Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan, Tessa Thompson
Director: Ryan Coogler
The Rocky film series has been a mixed bag since the initial movie was released in 1976. The first film was a hit with critics and audiences, getting ten Oscar nominations including two for Stallone in the categories of Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay, and going on to win three including Best Picture and undoubtedly helping Stallone launch his career. Since then the movie series became a victim of its own success with subsequent sequels sticking to a strict formula (lose, train, emotional scene, win) before the poorly received Rocky V seemed to end story of the Italian Stallion. However in 2006 the entertaining Rocky Balboa was released to a positive reception and exceeded box office expectations, becoming a surprise hit and rejuvenating Stallone’s career.
Creed, the next instalment of the franchise, focuses on Adonis, a young fighter and illegitimate son of Rocky’s former opponent and later good friend Apollo Creed, who passed away in the fourth film during a boxing match. Adonis, having been raised by Apollo’s widow, decides to pursue a career as a boxer and tracks down a retired Rocky to ask for his help in training him. Rocky reluctantly agrees and, after the secret of Adonis’ parentage is revealed, a fight with the current champion is scheduled. The story sounds familiar to any fan of the previous six films yet more substance is added as the movie tackles father, ageing and health issues along the journey to the title fight.
The story is well-paced and thought-provoking while the acting is as strong, if not stronger, than anything we have seen from the Rocky series. Jordan plays his part perfectly as a young man living in the shadow of the father he never knew and Stallone gives a possible career best performance in a role that is both familiar and yet not. Halfway through the movie Rocky is diagnosed with cancer and the following scenes in which the character confronts his mortality are wonderfully subtle and true to life.
Balboa has always been a character audiences can relate to and, as an underdog, we always want him to succeed. Seeing a far more vulnerable side to a previously unstoppable character that has always overcome any obstacle, no matter what the odds, is not only a clever way to refresh a franchise but also an opportunity for Stallone to prove his worth as an actor. People often forget that Stallone is both a capable performer and an intelligent artist despite proving it several times including his performance in Copland and his multiple award nominations for the first Rocky screenplay. Watching him as Rocky, a familiar character who we love, tear up as he recalls how cancer took his wife is stark, shocking and powerful.
It’s not just the emotional beats of the story that director Coogler manages to execute on film as the action scenes are fantastically choreographed and the final fight is as strong as any boxing match created for the big screen. Coogler manages to keep the action clear yet frantic and even the training montages are given a new lease of life as the underlying themes of the film are explored. In the first montage Balboa shows his age as he spends most of his time reading a newspaper as Adonis sweats away next to him while the obligatory second training scene is inter-cut with images of an ill Rocky being helped to the toilet and receiving chemotherapy. This clever juxtaposition adds depth to these scenes which could easily have come across as tired and familiar in this ageing franchise.
Yes, the basic structure of the film is as you would expect but a mixture of strong and often subtle performances (including the expanded cast), a tight story, clever direction and a combination of fresh spins and homages to the franchise elevate this into a highly recommended movie for fans and newcomers alike.