Creed Is So Good It Transcends Bad Boxing PunsPosted: November 28, 2015
I don’t have much history with Rocky; in fact, out of the six previous movies in the franchise, I’ve only seen the first one. For me, events from Rocky II to Rocky Balboa are about as recognizable to me as actual sports history: I generally know what occurred and when, but without any personal experience with any of it. And yet, that lack of direct knowledge is never a detriment in Ryan Coogler’s Creed. It is a film that functions beautifully on its own terms, while also drawing on the history and emotional depth of the Rocky series for additional definition and personality. In a year full of terrific sequels (and hopefully as many as three successful resurrections of ‘80s staples) Creed stands tall among them, serving as a terrific continuation of the Rocky saga as well as an emotionally-charged character film in its own right.
Creed is a great example of how franchise continuity is just another tool for master craftsmen to use in their storytelling efforts. While plenty of sequels and prequels just use name brand franchises and characters as cheap shorthand in their storytelling, films like Creed use it to deepen the backstory and emotional context for the story being told. The key difference between the former and the latter is that successful sequels like Creed make sure that the story functions on its own terms before concerning themselves with how it relates to previous films in the franchise. This is why Creed is so effective, even for a Rocky amateur like myself: the story of Adonis (Michael B Jordan) works so well on its own, and he is such a well-crafted character to begin with, that there is never any chance of him being overpowered by casual callbacks to previous films.
What makes Adonis’ journey particularly effective is how deliberately he is revealed to the audience by director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington. While Adonis’ backstory is established quickly and cleanly at the beginning of the film, and his goals are set up early on as well, the film is very savvy about refining and exploring the nuances of his character and nature as it progresses. Each new detail feels less like a revelation and more of a confirmation of what we already knew about Adonis, while subtly making him a fuller and more relatable human being. By the time the final (and most elemental) piece of Adonis’ emotional arc is revealed in the midst of the climactic match, we have grown to know and love Adonis and want to see him succeed. But that final piece also takes the broader and more abstract considerations like legacy and identity and boils them down to the most heartbreaking desire and fear our hero could possibly have, and makes the final sprint to the finish all the more uplifting and emotionally resonant.
A big part of what makes Adonis an engaging character is how the characters around him respond to him, and the relationships and conflicts that result. One of the biggest and best is Bianca (Tessa Thompson), Adonis’ neighbor and a talented musician with progressive hearing loss. Far from a generic love interest/cheerleader, Bianca feels like a fully-developed character with her own story that happens to intersect with Adonis’. Bianca’s commitment to her music even though it will inevitably hasten her hearing loss is much like Adonis’ drive to fight even though it will eventually ruin his brain. They are both defined by their passions and callings regardless of consequence. In doing this, Coogler and Covington accomplish three things simultaneously: they give Bianca her own identity and struggle, they use this struggle to further explore Adonis by proxy, and they clearly establish the basis of the couple’s attraction to and eventual love for each other. It’s a perfectly-drawn relationship, one that effortlessly earns your appreciation, and if there are Creed sequels coming I can’t wait to see where their shared journey takes them.
Of course the other major player in the story is Rocky himself, and Creed makes great use of the Italian Stallion and Sylvester Stallone to provide even more depth and emotional stakes to the story. This is where the franchise aspect becomes a boon for the storytellers: were this an original standalone film, a subplot about Adonis’ trainer confronting his own loneliness and mortality would feel extraneous and unnecessary, but because this is a Rocky movie it is expected that Rocky himself will have a story of his own, and thankfully the filmmakers make perfect use of him without overpowering the main narrative. At no point does it ever feel like Rocky is distracting us from Adonis; rather, Rocky’s arc is purely supplemental, and exists wholly in relation to Adonis’ arc. And between Adonis and Rocky, we get a complete picture of what legacy is, and what value people can have to each other. While young Adonis needs to define himself by his own actions and decisions rather than his perceived worth compared to his father, Rocky needs to define himself by how he affects the next generation and the fact that he still means something to other people.
The craft of Creed isn’t limited to the nigh-impeccable script, as the entire product is supremely well-constructed and defined by legitimate emotion. Coogler takes the raw energy and identity he showed in Fruitvale Station and effortlessly refines and hones it through the larger-scale studio film. There is an honesty in the way things are shot and the emotions that the imagery conveys that is nothing short of impressive. The fight scenes are visceral and vibrant using long takes and constant camera movement to envelop the audience in the ebb and flow of the fight. The pain and ugliness and passion are tangible like only the best sports films can ever really convey, and combined with the emotional investment we have in Adonis the fights are both grueling and exhilarating to a tremendous degree. Coogler and company also harness the franchise-favorite tool of the montage to exciting effect here, particularly in a sequence that intercuts Adonis’ training with Rocky’s medical treatment. The metaphor at play here is simple and obvious, but it is so perfectly constructed (and again, so charged with earned emotions) that it hit home beautifully anyway.
Franchise films often get a bad rap from the cinephile crowd, and the Rocky franchise has become disrespected and maligned over the years more than most classics. Thankfully, Creed is such a great movie that it should win over even the most jaded and snarky of moviegoers. The elements I prize most in movies these days are narrative craft and emotional resonance, and Creed has both of those in spades. It balances a wonderfully-built new character with a well-worn icon, and tells an uplifting and tear-tinged story with a ton of energy and honesty. Creed is a textbook example not just of good franchise storytelling, but good storytelling period, and is as good a film as I’ve seen yet in 2015.