Ryan Coogler lets his camera float like a butterfly and his performers sting like bees in stunning final Rocky instalment.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 135 minutes
Technically “Rocky VII,” Creed is the first film in the 40-year-old Rocky franchise not to be penned by Sylvester Stallone, but while it is light on the rivalry between the boxers and is in many subtle ways unlike its predecessors, this is a staggering work of art.
The main reason lies with director Ryan Coogler, the 29-year-old wunderkind whose pulverising début feature, Fruitvale Station, was a runaway success at the 2013 Sundance and Cannes film festivals, where it won top awards at both: the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award at the former, the special jury prize for début films entitled “Prix de l’avenir” in the prestigious Un certain regard section at the latter. To Creed, Coogler brings visual poetry during the action scenes, and from his two leads – Michael B. Jordan and Stallone himself – he draws forceful performances wholly untainted by the sentiment the story requires almost by definition.
Opening in what appears to be a juvenile detention centre in Los Angeles in 1998, the film introduces us to the young Adonis Johnson, who gets into trouble on a regular basis. He is the son of Apollo Creed, who so memorably defeated Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) at the end of the first film and went on to become friends with him until his death in the ring in Rocky IV.
Although Adonis never knew his father, who died a few months before the birth of his illegitimate son, Creed’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), turns up to adopt him. He spends the next 17 years in her care, rising in the world of LA finance while making nocturnal trips across the border to fight in Tijuana. Then, one day, he decides to give it all up and focus full-time on his boxing. Understandably, Mary Anne is none too pleased. Adonis then takes things to the next level by travelling to Philadelphia to solicit the help of Rocky Balboa, and in the very first scene between these two men, one a seasoned prize fighter nearly 70 years old, the other a brash and well-pedigreed but entirely inexperienced amateur, the acting takes our breath away.
Coogler’s talent for bringing out the best in his actors should not come as a surprise to anyone who saw his first film, and despite the much larger budget he had at his disposal for Creed, his focus on acting delivers Stallone’s best performance in many a decade along with yet another very well-crafted portrayal by Jordan. In the end, this film is all about the play by the actors and between the characters, as the story itself, stretched over 135 minutes, has some weak spots (a love story that seems a little too “meant-to-be”) and basically builds up to the big final fight with little meat up to that point, late in the film, when the Rocky theme song stirs us to our bones.
The structure takes its form from the formula, in that our main character is a young boxer who has to beat the odds to bring down the best of the best. The latter in this case is world light heavyweight champion Ricky Conlan, who is about to retire but is looking for one last brawl. Luckily, Stallone knows the ropes, and he is firmly in Adonis’s corner, because it gives him a very definite purpose at this point towards the end of his life.
Complementing the fine examples of acting is a masterful visual style that does not have the usual highlights nor moments of stasis but instead raises the bar throughout. Besides the two attention-grabbing Steadicam shots – the first is the opening shot, the second is the “entering the ring” scene that visually recalls Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, perhaps the greatest boxing film of all time – Coogler also stages his fights with breathtaking flair by shooting them up close (the camera appears to be inside the ring, although there clearly has to be some visual trickery), yet the movements are always graceful, even feather-like, and utterly mesmerising.
While not forgoing it completely, Coogler heavily alters the classic training montage – a staple of the Rocky films – by making it less sentimental. He does this by using the rap song “Bridging the Gap” by Nas, which very appropriately concerns the relationship between a father and son, on the soundtrack instead of Bill Conti’s celebrated theme song, and he also highlights the exercise and the struggle while mostly abandoning the sickly-sweet-trajectory-towards-a-crescendo structure this sequence used to have in previous instalments. The changes make this a very different film from its predecessors, but it remains grounded in tradition thanks to the presence and dedication of Stallone as the irreplaceable Rocky.
The only place where the film trips up is during a wholly unnecessary alternating montage between Creed and Conlan, which seems superfluous and too conventional for this entry that in so many other respects departs from tradition.
Creed could easily have been a contrived piece of storytelling about one man’s desire to rid himself of his father’s ghost while embracing his own talents – exactly the point where his character overlaps with that of his father, whom he never knew. One need look no further than the Stallone–De Niro boxing film Grudge Match for evidence that the ride can be wobbly even when the talent is good.
Instead, it turns out to be a bravura work of art that once again affirms the undeniable talent of this director who has not even turned 30 yet and has already produced two towering works of stimulation for the senses and the intellect. Stallone delivers one of the finest performances of his career, and Michael B. Jordan should now feature on everyone’s list of actors to sign up.