Rocky Balboa is back, but he’s no longer fighting wrestlers, dudes with mohawks or giant Russian supermen. This time he’s just here to coach. Maybe that didn’t go so well the first time he tried it (ROCKY V – always remember) but how can you say no when such a likeable young man comes knocking on your door? Especially when his last name sounds so very, very familiar…
What a brilliant idea to bring back the character of Rocky Balboa and have him coach the son of Apollo Creed, his greatest rival. I applaud director Ryan Coogler for having that idea, writing a script around it and convincing Stallone to be a part of it. That can’t have been easy. After all, ROCKY BALBOA was an amazing send-off for the character, directed by the man who played him. Coming back, especially in someone else’s film, meant risking that perfect ending – possibly tainting Rocky’s legacy forever. But Stallone went for it, and I totally understand why. Because there was one last logical step left for his character to take in order to come full circle and complete Rocky’s cinematic journey. That step is CREED.
Adonis “Donny” Creed (played by Michael B. Jordan from CHRONICLE and FRUITVALE STATION) has never met his father. He was raised by Apollo’s wife (who isn’t his mother, him being a product of his father’s infidelity) but only after dad got himself punched to death by Dolph Lundgren in part IV*. So his family is rich, he’s got a proper education under his belt and is currently working a well-paid job. But you know how it is, he takes after his dad, all he wants to do is destroy people’s faces with his fists. He’s good at it too. The first time we see him as an adult, he quickly knocks out an opponent in the ring and starts removing his gloves before the ref is even done counting. Then later we learn he’s never even had training! The guy is obviously a natural. Soon he quits his job, moves into a shitty apartment in Philly and goes to visit Rocky Balboa at his restaurant. He wants to talk about his dad, sure, but he also needs a coach. Rocky doesn’t go for it straight away, but he slowly comes around to the idea. He sees something in the kid, and obviously there’s some sentimentality involved. It’s a way to do something for a dear friend who’s no longer among the living. Plus, it might give him some sense of purpose. God knows he needs it; he’s all alone and before Donny came along, he’d practically given up on life already. So he coaches the kid. Rocky becomes Donny’s Mickey, just like Mickey was Rocky’s Mickey, and it’s great to watch.
There’s been different styles of Rocky films throughout the franchise: the earlier films took a more understated dramatic approach, while the ones released in the 80’s were over the top and full of cheesy extravagance. CREED manages to find a path somewhere in between. Admittedly it’s much closer to being a full on drama than anything else, with Donny struggling with love and other heavy life shit, but the way the climactic fight is set up is pure 80’s bliss. Despite having almost no experience Donny gets to go up against the champ (played by real life boxer Tony Bellew) and – though common sense dictates he should’ve literally died within three seconds of the first round – proceeds to give his opponent the fight of his life.
The boxing scenes in CREED are really well done. There’s only a couple of them, but the way they’re filmed is often exhilarating. One of the fights is seemingly shot in one take with the camera following Donny through the ring, capturing the action over his shoulder. It’s impressive stuff. The final fight is a little more straightforward and much less realistic, with both men absorbing ludicrous amounts of damage and seemingly blocking punches with their faces for the hell of it, but I didn’t mind that at all. I’m a child of the 80’s, what can I say. It can’t get silly enough for me.
Having said that, the real highlight of the film is not the action but a single acting performance that was rightfully rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Yes, I’m talking about Sly. Though it’s common to hear people dismiss him as a non-actor, saying he always just plays himself, personally I think that’s complete and utter bullshit. I’ll admit that he’s delivered some questionable performances throughout his career, but he’s also knocked it out of the park quite a few times and he doesn’t get nearly enough credit for that. Take ROCKY or FIRST BLOOD. What about COP LAND? Those are wildly different characters, each performed in a convincing and natural way. Hell, I even thought he was great in BULLET TO THE HEAD, probably the most underrated action film of the last decade. When it comes to CREED, I’m not kidding when I say Stallone’s performance is the single most important reason why the film works as well as it does. Donny is never as interesting as when he’s interacting with Balboa – without Stallone to play off of, I’m not even sure Jordan could have carried the film. He’s a decent actor and he sure looks the part, but he doesn’t exactly light the screen on fire. If I’m honest, I think a son of Apollo Creed should probably be more charismatic and full of life than this guy is. Just my opinion.
Anyways, by now we all know that Stallone didn’t get the Oscar. That saddens me greatly, because I would have loved seeing him stand victorious on that stage. But when you think about it, not winning the award seems to fit much better with the overall message of the Rocky movies. Balboa didn’t always win, and it didn’t matter. What counts is going the distance, and Sly certainly did that. Nobody expected him to ever be nominated for an Oscar again, but when he was given an opportunity he fought for it, he gave it his all, and there he was. He went the distance.
Fuck Mark Rylance though. Stupid old British bastard.
* I love how an event from the silliest Rocky film of all is the catalyst for a lot of deadly serious drama in this one.