I'm Not a Mistake: Creed (2015)
Creed is a movie that, by any metric on paper, shouldn’t work. A seventh entry in the Rocky franchise, which in basic setup retreads some ground from the worst-regarded sequel (Rocky V), creates a new character to base the narrative around, and takes the bulk of the action back to present-day Philadelphia, with a broken down, lonely Rocky Balboa. It, like Adonis Creed, shouldn’t have a chance in hell.
But Ryan Coogler, Michael B. Jordan (in the title role), Sylvester Stallone, and Tessa Thompson built a story together that doesn’t shy away from any of those aspects that might make Creed creaky or a retread. It uses every one of them — an up-and-coming protégé we’ve never heard of looking for a mentor, revisiting a Philadelphia that’s left Rocky behind, and remembers every piece of the series that came before as simple history to reference for context.
Creed takes that history and weighs down Donnie’s shoulders with it, a shadow he’s lived under but never fully understood: setting his age appropriately so that Apollo’s death comes just before his birth, the film packs Adonis with baggage that comes from never knowing a parent, losing your only family young, and growing up angry at the whole world for it. The only kindness he’s ever known is in Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), and together they share a bond through common loss, seeing the other as the only connection to the towering champion missing from their lives.
The weight of legacy hangs over the rest of the film, and even for the other characters. Rocky’s restaurant seems to be on the downslide, and everyone’s either left him or passed away. Bianca (Tessa Thompson in a fantastic performance) focuses intensely on building her music career to try to outpace the hearing loss she’s already begun to experience. Even Ricky Conlan, the “champ” Donnie eventually faces, approaches their climactic bout as a means of cementing his hold on the title for his weight class.
In taking the issues that drag Adonis down, and translating them to the other major characters’ circumstances, Coogler smartly streamlines a good deal of characterization and narrative so that the focus can remain on building up, tearing down, and rebuilding Donnie Johnson into Adonis “Hollywood” Creed. Donnie’s introduction in Creed first shows him handily winning Tijuana cash fights, taking out his repressed aggression on his opponent. Feeling he needs to move into his father’s line of work, he all but abandons the cushy office work life he’s set up for himself, approaches Apollo’s old training gym for instruction…and falls flat immediately after talking a big game just like his old man would have.
Getting laid out as flatly as he laid underground fighters in Mexico, losing his classic muscle car in the wager of the practice bout, and having fallen out with his surrogate mother, Donnie ups stakes and makes his last-ditch effort to get trained by Apollo’s closest friend, Rocky Balboa.
The two share a similar sense of loss though mutual connection to Apollo, but the dynamic is apart from the Donnie/Mary Ann one: Rocky is more than willing to discuss Apollo, and their history, with Donnie, while we never see Mary Ann do so. Donnie offers Rocky a renewed connection to friendship, family, and respectability, that he’s missed since Paulie passed away between entries. In Donnie, Rocky sees just as much chance to get a do-over with his approach to training Apollo, and Donnie sees the person who could most ably help him achieve his goals: Proving that he didn’t just inherit the name, but that he’s worthy of it. And it’s incredibly telling of this structure that Adonis doesn’t ever call himself a Creed until the final fight is over.
Those fights are excellently choreographed and exceptionally shot, as well—outside of the most notable, “single take” midpoint fight, Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti keep the camera mostly closer to the action than in previous Rocky films, with the camera directly in the ring for most shots. That approach delivers an immediacy to the punches, as if the audience were a second referee. Combined with the sound design and mixing, every hit and every bead of sweat or blood that goes flying has that much more impact, leaving you wincing for Michael B. Jordan’s face. (Fun fact: on-set, Stallone pranked Jordan into believing it was a right of passage for all fighters in the Rocky series to actually get knocked out once, in the ring. Jordan got laid out for real to satisfy it)
All of Creed’s elements come together to form a film that I will maintain for years was criminally overlooked at awards season. Stallone received the film’s lone nomination, when in this writer’s estimation, Creed should have walked off with at least five wins: Best Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor, and Best Picture.
But while it never got the award push it deserved, all but Coogler have come back for the sequel, Creed II, out this Thanksgiving weekend. Coogler’s status has risen so dramatically in the last few years that even with Jordan, Thompson and Stallone returning, the absence of the director who made the first “unworkable” entry work, puts the sequel in similar straits as the first. Here’s hoping it lives up to the legacy it set out for itself.