Coogler revitalised the Rocky franchise with his second collaboration with lead actor Michael B Jordan. It’s nothing short of exhilarating, with fluid and immersive fight scenes, as well as a surprisingly emotional arc for Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa. With a third Creed film due in cinemas later this year (directed by Jordan), there’s no better time to revisit this origin story.
There are several things that demonstrate the deftness with which director Ryan Coogler handles even the hoariest tropes of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky franchise, but the most prominent is his approach to Bill Conti’s iconic theme song, a marriage of orchestral pomp and brass-driven disco that topped the Billboard Hot 100 at around the same time that Stallone’s underdog boxing saga staged its own upset victory at the 1977 Academy Awards. Though reworked versions of Conti’s theme appear in the five sequels (four of them directed by Stallone) over the next three decades, it receives a more playful overhaul in Creed, Coogler’s surprisingly thoughtful and stylish reboot-slash-generational-torch-passing. Along with its inevitable use as a sample in a hip-hop track, trace elements recur throughout Ludwig Göransson’s score, which is unusually restrained for a movie that otherwise strives to hit all the beats required of a Hollywood sports drama.
Indeed, Conti’s blustery fanfare doesn’t arrive in full force until Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) approaches the ring for the climactic fight wearing a pair of stars-and-stripes shorts, just like his dad Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in Rocky I (1976), II (1979), III (1982) and IV (1985). It reappears one last time in a quieter, jazzier incarnation as Adonis and Rocky make their inevitable journey up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By this time, Coogler has had many more opportunities to impress, having revitalised a seemingly decrepit movie property and elicited a little grace from the old Expendable himself, who gives a much richer performance as the elderly Rocky than he did in Rocky Balboa (2006), his own stab at a franchise coda and potential restart.
Even viewers who have less patience with boxing-pic clichés must concede that Coogler – as the maker of a well-regarded American indie who’s been enlisted to perform artistic CPR on a dubious studio project – has survived a scenario that has tripped up many other young directors. He again gets strong assistance from Jordan, his lead in Fruitvale Station (2013), a Sundance prizewinner that followed the final hours of a young Californian before his death at the hands of a transit cop. While Jordan plausibly channels the braggadocio that was Weathers’s forte, his Adonis is far more nuanced than Apollo ever was, which is not so hard, since the latter was essentially a cartoon version of Muhammad Ali minus Islam and politics. For one thing, Adonis is unabashedly sensitive, getting teary several times and successfully wooing his boho neighbour without resorting to smooth talk.
The fact that Adonis remains a convincingly formidable fighter who values personal fortitude over false fronts of street cred makes the character the very model of manhood for the age of Drake. Parallels between Coogler’s hero and the ubiquitous Canadian rapper also extend to tricky matters of class and privilege. As a product of foster homes as well as the Creed family fortune, Adonis doesn’t share the straightforward started-from-the-bottom narrative arc that’s typical of underdog sports-drama heroes. (Drake has faced the same issue, having grown up in an upper-class neighbourhood in Toronto and entered showbiz as an actor on a teen TV show.) In some respects, he’s an alien on the rough streets of north Philly, where Rocky sends him to train. It’s a testament to Coogler’s faith in the strength of Adonis’s central crisis – in which he must grapple with the legacy of the father he never met and prove he deserves the famous surname – that he doesn’t contrive a real threat to his economic status. Evidently, failure for this hero means a retreat to mom’s mansion.
Another smart update is the decision by Coogler and his DP Maryse Alberti to eschew a high-speed cutting style in favour of Alfonso Cuarón-style long travelling shots, used to exhilarating effect in the first fight scene. Elsewhere, they make a big slo-mo moment seem bigger by having Adonis run alongside members of an urban dirt-bike gang of the kind seen tearing up Baltimore in Lofty Nathan’s documentary 12 O’Clock Boys (2013).
Creed is less fleet-footed in other respects, occasionally becoming bogged down by the preponderance of training montages and the initially tender but ultimately perfunctory romantic storyline. But to anyone who prefers the crowdpleasing bravura of Rocky II and III over the unpalatable mix of faux grit and uncut schmaltz in all the other instalments (including the overrated original), Coogler’s effort punches far above its weight.
Jason Anderson, Sight & Sound, February 2016
Director: Ryan Coogler
©: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
A Chartoff Winkler production
This project was made possible with the support of: The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Film Office
This project was completed with assistance from the: Music & Digital Entertainment Office Georgia Film, a division of the Georgia Department of Economic Development
This production participated in the: New York State Governor’s Office for Motion Picture & Television Development’s Post Production Credit Program
Presented by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc, Warner Bros. Pictures
In association with: New Line Cinema
Executive Producer: Nicolas Stern
Produced by: Irwin Winkler, Robert Chartoff, Charles Winkler, Billy Chartoff, David Winkler, Kevin King-Templeton, Sylvester Stallone
Unit Production Manager: Barbara Kelly
Production Accountant: Kevin Landry
Location Manager: Patricia Taggart
Post-production Supervisor: Nathalie Samanon
1st Assistant Director: Donald L. Sparks
Script Supervisor: Robb Foglia
Casting by: Francine Maisler, Kathleen Driscoll-Mohler
Screenplay by: Ryan Coogler, Aaron Covington
Story by: Ryan Coogler
Based on characters created by: Sylvester Stallone
Director of Photography: Maryse Alberti
A Camera Operator: Benjamin Semanoff
Steadicam Operator: Benjamin Semanoff
Stills Photographer: Barry Wetcher
Visual Effects Supervisors: John P. Nugent, Alison O’Brien
Visual Effects by: Sandbox FX Inc., BigHug FX Inc., East Side Effects Inc.
Special Effects Co-ordinator: Patrick Edward White
Editors: Michael P. Shawver, Claudia Castello
Production Designer: Hannah Beachler
Art Director: Jesse Rosenthal
Costume Designers: Emma Potter, Antoinette Messam
Department Head Make-up: Corey Castellano
Department Head Hair: Rita Parillo
Title Designer: Richie Adams
Main and End Titles: River Road Creative
End Crawl: Scarlet Letters
Original Score and Songs: Ludwig Göransson
Orchestra Conducted by: Pete Anthony
Orchestrations by: Jeff Atmajian, Henri Wilkinson, Erik Arvinder, Per Gunnar Juliusson
Production Sound Mixer: Damian Canelos
Re-recording Mixers: Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor
Supervising Sound Editor: Benjamin A. Burtt
Stunt Co-ordinator: Clayton Barber
Boxing Consultants: Jack Reiss, Greg Sirb, Bob Bennett
Unit Publicist: Frances Fiore
Michael B. Jordan (Adonis Johnson Creed)
Sylvester Stallone (Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa)
Tessa Thompson (Bianca)
Phylicia Rashad (Mary Anne Creed)
Anthony Bellew (‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan)
Graham McTavish (Tommy Holiday)
Andre Ward (Danny Wheeler, ‘Stuntman’)
Ritchie Costner (Pete Sporino)
Jacob ‘Stitch’ Duran (Stitch)
Malik Bazille (Amir)
Ricardo ‘Padman’ McGill (Padman)
Gabriel Rosado (Leo Sporino, ‘The Lion’)
CLOSE-UP: RYAN COOGLER
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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