Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Runtime: 133 minutes
My Ambien-aided/inhibited analysis:
With Creed, I am breaking my self-imposed rules regarding inflight entertainment reviews on this blog. It was always my intention to focus on films that I was encountering for the first time in flight, but alas, I simply cannot resist taking this opportunity to praise Ryan Coogler’s phenomenal addition to the Rocky canon. I had already watched and loved this film in theaters, so after the disappointing Pitch Perfect 2, I was eager to cleanse my palate with a more refreshing reboot.
I have never seen any of the Rocky movies, so some of the history and mythology may have been lost on me, but Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington’s deft script does a wonderful job filling in the details without relying on overwrought exposition. This movie is firmly grounded in the Rocky universe, but the life of our new protagonist runs tangentially to those earlier stories. Adonis “Donny” Johnson (The Wire’s and Friday Night Lights’ Michael B. Jordan) is the youngest son of Apollo Creed – the progeny of Creed’s extramarital affair with his mother. Apollo was Rocky’s rival turned friend and trainer. In one of the many sequels, Apollo is killed in the boxing ring. Rocky feels immense guilt for not calling off the fight. We also know that Rocky lost the love of his life, Adrian, and his best friend, Paulie. He is contentedly living out his days alone in Philadelphia, visiting the gravesites of his wife and friend – ghosts of his past – each morning.
Meanwhile, Donny grew up with his mother in Los Angeles. He was born after Creed died. When she passed, he became a ward of the state. We see young Donny get into fist fights. We see Apollo’s widow take him in. He grows up in her mansion. He gets a respectable office job. On the weekends, he wins fights by knockout in underground Mexican boxing rings. He hides black eyes from his adoptive mother. He is underestimated and discredited by professional fighters in L.A. He is seen as having grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He worries that they are right. He fights against their preconceptions and his own. He is intimidated and motivated by the legacy of Apollo Creed – his inherent birthright – and potentially failing to live up to it. The rich backstory is succinctly packed into the first fifteen minutes. After which, Donny moves to Philadelphia in order to recruit Rocky as his trainer and pursue his dream of being a professional fighter. Only a relic from Apollo’s past (and by extension Donny’s) – this icon akin to Apollo and kin to Donny (he refers to Rocky as “unc” throughout) – can launch him and this saga into the future.
The rest of the story is filled with classic sports movie tropes: workout montages, inspirational speeches, fashionable athleisure, formidable rival across the pond, bruised knuckles and egos, obligatory love story, and back against the ropes underdog narrative. But Coogler and Jordan and Tessa Thompson breathe new energy and vibrancy into this franchise that was as sad and tired as Stallone’s present-day Rocky.
And I would argue, most importantly, this film elevates a personal story to the universal while never pulling any punches regarding the fundamental blackness of its world. This film is not explicitly about race or racism – focusing on Donny’s personal struggle rather than the Struggle – but Creed’s Philadelphia is a far cry from Rocky’s. Donny is black. His family is black. Other than Rocky, his trainers are black. His musician love interest, Bianca, is black. Donny and Bianca converse with slang, go out for cheesesteaks, freestyle rap (poorly), and fumble with a burgeoning relationship. He combs out her braids; she plays him sexy R&B songs written for him. Regardless of race (and above-average beauty), they are people with whom the audience can identify. They are passionate, inspiring and inspired. They project confidence and vulnerability. They understand each other, observing their own drive reflected in the other. They are hyper-aware of the time they have to forge their own legacies, steeling themselves against limitations that threaten to take them out in the early rounds. Their blackness does not define them, as they contain multitudes, but it is part of them and part of this story. For a film so unapologetically nostalgic, at times capable of eliciting laughter as well as tears, it is defiantly unsentimental in its depiction race.
There is a scene early in the film where Donny is watching a YouTube video of the Apollo/Rocky title rematch. The life-sized fighters are projected onto the wall of a dark home theater. Donny gets up from the couch, positions himself in the middle of the match, and quite literally begins shadow boxing. His shadow eclipses Rocky and Apollo in the ring; their projected moving images illuminate his face – his past and present converging; the Rocky theme swells; and Adonis Creed, in the foreground, faces off against his greatest adversary. In this moment, we understand exactly who this character is and what he is fighting against. It is a beautiful piece of storytelling in a film filled with inspired directorial flourishes and nodding homages to the original source material.