*** (3 stars)
d – Ryan Coogler
w – Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington (Based on the Characters by Sylvester Stallone)
ph – Maryse Alberti
pd – Hannah Beachler
m – Ludwig Göransson
ed – Claudia Castello, Michael P. Shawver
cos – Antoinette Messam, Emma Potter
p – Robert Chartoff, William Chartoff, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin King Templeton, David Winkler, Irwin Winkler
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Tony Bellew
When it was announced that Ryan Coogler would be directing the next film in the Rocky franchise, many were nonplussed. Looking at Mr Coogler’s only previous film Fruitvale Station (2013), which was a small, serious film about racial potency, one would not assume he’d be interested in this series of macho sports films. Of course, one should never decree they know an artist fully when they’ve made only one previous film. An artist is free to do whatever he or she pleases with their work despite their past creations. And a boxer should be able to make it on his own despite the status of his name, if he or she pleases.
It turns out Mr Coogler is the perfect choice to direct Creed, a conventional but expertly crafted sports film that is certainly the best Rocky film since Rocky (1975). It is obvious immediately – and remains obvious throughout – that the film is the work of a young independent filmmaker, in spite of its Hollywood origins. He shoots the film – with Maryse Alberti, one of the most brilliant cinematographers working today – often in long takes, performances seem organic even if the dialogue isn’t always, and the way he both composes and climatizes the Philadelphia setting feels granular to the point of transcendence.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan, who also starred in Mr Coogler’s previous film and is excellent here) exhausted much of his infanthood walking in and out of group homes. His mother had an affair with Apollo Creed, the boxing champion who was famously Rocky Balboa’s greatest opponent and then close friend. A mysterious woman, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), informs Adonis that she is Creed’s wife and that he is his illegitimate son. She rescues him from a juvenile prison and raises him as her own. One of my favourite things Mr Coogler does with this relationship is never explain why Mary Anne feels she needs to do this. It is personal, and a kind of healing for her pain that no one, including us, would understand.
But of course, Adonis becomes obsessed with boxing, despite now being a responsible adult with a noble job. He makes secret trips to Tijuana to practice in the ring with petty fighters. He eventually takes off to Philadelphia to track down the only man he feels who can train him, the great Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, also excellent). At first Rocky is reluctant to acquiesce, but it typical stubborn-old-trainer fashion, he comes around. Adonis also meets a woman, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), an up-and-coming young musician who is regrettably going deaf.
As you can tell, the melodramatic events that unfold here are nothing pioneering. But that is what’s so refreshingly alluring about Creed. It creeps in, makes you comfortable and goes on to invigorate you with one impressive beat after another. And of course the film culminates in a big final match, like all the previous Rocky's.
It is almost as if Mr Coogler, in acknowledging his clichés, dodges them. For example, the aforementioned long takes that pepper the film, including one entire boxing match covered in a single take, never felt, at least to me, that they were ever calling attention to themselves as directorial advertisements. They move with the action instead of merely flaunting it.
The plot threads of the old and sick trainer and the encouraging girlfriend may seem banal in theory, but here feel somewhat robust. This is because the film is working like clockwork; like a big engine in which every part has been carefully constructed separately and then connected intricately under the eye of the skilled craftsman.
This kind of cinematic approach is never as celebrated as the more personal, naked kind. But in many ways, it is harder. It is harder for an artist to put his/her ego aside, to get out of his/her own way and merely focus on what his/her piece is about. Or, to put it another way: It’s not how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit and still keep moving forward.