout held in Moscowâ€”is not the most promising context for a movie striving for legitimate uplift.
Creed is also more immediately in the shadow of the unfortunate Rocky Balboa (2007), which was intended as Stalloneâ€™s elegiac self-reckoning Ă la Unforgiven (1992) but pulled its punches. The sight of a sexagenarian heavyweight standing toe to toe with former WBC champ Antonio Tarver (as Mason â€śThe Lineâ€ť Dixon), even in the scenario of a charity bout, was frankly laughable, as was the predictable redux of Rockyâ€™s moral-victory ending. It seemed like another late gasp of vanity from a superstar who has had more comebacks than George Foreman and in the process has overdone the hangdog-underdog act to the point of insufferability. But in Creed, Stalloneâ€™s acting, which is tied to but also more complicated than the mere matter of his presence, is the crucial factor which allows the film to triumph within the strictures of the Rocky series, if not quite transcend them.
Whoever was ultimately responsible for the idea of having Rocky Balboa reluctantly manage Apollo Creedâ€™s sonâ€”and the filmâ€™s long development saga suggests that it may have been Stalloneâ€”deserves the proverbial pat on the back, as itâ€™s a shift loaded with enough series-historic and racial and cultural significance to make even casual viewers sit bolt upright with interest, to say nothing of fans. What makes the conceit work on the screen, though, is the delicate humor and, yes, finesse of Stalloneâ€™s performance. He exudes the same less-than-larger-than-life appeal that made the character so endearing before his creator greedily co-opted him into a pop culture icon, while at the same time generously ceding the center of the movie to Jordan, who fills it impressively with a flashy, fleshy star turn.
Take, for instance, the way that Stallone delivers his dialogue, filtering his own thoughtfulness as an actor (which heâ€™s always had but rarely applied) through Rockyâ€™s familiarly halting cadences. When Rocky angrily tells Adonis, whom heâ€™s taken on as a fighter and (of course) a surrogate son, that the connection between them doesnâ€™t make them family and the younger man storms out, Cooglerâ€™s camera lingers on Stallone as he sits his grizzled bulk down in a chair and he asks himself, dazedly and under his breath, â€śWhy did I say that?â€ť Itâ€™s a powerful, reflective moment, imbuing a narrative turn that almost any viewer would recognize as simple screenwriting-class mechanicsâ€”the temporary breakup of a bromance en route to reconciliation and triumphâ€”with a glancing but real sense of regret.
Instead of giving us a Rocky Balboa simply ennobled by his stubbornness and traditionalism, Stallone shows us the ways in which heâ€™s also let himself become stunted, and while itâ€™s surely convenient to just file the performance in the trusty â€śself-portrait of the artistâ€ť category and call it a day, it really does feel like itâ€™s the character working things out for himself more than the famous guy playing him. Almost every development in Creed is predictableâ€”this is not an austere screenplayâ€”but Coogler doesnâ€™t condescend to the conventions heâ€™s taken on. Instead, he energizes them through simple and persuasive means, including the rangy, purposeful use of widescreen (the bobbing, fluid cinematography is by Maryse Alberti, who also shot The Wrestler, as well as Velvet Goldmine and Tape) and a judiciously chosen hip-hop soundtrack that nods to local heroes (Meek Mill gets pride of place) while playfully interpolating the melody of Bill Contiâ€™s â€śGonna Fly Now,â€ť holding back the actual, bombastic fanfare until he really needs it like a fighter preserving his haymaker for the final round.
Certainly, thereâ€™s more to Creed than just craftsmanship and the various ways that it shadowboxes with its predecessors. Critics as diametrically opposed as A. O. Scott and Armond White have suggested how Adonisâ€™s desperate, potentially self-destructive and finally empowering yearning for a father figure resonates in the post-Obama eraâ€”a subtext that the filmmakers hint at but donâ€™t exploit for maximum effect. The fact of the filmâ€™s solid box office, and what it might lead to for Coogler as a chronicler of contemporary African-American experience, is also worth unpacking, as is the close relationship between Jordanâ€™s performance here and in Cooglerâ€™s Fruitvale Station, wherein the actor had to generate a similar physical and emotional charisma en route to a very different sort of foregone conclusion.
Such discussions are going to get hijacked any day now by all the awards-season noise about whether Stallone is going to win an acting Oscar as a bookend to his Best Picture triumph nearly forty years ago. And to some extent, thatâ€™s exactly what he and Creed are going for anywayâ€”and more power to them. The surest sign that Coogler has honored his source material is that Creed is populist through and through. His achievement, which mirrors Stalloneâ€™s once upon a time, is that he gives his audience exactly what they want and makes it feel like a gift rather than a bribe.