I may not have seen all the Star Wars films, but I've watched all the films in the Rocky franchise. That counts for something, right? Having gone through the entire saga of small-time boxer turned superstar, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), the series ran its course after the 2006 "farewell," Rocky Balboa. Since then, the Rocky series has opened itself up to parody and critique - remember when Rocky singlehandedly ended the Cold War?
Personally, I always found the story of Rocky's long-standing opponent, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) to have the more interesting plot. Creed was a superstar boxer unable to deal with the challenges to his masculinity, the fleeting nature of fame, and the passage of time. He was a character who, unlike Rocky, was never satisfied and didn't know when to say when. All of this opens the door for director Ryan Coogler's continuation/spin-off film, Creed. An attempt to reinvigorate Rocky fans while passing the torch onto someone new, Creed's rhythm and strength leave a tactile impression on the audience that'll stop your heart.
The illegitimate son of boxer Apollo Creed, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) has spent his entire life fighting, both for respect and a means of separating himself from his absent father. Determined to become a boxer, the young man enlists the help of Rocky Balboa (Stallone) in order to get Adonis the respect he hopes for.
Coogler's previous experience directing Fruitvale Station - starring Creed's lead, the magnificent Michael B. Jordan - lays the groundwork for what soars in Creed. Coogler conveys the nature of the streets and the blind desire to preserve family honor while making something that's individual and unique. Adonis aka "Donnie" doesn't want the association with the Creed name, as he fears it'll give others reasons to compare or lampoon his success and failures.
It's acclaim that produces a double-edged sword, particularly when it works towards getting him a title fight with "Pretty" Ricky Conlon (Tony Bellew) who wants the chance to beat the immortal Creed name. When Donnie finally reveals why he's so determined to make it, it's just another layer in the convoluted world of fathers and sons that the Rocky franchise has flirted with over the decades. In fact, it acknowledges this film's own placement within the canon - wanting to be a part of the franchise, while seeking to forge its own identity.
Coogler's script is so multilayered that to discuss all the different roads traveled in its nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime would require an essay. Uninterested with resting on the tale of a fading pugilist training a young fighter - better known as the plot of Rocky V - Coogler draws a series of characters all fighting for something while simultaneously embracing the here and now.
By its very nature fighting has a shelf-life and the Rocky franchise has always had an awareness and embrace of time and mortality and it's these moments that draw out the strongest emotional beats. Sylvester Stallone, too often the subject of criticism and mired in weak performances reminds us of how vital the Rocky character is to his persona. Rocky elaborating on why living leaves him with a stagnant existence in a world where too many people he loves are dead and gone is amazing, and will remind the audience how old they were when the franchise first started. Stallone gives an acting performance many are considering a serious contender for Best Supporting Actor.
The rest of the characters are all beautifully elaborated on, with many stories intersecting and personalities dancing in sync. Even our villain, Bellew's Ricky Conlon doesn't come off as a mindless Ivan Drago, fighting to keep a roof over his children's head. Outside of a brief, on-the-nose summation of Adonis Creed's character at the beginning - "He's a good kid; he just fights, all the time" - Michael B. Jordan astounds as Adonis Creed. He injects new lifeblood into the Rocky series, and Rocky as a character, while forging his own path as a serious actor and presence. He's a beast during the various fight sequences, sweet opposite Tessa Thompson, and infuses the character with nuance and emotion that could easily be lost or overdone. Jordan's an actor who could easily carry the franchise into new directions if he chooses, and the film opens up that possibility without exploiting it.
The series has received its fair share of discussion regarding women, and Tessa Thompson's performance as Bianca is one of packed with complexity on par with our male leads. Bianca is more than just the girl sitting ringside looking concerned and elated, ready to mop the sweat from her lover's brow. A singer with degenerative hearing loss, Bianca embraces what she has in the moment, preparing for the transition to a world without noise. The fact that we have a disabled character alone intrigues but, much like Rocky, Bianca embraces the empherality of the present. Thompson has turned in a cadre of consistently great performances and she elevates what could have been a one-note character in a three-dimensional woman.
Creed works on a variety of levels but none of this depth works without the film's deliberately methodical pacing. The boxing sequences are parceled out, possibly leading those expecting several drawn-out sequences of brutal beatdowns dissatisfied, with the intention of earning the finale's outcome. There are several brilliantly placed moments of human interaction between the characters (it's a nitpick, but there I wanted more scenes between Jordan and Apollo Creed's wife, played by Phylicia Rashad). By the time Adonis actually steps inside a ring, it's a true test of his mettle.
The actual fight scenes are fantastic, brutally shot without remorse. Actually, nearly every moment in this film is shot gorgeously, courtesy of cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Whether it's the introduction of Ricky Conlon to the ring - complete with slow-motion fire and fog to terrify - or a quieter lead-in to the opening credits, the interplay of cinematography and editing is just top-notch and shake you. The score here, which includes the popular Rocky theme and other musical callbacks to the original series, is also awards worthy.
In a year filled with remakes and reboots that beat the fact into your head, Creed takes the simpler route of injecting moments from the previous films without constantly belaboring the point and half the fun is whether you notice them or not.
Creed works perfectly as a standalone film and as a continuation of a grander series. Stallone, Jordan and Thompson are all fantastic but the grand maestro at the helm is director and screenwriter Ryan Coogler who creates something more than the tired tale of a pugilist. If you thought the year's best films were done, or that the awards race was tied up, Creed throws a monkey wrench into everything with its indomitable will, found in both its characters and its narrative.