Directed by Ryan Coogler
Written by Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington
It has been nearly 10 years since the last Rocky movie, Rocky Balboa (2006), and 25 years since the one before that, Rocky V (1990). While the series has become a part of American movie pop culture, and the character of Rocky and Sylvester Stallone will be known forever, the series is a little of out date and has quickly moved into the realm of irrelevant in today’s setting. Part of the irrelevancy is the obvious years distancing the series from the world of today. It has been far too long since we have spent meaningful time with these characters, so much so that the younger generations that make up the majority of the demographic for this type of movie may be completely unfamiliar with them. This creates an issue for establishing them back into the current landscape, which oh by the way no longer truly embraces the sport of boxing either. Boxing has given way to the success of MMA, or mixed martial arts, and boxing fans are few and far between in younger generations. Despite all these hurdles and stumbling blocks, Ryan Coogler sets out to defy what popular opinion should tell us about how successful this movie can be.
Coogler, a young promising director who burst onto the scene with his impactful debut Fruitvale Station, revives the Rocky franchise with a story he wrote himself. Creed lets Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) take a backseat in the twilight of his life to train a young, hungry, raw boxer named Donnie Johnson (Michael B. Jordan). Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the former foe of Balboa, hungers for a way to make a name for himself after Apollo’s widow takes him in following a troubled childhood. Donnie quits his successful day job in Los Angeles and moves to Philadelphia to persuade Rocky, who doesn’t take to the idea at first, to train him. Along the way Donnie meets a girl, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and finds an opportunity to finally make a name for himself in the boxing community.
Anyone familiar with the Rocky series should be none too surprised at the arc of the story in Creed. And while stepping back for a minute to examine the ins and outs, you might be able to say the story is unrealistic, being fully immersed into the film while it is happening nets a completely different perspective, which speaks to the ability of writer/director Ryan Coogler to not only provide a meaningful narrative, but an exciting and exceptionally well-paced one. The ascension of Donnie, an unknown with limited experience, into the “big leagues” of boxing is unrealistic. But the way the story unfolds, and the way in which Coogler, and Jordan/Stallone, manage to make us feel about these characters, makes everything seem so much more natural, like any good sports movie does.
The performances from Jordan, Stallone and Thompson are what really sell the story here. The narrative heft comes in many forms, with Donnie fighting for relevancy, Rocky fighting for a purpose, and Bianca fighting to be heard above the din of the Philly music scene and for her dreams to be heard alongside Donnie’s. The investment in these characters that Coogler and the performances manage to create is stunning work. Coogler has penned a wonderful installment in the series, and I believe it could have been a serviceable movie with a mediocre cast, but add in the strong performances from this ensemble, and the result of story and emotion brings a combination rarely seen in series reboots or sequels, especially those dormant for so long.
Rocky is corny, always has been, always will be; it’s what we like about Rocky. But he is also inspirational, the underdog, and bringing in talent like Michael B. Jordan to fill that role, with Stallone himself by his side, sets the film up for success. Coogler’s vision elevates the material above standard, inspirational Rocky fare by bringing a unique eye to the story, which allows for such artistic achievements as the Leo v. Donnie fight, and Sylvester Stallone’s performance, which is his best in years and perhaps the finest dramatic performance of his career. Rocky has always been entertaining, even when depicting the impossible, but it has not been this well done, or emotionally effective since the original.