This review contains spoilers.
Last summer, I was talking with a friend about Dear White People, and its lead, Tessa Thompson. The conversation led us to her IMDB page, where we discovered her next outing would be in Creed; yet another movie in the Rocky series. We rolled our eyes at what seemed a cynical money-making exercise, and I suggested (only half-joking) that Thompson should fire her agent.
But what I missed was that Ryan Coogler was attached to this project. He’s the man who directed Fruitvale Station, a stunning debut that told the harrowing story of Oscar Grant, which starred Michael B. Jordan. Coogler and Jordan – a pairing we’re likely to see more of – have teamed up again, as Jordan portrays Adonis “Donnie” Creed, son of Apollo; former nemesis turned (deceased) friend of Rocky Balboa.
The product of an extra-marital affair, Donnie is an orphan, as his mother also passed away. An angry, rootless child, he is taken in by Mary Anne, Apollo’s widow. A life of economic privilege hasn’t caused the adult Donnie’s anger to dim. Rejecting a secure white-collar existence, he relocates to Philadelphia, with the express purpose of getting Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa to train him as a professional boxer.
Donnie is an attentive, if impatient pupil, and he latches onto Rocky as a surrogate father figure. Watch how Jordan deliberately modulates his performance. Whenever interacting with Rocky, his demeanour visibly softens. He also softens when interacting with his neighbour, Bianca (played by Thompson); a local singer with progressive hearing loss.
If you’ve never seen a Rocky movie before, you’ll have seen them all after watching Creed. It follows the pattern of the earlier films, with a few humourous callbacks.
Creed is a story about loss. It’s the underlying theme of the entire Rocky series. Whether it’s Donnie’s sense of self, his search to belong, or his fights in the ring, the narrative is how does one cope with loss? The same is true of Bianca, who despite her hearing impairment, chooses a career that relies upon something she won’t have for much longer.
Meanwhile, the unceasing torrent of time has worn away at the edifice of “The Italian Stallion”. Rocky is existing, rather than living. He’s lost everyone close to him from the previous movies, and is weighed down with guilt, due to his role in Apollo’s death.
I suspect Rocky agrees to tutor Donnie because he’s not sure if he’s lived a good life. Donnie is his last chance. Conversely, Rocky is Donnie’s. These are two lost men to try to save themselves with the help of the other.
While I feel the plaudits for Stallone have been hyperbolic, he does give an impressive performance. It’s easily forgotten that Rocky Balboa has been a part of his life for five decades. Stallone knows Rocky, and Creed wouldn’t have resonated as strongly without him. He remains as guileless and endearing as ever. Dave Zirin said of Stallone; “…when the film ended, I didn’t want to give him an Oscar. I wanted to give him a hug.”
Along with cinematographer, Maryse Alberti, Coogler does excellent work helming the boxing sequences – which augurs well for when he begins work on Black Panther. Donnie’s first (official) fight is masterfully done. In one unbroken take, we become intimately acquainted with the mechanics of the sport.
These aren’t indiscriminate punches. Every fist that’s swung is part of a larger story; the way one’s neck is rocked backwards from a jab, or the specific pain that comes from being hit to the body. It’s one of the finest boxing scenes ever filmed.
The climactic fight, however, is more redolent of an exaggerated Hollywood action scene. Donnie faces the world’s foremost boxer, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by Tony Bellew) – one of numerous real-life boxers in the film – and like the Bond theme in Casino Royale, we don’t hear the franchise’s iconic score until our character has earned it.
As with all boxing stories, the topic of masculinity is omnipresent. If the tempestuous and patriarchal Conlan wasn’t so desperate to humiliate Donnie, he’d probably win their battle easily. While Donnie’s path to manhood is through boxing, he doesn’t see boxing as a way to prove himself a man (at least, not most of the time). Bianca’s presence is a key factor in this. The scenes between them are tenderly rendered, and Coogler deserves credit for ensuring Creed wasn’t just about men displaying aggression, but also love.
However, we can’t ignore that while Thompson is always a welcome presence – and she did a fine job, adroitly managing the Philly accent – it’s another example of a light-skinned black female love interest. Also, while the love story was well-executed, it felt a little incongruous, as this film is more plot-driven than character-driven. Although I’d love to see Coogler make a straight-up romance story in the future.
The movie arrived in Britain off the back of many positive reviews, and while I enjoyed it, I think it never rises above enjoyable popcorn fare. Because the story is so well-worn, elements of it feel contrived, and one wonders if studio executives only financed it to chase the potential dollars from relaunching the Rocky franchise?
That said, the fact that Creed is a mainstream film should please all who want to see the medium break away from its homogeneity. Because Ryan Coogler is doing what white (largely male) filmmakers have been doing for generations.
He’s also well aware that he can’t use Philadelphia as a backdrop for Donnie’s journey the way it was used for Rocky. Balboa may be an avatar of the city, but its black citizens mediate with it in a different way, underscored by the movie’s opening shot.
The environs are given depth by the inclusion of black teens on dirt bikes; a common Philadelphia sub-culture. In the training run scene, they flank him, playing the role of votaries. This makes complete sense in the Rocky universe, because while Balboa was a hero to white fans, Apollo would surely have been an icon to black kids, so it’s axiomatic they would be invested in the success of his progeny.
The script also makes mention of how boxing remains one of the few arenas where black men can escape poverty, even though, as Ashley Clark observed, boxing movies seldom have black heroes. These salutary sidebars are the result when mainstream stories have a black lens.
My fears last summer were unfounded. Creed is a considerable addition to the filmography of all involved. And Tessa Thompson should definitely not fire her agent.
P.S. Many felt Creed was unfairly overlooked for recognition at this year’s Oscars, and it would be myopic to not consider how #OscarsSoWhite is an agent in its omission. But it’s equally germane to remember the presence of Oscars doesn’t confer relevance onto a movie like 12 Years a Slave, no more than their absence repudiates the brilliance of Selma. As Ava DuVernay said after last year’s ceremony, the Oscars are nothing but “a big room in L.A.”
 – And we finally find out (or do we?) who won this fight.
 – I loved seeing Andre Ward in this, who if not for injury, would probably be boxing’s pound-for-pound king right now. He took Carl Froch to school back in 2011.
 – Think how Philadelphia has a real-life statue to honour Balboa, but doesn’t have one for legendary boxer, and Philly native, Joe Frazier.
 – Remember this routine from Eddie Murphy?
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