Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015)
Back in 2013, first-time feature director Ryan Coogler wowed the independent film world with his harrowing and extraordinarily thoughtful movie about the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant III by Oakland transit police, entitled Fruitvale Station (after the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, station where Grant was killed). Born in 1986, Coogler is not yet 30, and here he comes with a second – much bigger – movie, Creed, about the son of the great fictional boxer Apollo Creed (from the Rocky films). Starring Michael B. Jordan (Grant in Fruitvale Station), the film treads much the same territory as that of every other boxing film ever made (you know, stuff about how your most dangerous opponent is YOU), recycling materials (and character arcs) from the original Rocky, as well, yet has such heart and spirit that in spite of its lack of originality is terrific fun to watch. Unless you don’t like boxing movies. In which case, what are you doing in the theater?
It’s an unusual step for a relatively young and untested director to take, for sure. Creed is not quite a franchise film, yet does qualify as a spin-off, even bringing Sylvester Stallone back as Rocky; quite a feat, considering how happy the Italian Stallion was with the way Rocky Balboa, in 2006, had concluded the series (according to The New York Times, anyway). At first it may seem far-fetched to imagine the filmmaker behind such an intimate drama like Fruitvale Station tackling well-known universe, but as the film progresses, it quickly becomes clear that the protagonists of both stories share a lot in common, and not just because they’re played by the same actor. Adonis Creed – Apollo’s son – is a boy in a man’s body, struggling to mentally grow into his physical size and join the adult world. Where Jordan’s Oscar Grant has his mother as a needed mentor, his Creed has Rocky; both need guidance to navigate the pitfalls of responsibility. And both have a supportive woman (of course, what successful cinematic man doesn’t?) by their side (as did Rocky). Anyone who doesn’t know how this particular film is going to end has not been paying attention to the signpost markers.
Just as in the first Rocky film, there’s a preening self-involved antagonist for our hero, who refuses to acknowledge the underdog’s validity as a contender. Just as in the first Rocky film, there’s the woman urging her man to be better. And just as in the first Rocky film, there’s a trainer doing his best to get the young wannabe ready for the big fight. There’s no question that it’s a great twist that Rocky is now the grizzled veteran, but lay the first film side by side with Creed and it’s hard to distinguish the two. Except, you know, that now our main guy is African-American, which could have allowed Coogler – African-American, himself – to discuss issues of race in the boxing world. But he doesn’t. So what we’re left with is an entertaining riff on a popular boxing legend, but a riff compromised by formula (aren’t riffs usually more improvisatory?). Coogler and Jordan (and even Stallone) most definitely confirm their talents here (though poor Tessa Thompson, from Dear White People, has nothing to work with); I just wish that talent had been used in service of something truly new and fresh, upholding the promise of their first collaboration. Here’s hoping for Round 3!