Movie Review: Creed (2015)
It’s just a suggestion at first. Just a few musical notes here and there, reminding you of Bill Conti’s iconic “Rocky” soundtrack. And not just “Gonna Fly Now,” which, besides being a staple for high school bands everywhere, went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts back in 1977. No, I’m talking about glimmers of, say, “Philadelphia Morning” (the somber one, from Rocky’s first out-of-shape run), and “Alone in the Ring” (also somber, when he can’t sleep the night before the big fight), as well as “Going the Distance” (plodding for the fight montage, then rising and triumphant as Rocky is knocked down and gets back up in the 14th round—my favorite, to be honest). Throughout Ryan Coogler’s “Creed,” as Adonis Johnson, or Donnie Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son, tries to make a name for himself—tries to prove, as he says in the end, that he’s not a mistake—we keep getting suggestions of this music.
It’s not until the final round of the climactic boxing match (because the arc of the Rocky universe is long but it bends toward the final round), that we get more than just a suggestion: We get the full, triumphant monty. A.O. Scott reports that in his screening room, at that moment, critics erupted in spontaneous applause. As a veteran of screening rooms, I can let you know: That’s rather unusual. But then all of us have grown up on Rocky.
Together we fill gaps
I keep reading that “Creed” is the best Rocky movie since the original in 1976, but that’s not saying much. The first was great, and, at the time, massively original in being a feel-good Capraesque throwback in an era of cinematic anti-heroes and anti-Christs. “Rocky Balboa,” a lion in winter tale from 2006, is pretty good, too. But the others? The less said, the better.
“Creed,” in fact, almost redeems one of the worst of them, “Rocky IV,” the cartoonish, jingoistic movie in which Apollo Creed is killed during a boxing exhibition with the Russian heavyweight Ivan Drago, setting up Rocky’s “World War III” battle in Russia. It gives Apollo’s final moments a seriousness, and a kind of dignity, they never had in the original. In a way, Coogler does to it what Coppola did to Mario Puzo’s trashy novel.
“Creed” begins with a fight in a juvenile detention facility in L.A. in 1998. A woman (Phylicia Rashad, the third actress to play Mary Anne Creed) comes to visit the troublesome boy, and lets him know she’s the wife of the father he never knew. “What was his name?” the boy eventually asks, and that’s when we cut to the title in big block letters, a la “Rocky.” But not scrolling across the screen. Just there. It’s a nice open. Then we get the equivalent of the Spider Rico fight: a now-adult Adonis in Tijuana, Mexico, clobbering a guy in one or two rounds. Twelve hours later, he’s back at work at a financial consulting firm; but when he gets promoted, he quits. He’s got fighting in his blood.
At this point I’m thinking, “Wait, why does Adonis need to travel to Philly to have Rocky train him? He’s Apollo Creed’s son—anyone would jump at the chance.” But his mom, in cahoots with the son of Apollo’s trainer, makes sure no one in LA will touch him. That’s why Philly.
As for why Rocky? It’s probably more than the fact that he’s the two-time heavyweight champ. Early on, we see Adonis watching the Bicentennial superfight, and mimicking the movements. But he’s mimicking Rocky; he’s beating on his father. The man who never married his mother and never knew him. His feelings about his father, as we say today, are complicated; and in Philly, Rocky becomes a father figure for him. He calls him “Unc.”
The key to a good Rocky movie is in the relationships, and “Creed” goes the distance here. Rocky, still running his restaurant, and now bereft of all of his supporting cast—Paulie, Adrian, Apollo and Mickey—is reluctant to take on Apollo’s son. He tried training in the past (“Rocky V”); didn’t work (both ways). But Adonis keeps at him, “like a woodpecker” Rocky says with a smile; and one day after visiting Paulie and Adrian’s graves, reading to them from the newspaper, he gets a look on his face, and returns to Mighty Mick’s Gym, where Adonis is training under the name Don Johnson. At first nobody gets it: Why does the champ care about this black kid, who calls him “Unc”? After his first professional fight, word gets out about who he really is.
Adonis’ other key relationship in the movie is with, Bianca (Tessa Thompson of “Dear White People”), the woman in the apartment downstairs, and it feels more than just the sidebar romance. Coogler handles these quiet moments so well. He makes them smart and tender. The way he shows you how people can get under each other’s skin gets under your skin. These scenes are also fun in a Lois and Clark kind of way: We’re waiting for Bianca to find out Don is not just another kid from the neighborhood. When she meets Adonis’ uncle, her first comment is “You’re white.” (“For a while now,” Rocky nods.) But she knows. To Adonis, she says, kind of starry-eyed, “When were you going to tell me your uncle was Rocky Balboa?”
Was you on a cruise or something?
Should we get into the race issue here? Coogler, who’s African-American, has stated over and over that he wanted to do this movie as an homage to his father, who loved the “Rocky” movies, particularly “Rocky II.” Then there’s Eddie Murphy’s take. You do wonder how much the success of the “Rocky” series owes to white audiences thrilling at a white man reclaiming territory long yielded to black men in real life. Coogler has to be aware of this, even as he sets about reclaiming that territory in fiction again. Because we are our fictions.
Yet there’s a great respect for the original movies. The references are everywhere: Mighty Mick’s, turtles, the chicken-catching thing, the one-armed push-ups, “Women weaken legs.” Seriously, has any movie series been as carefully catalogued and self-referenced as the “Rocky” series? Before this, though, it was a self-contained world. It felt too much in Stallone’s head and heart. Coogler opens the windows on this universe without knocking anything over; he just lets the fresh air in.
He lets the air into Stallone, too. Good god, maybe Sly just needed a better director all of these years. Rocky has a line in the locker room, where he’s talking about all that he’s lost (“Everything I got has moved on”), and his voice breaks, and it’s just heartfelt and beautiful. Stallone is now the same age that Burgess Meredith was when he first played Mickey, for which he was then nominated best supporting actor. There’s talk, not unjustified, that Stallone might get the same treatment. He might even win. He’s certainly got sympathy on his side, and it would be a shocking turnaround after decades of Razi awards. The whole end of his career was a million-to-one shot.
There are mistakes. I would’ve abandoned the “12 O’Clock Boys” motorbike racers zipping alongside Adonis during his final run—as if they were the kids in “Rocky II.” Doesn’t work. Apparently Stallone also foisted the stars-and-stripes boxing trunks upon Coogler, and thus Adonis, for the final bout with “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (well-acted, by the way, by three-time ABA heavyweight champ Tony Bellew); but it muddies the thematic waters. Adonis is worried about embarrassing the name, and wearing the trunks would exacerbate that. Hell, his father died in those trunks—and his widow sends a facsimile version to her adopted son before his title match? Makes no sense. Plus Rocky urges Adonis to fight for the very reason Ivan Drago is vilified in “IV”: for himself.
Is there too much drama before the fight? Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, Adonis doesn’t like being called “Baby Creed” and decks Bianca’s headliner (she’s a singer, of course). But I’ll take drama that creates the fight rather than drama that prevents the fight, as in “Rocky II” (he’ll go blind), “III” (he’s lost the eye of the tiger) and “V” (he’ll die).
We don’t get the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum until the very end—after the title bout—when Adonis walks alongside a cancer-ridden Rocky Balboa up those steps again. Adonis urges them up those steps. It’s touching. What those steps mean and how often we’ve returned to them. Has any character, played by the same actor, and allowed to age, been with us as long as Rocky Balboa?