The producers behind Creed didn't have to get a talented director like Ryan Coogler to write and film it. As a Rocky sequel, Creed has a long-tenured fan base firmly in position and was destined to be a hit regardless of how well made it is. The producers also did not need to recruit Michael B. Jordan to head up the title role. Any attractive and in-shape Black actor would have done the trick, as his main job is to look good in a boxing ring. The key to Creed is that, like Rocky himself, it not only goes the distance but also the extra mile. That is why it is such a wonderful and wonderfully surprising film.
We begin with a troubled-looking young boy who has a penchant for fighting—and winning fights—in the juvenile facility in which he's ended up. He is named Donny, an orphan who has been passed around innumerable foster homes until his exterior has hardened against the world. That is to say, he is like countless children, boys and girls, in the world. One day, a well-to-do, middle-aged woman appears at his facility, claiming to be the wife of his father, who is dead. The boy eventually warms up to the woman after several visits, who asks to adopt him. The boy responds by asking the name of his father. Cue the title, in massive, stone-hewn letters.
Such bold theatricality and showmanship pervades the entire film. Coogler films each scene as if it were his last, lending even boilerplate, exposition-driven conversations a sense of immediacy. The editing, which was sinfully ignored by the Academy, ties the film in a propulsive, witty way. For example, we move to current day Tijuana, where Donny boxes, undefeated, for small-cash prizes. The immediately next scene? "Twelve hours later, Los Angeles." Donny is wearing business casual and sitting in front of a computer in a well appointed office. He then heads home to the sprawling mansion where he lives with his adopted mother. There is no discussion of how Donny got to where he is, because Apollo Creed's standing in popular culture is such that most audiences would know. Coogler's direction and his script fill in the gaps where necessary, but he tells his story chiefly in visual terms, an art that is sorely missed among Hollywood films such as this.
It isn't long before the irrepressible Donny wants to expand his talents to some real boxing matches, and he finds his way into the company of an aged, broken-down Rocky Balboa, still played iconically by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone is an actor whose face and physique speak much better than any amount of dialogue the verbally challenged actor could muster, and he wields both as effectively as he ever did as a much younger man, when he received his first Oscar nomination for playing the same character. Now, at nearly seventy, Stallone is finally more convincing as the old man he actually is, rather than the craggy, effortful action hero into which Hollywood still tries to shape him. He deserves the Oscar nomination he has received every bit as much as he did the first time around.
Although the story moves forward in similar fashion the any of the other Rocky films—complete with tentative romance between the protagonist and a girl from the neighborhood, although this time she is played by the fierce-willed Tessa Thompson rather than Talia Shire's shrinking violet. Coogler's direction and Jordan's performance make Creed the grand entertainment it is. Although there are only two major boxing matches in the film, Coogler films them both with brio, particularly the first one, which is completed in a single, riveting take. He also does the impossible by injecting some new life into the obligatory training montages that the Rocky films made so popular. The rapper Meek Mill is finally put to good use for the first time in his life, musically representing his home city of Philadelphia in the climax of a hugely thrilling, if slightly absurd, jogging scene.
Jordan is proving to be a young, Black Philip Seymour Hoffman, if only in the sense that he is incapable of giving a bad performance, even when he is in garbage like That Awkward Moment and Fantastic Four. Like he did in Coogler's debut, Fruitvale Station, Jordan once again gives us career-best work as Adonis Creed, making him every bit as important a figure in boxing films as Rocky Balboa himself. It is a triumphant moment for Black actors in film, as is the rest of the movie, which also elicits excellent work from Thompson, Phylicia Rashad (as the widow Creed) and even a cameo by Jordan's fellow Wire alum, Wood Harris, as a boxing trainer.
John G. Avildsen gave us a representation of true, working-class Philadelphia in the mid 1970s with the original film. Nearly forty years later, the city is a lot Blacker and lot less Italian than it used to be, a fact that Coogler highlights in celebratory fashion. The city and some of its shabbier parts may not be pretty, but Coogler knows how to make its gunmetal grays sing. You'll be singing, too, as the credits roll.