Man, oh man, do I love Ryan Coogler’s approach to filmmaking. Plugging in the small-scale indie director behind 2013’s searing Fruitvale Station to reinvigorate the Rocky franchise was a brilliant decision. This method has been tried many times before with disastrous results (Josh Trank, Neill Blomkamp), but this time it is a rare and immediately apparent success. Creed shrewdly lands its hardest punches outside the ring, within the boxer’s friendships. It is proof that in Coogler, we are witnessing the emergence of a true auteur who has a knack for effortless intimacy no matter the budget or scale. The director has said that Creed was just as intensely personal for him as Fruitvale was, and it clearly shows. He teams up again with bona fide star Michael B. Jordan, and the two create a dynamic that is every bit as involving, engrossing and tactile as the heartrending story of Oscar Grant.
You know this isn’t just your average studio product when, after the three logos of major corporations go by, the film begins in a juvenile detention center. It’s an affectionate nod from Coogler to his former career — he worked for years with incarcerated youth before becoming a filmmaker. In this environment we meet a little boy called Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, embroiled in a fistfight over a crack some kid made about his mother. He’s the biological son of Apollo Creed, conceived out of wedlock and a stranger to his mother, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who takes him in shortly after.
Cut to 15 years later and Donnie has grown into the hefty body of Michael B. Jordan, fighting on the side in bare-knuckle matches down in Tijuana, while working a blue collar job in Los Angeles. Deciding he needs to pursue boxing full time to prove himself, he quits and moves to his father’s hometown of Philly to locate his dad’s cornerman — the one, the only Rocky Balboa (the one, the only Sylvester Stallone). He begins a touching relationship with downstairs neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer with progressive hearing loss who tells him, “I’m just trying to do what I love for as long as I can — I think that’s all any of us are trying to do.”
After some persistence, Donny convinces Rocky to come out of retirement to train him, and it’s a real treat watching those montages as they jog up and down the river and pummel the punching bag. Not only because of the joy of seeing Rocky back in action, this time as a trainer, but because of the rather beautiful emotional bond between Stallone and Jordan. Both A-game actors take their time in building their performance detail by detail, and the screenplay is such that the film’s greatest focus is concentrated on the connection between these two. In fact, there are only two boxing matches in the film — but they’re good ones, expertly staged and rousingly cathartic. Thanks to the strength of these two, when Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, the moment is downright devastating. From then on, it’s an I-fight-you-fight kind of deal as Rocky trains Donny and Donny insists he’ll only carry on if Rocky goes through with the chemo. Cue the tears, fist-pumps and whistles. Stallone is back in his prime here, and he deserves notice from the Academy — this dude in the Fedora is the one we all know and love, the same one who captured our hearts back in 1976.
This is an art film that just happens to be a seventh installment and feature a character
named Balboa, but it comes free of all the studio tentpole sheen. Strong box-office should ensue for this baby, but its core is wholly renegade. Scenes are cut together with jumps and freeze frames displaying text alongside a handsome face. Most discussions are shot hand-held and close-up, getting us right up close to the expressive faces of Jordan and Stallone, so that we feel all their nuances. Then when the story enters the ring, Coogler films an entire round in one vibrant, energetic steadicam swoop. In the climactic bout, the kinetics of Raging fricking Bull come to mind. There’s one pivotal moment when our hero gets K-O’d and it looks like he’s down for the count. The shot plays out in painful slow-motion with little insert cuts back to Creed as a child, and it provokes a guttural reaction from everyone in the house.
The real distinguishing factor here is the pervasive humanism of Ryan Coogler. His direction is sensitive and attuned and his script finds the humor and the sorrow in all the ordinary moments. Rocky’s cancer diagnosis stings a real nerve, because Donnie grabs him and ushers him to the toilet, then goes home to Bianca and swings him over his back. Time is made for a dinner conversation between the makeshift family of three, so that Rocky can say he’s a lucky man to know them. Sorry for getting sappy, but this is really sweet, genuinely affecting stuff and it confirms the guiding talent behind it as one of the best of his generation. Once again, with a lot more money and the burden of a franchise on his back, Coogler has made one of the best films of the year — vigorously entertaining and coursing with emotion.
Mark Distefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]