Creed *** is Rocky 7 cleverly disguised, a reboot that goes the distance without quite landing the knockout blow to achieve the status of a classic boxing movie.
It falls just short but what a plucky outsider it is, directed by second-timer Ryan Coogler who smartly goes back to the franchise’s 70s roots, much like Star Wars did.
For any boxing movie fans, the original 1976 Rocky must stand as a beacon – it did win Best Picture at the Oscars, but it is a classic indie movie (made for $1 million) that became a Hollywood giant. Creed returns to that feel, with Coogler at the helm after his excellent indie debut Fruitvale Station.
Fruitvale’s Michael B Jordan plays Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of Rocky’s original foe, then friend, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who leaves a privileged, adopted life in LA (admittedly after a troubled start in care homes) and answers his inner fighter by enlisting Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa as a reluctant trainer in the working class gyms of Philadelphia, where it all began for the series.
“Why would you pick a fighter’s life if you didn’t have to?” wonders Rock of his new protege.
I guess because fighting’s in the blood, in the DNA. Soon enough we’re into one of many training montages (doesn’t Team America always play in your mind and make you smile when a montage comes on?), with young Creed being made to chase a chicken, skip and run in a grey sweat suit, all images which hark back to the classic beats of a Rocky movie.
What’s interesting here is director Coogler’s use of music – the montage is to Nas and his dad Olu Dara’s rap/blues Bridging the Gap, a song about the line from blues through jazz to hip hop, a song which sums up the lineage of the film itself and its influences. (I first heard this song, incidentally, in Jacques Audiard’s French prison movie A Prophet).
Indeed, Coogler makes many comparisons with Philly’s music scene, the city of Brotherly Love and Philly Soul, but which continues to give us Jill Scott, John Legend and The Roots among many others. The love interest comes from the apartment below where lives a pretty soul singer Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson, the actress who featured in one of my favourite films of last year, Dear White People.
The film thus pits performer against performer, paralleling music and boxing and the affair between the two characters is powerful, two classic working class routes out of the ghetto. And yet we both know neither of these characters, Bianca nor Creed, is from the ghetto. Coogler’s film is subtly modernising the racial and societal codes of the Rocky movie.
Of course, and this is a pity, the relationship between Creed and Rocky begins to take over – Coogler may direct but Stallone is still in charge and it’s always his franchise, and indeed he it was who won the film a Golden Globe, as Supporting Actor.
For me the film actually gets a bit lost as Sly does his acting bit in the father/adopted son to-and-fro when you just want it to build to the big fight, between Creed and the British bruiser Ricky Conlan, played by real-life ABA champ Anthony Bellew, a fight which is held at Everton’s Goodison Park (I think Stallone supports Everton, or at least has been persuaded to by Everton’s showbizzy owners, Bill Kenwright and Robert Earl.)
There was a moment in Creed where I thought it was about to become one of the great boxing movies. Yet it just missed that opportunity. Because the film gets distracted by Stallone and Rocky’s legend, there isn’t enough enmity between the fighters and so there isn’t enough oomph in the climax of the fight, which mirrors that of the first Rocky film but, well-choreographed though it is, doesn’t have its emotional impact. Nor does the lovely Bianca end up with much to do, unlike Talia Shire’s Adrian, whose ghost still floats through even this film.
Fear not, film fight fans, the strains of Bill Conti’s original tune Gonna Fly Now do wind themselves through the new film’s score and, yes, there’s room for a scene on the 72 famous Rocky steps up to the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art, but Creed isn’t quite the real deal. It has a damn fine try, though, and I take my boxing gloves off to applaud it.