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New Release Review - CREED

The son of legendary boxer Apollo Creed teams up with trainer Rocky Balboa for a shot at the world title.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Ryan Coogler

Starring: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew



For all its insight and thoughtfulness, Creed ultimately has us on our feet rooting for its hero in a thrilling action climax, and when that famous theme finally kicks in at a crucial moment, no movie lover - from the 'one trip to the cinema a year' casual viewer to the snobbiest of critics - will be left unmoved.



When it comes to staying power and adaptability, few franchises can compete with Rocky. If you want to know what was happening in American cinema at a particular time, look for that era's Rocky installment. The first movie, penned by a then practically unknown Sylvester Stallone, is the sort of gritty character drama the 1970s is revered for. Its 1979 sequel is a glossier affair, but one that remains focused on character, reflective of the intelligent blockbusters that thrived at that time. Rocky III is very much an '80s movie, as the franchise begins to move away from its protagonist's internal struggles and becomes focused merely on having our hero beat the lard out of a cartoon villain. That's amped up to a ludicrous degree for the flag-waving Rocky IV, in which Rocky practically ends the cold war. The early '90s was a new low for American cinema, which knew it had to move on from the excesses of the previous decade, but before the indie explosion of a few years later, hadn't figured out how to achieve this. 1990's Rocky V is the low point of the series, as dull an affair as you'd expect from that time in Hollywood. The franchise made a belated return in the under-rated Rocky Balboa, which addressed its character's advanced age while still managing to have him enter the ring without straining credulity. A few years later, Hollywood would become obsessed with such nostalgic returns to the beloved characters of a bygone age.
Creed is as much a 2016 Hollywood product as you could imagine. In the minds of the money men, it exists merely to exploit a pre-existing franchise with a guaranteed built-in audience. But this is no Force Awakens style fan service; Ryan Coogler's film achieves what its titular protagonist sets out to, standing on its own without relying on a bankable name. I suspect Coogler's fight against having his movie titled Rocky 7 was as gruelling as any the Italian Stallion faced on screen.
The title of course refers to Apollo Creed, Balboa's opponent in the first two movies. We learn that prior to his death he fathered a son, Adonis, the result of an affair. After spending most of his childhood in care, Adonis is taken in by Apollo's wealthy widow (Phylicia Rashad), and lives a life of privilege afforded to few young black men. But the blood of his father runs through his veins, and the twenty-something Adonis (Michael B Jordan) quits his secure office job to pursue a career in the ring. He quits LA and heads to Philadelphia, hoping to enlist the aid of Rocky, who is reluctant at first but agrees out of respect for Apollo. The two have modest aims at first, but when the world hears of Adonis's lineage, he's offered a title shot against the formidable world champion, scouse thug Ricky Conlan (real life boxer Tony Bellew, whose only TKO actually came at the hands of a boxer named Adonis Stevenson).
Coogler has pulled off something unique here - a story about accepting privilege with a black protagonist. Adonis is mocked for his background, nicknamed 'Hollywood' by the rough and tumble street boxers in the Philly gym, while Conlan brags of his own working class background - "My old man worked on the docks" - dismissing Adonis as a silver spooner. This riles him up no end, but there's a conflict inside him; he wants to make it on his own, but at the same needs to prove himself as capable as his father.
Jordan is fantastic as an initially angry young man, tempered by the life lessons of Rocky and the love of aspiring singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson), and once again Stallone proves his doubters wrong, delivering a poignant performance that will have grown men pretending to remove dust from their eyes. The relationship between the two men is heart-warming, filling voids in each other's lives created by absent fathers and sons.
The film does indulge in disease of the week clich├ęs, not once but twice, with Rocky hampered by an illness and Bianca fighting to become a singer before she loses her hearing. But there's no grandstanding here. Both characters simply get on with life, as millions of similarly afflicted working class people do across the world, which makes us root for them all the more.
When Coogler has his privileged black protagonist face off against a white street thug, it's a reminder of the escape from circumstances boxing can provide. In America it offers young black men a chance to be seen as more than such, while in Britain it's a rare chance to escape the shackles of class. Coogler manages to make us consider such dynamics while at the same time delivering old school blockbuster storytelling at its best. For all its insight and thoughtfulness, Creed ultimately has us on our feet rooting for its hero in a thrilling action climax, and when that famous theme finally kicks in at a crucial moment, no movie lover - from the 'one trip to the cinema a year' casual viewer to the snobbiest of critics - will be left unmoved. Micky, Pauly and Adrian would be proud.
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