I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who scoffed at the prospect of another Rocky movie. Much like Bruce Willis with John McClane, I felt that Mr. Stallone wandered a bit too far into the outlandish with the Rocky character.
But now, nine years after the last installment, Stallone passes the writing and directing torch to Ryan Coogler to helm Creed, the story of Adonis Johnson Creed, son of the fallen Apollo (who died in Rocky IV). In contrast to the near-cartoonish reality of the later Rocky movies, Coogler brings the series back down to earth, and the movie is all the better for it.
“Donnie” Johnson hates his father, despising his total absence since Donnie’s birth. All he has from Apollo is a prolific boxing legacy, a comparison and relation that Donnie has no desire for. Yet, though he uses his mother’s name, he loves boxing. Though he spends his weekends in Tijuana throwing amateur blows, Johnson wants to fight in the big leagues, but no one wants to train him in his L.A. hometown. Determined to forge his own future in boxing, Donnie travels to Philly to convince Apollo’s old rival, Rocky Balboa, to train him.
Johnson’s story parallels Balboa’s. Both started out as underdogs, relative nobodies. They both meet and court a nice girl (in Johnson’s case, it’s the beautiful and talented Bianca). Also, both are given a shot to go the distance and fight the best in the world.
While I’m usually disdainful of remakes, the film’s performances more than make up for the evident formula at play. Key to any Rocky movie is its heart, and even though Coogler’s writing doesn’t allow the film to wear it on its sleeve, it’s still there. Donnie’s inferiority complex makes the film a little more guarded, a little more raw, but the emotional payoff is just as satisfying, especially when he shares screen time with Balboa.
Speaking of Stallone, his performance in Creed is nothing short of wonderful. Even though this is technically Jordan’s movie, there’s just as much story devoted to his beloved boxing icon. And Stallone wastes no minute of it. Physically, he’s not in the ring anymore but with the deaths of his wife and best friend, Rocky starts to question his own mortality. What we get is a melancholy powerhouse of subtlety and range, where we can see the age and weariness and loneliness of a man whose glory is now behind him. For someone who’s baby was appropriated by another director, Stallone gives one of the best performances of his career.
Not to say that director Coogler is unworthy to take up the mantle. With Creed, Coogler again shows off his directing prowess. Coogler takes the documentary-like observation he originated in Fruitvale Station (which I enjoyed), and shoots in a way that is bold, yet unobtrusive or distracting. He films the actors in long, uninterrupted takes, allowing them to showcase their acting prowess (or boxing skills) to the fullest. He also really captures the scene of present-day Philly, a city which has no shortage of personality.
This film’s biggest testament is that it could survive without being part of the “Rocky” franchise. Even without Stallone, I suppose the movie could have stood alone purely on the strength of its performances and story, which is what I expect sequels and spinoffs to do. Yet Rocky is here, and the film, like its protagonist, makes its own legacy and honors its predecessors with bravado.