by: Douglas Grant
Across the Margin’s Douglas Grant makes his case for the best film of the year with Ryan Coogler’s Creed…
When Rocky quietly says, “Yo, Adrian, we did it,” at his beloved wife’s grave at the end of 2006’s Rocky Balboa, it is an emotionally charged, yet subdued, scene. Longtime fans of the Italian Stallion’s saga watched as Rocky walked away from Adrian’s tombstone, turned to look back, and then faded away. These fans were forced to come to terms with the fact that perhaps this was indeed the end of the road, that maybe we wouldn’t be seeing Rocky again.
The first fifteen years of the 21st century brought us countless pop culture adaptations, spin-offs, reboots, re-imaginings, and indirect sequels in film and television. In some cases we were presented with hybrids of these attempts to breathe fresh life into these long running franchises. One storytelling technique that has become more prominent of late is “the passing of the torch,” where a new generation takes up the mantle of the previous one. An unfortunate byproduct of these endeavors is that audiences justifiably become wary of Hollywood’s attempt to make a quick buck by cashing in on the success of what’s come before, tapping into a built-in audience’s enthusiasm. But this enthusiasm has waned, as in many cases storytelling quality has diminished and good character development has become an afterthought. And if ever there was a series where collective wisdom would suggest leaving well enough alone, it is Rocky. How wrong we all were.
Enter director Ryan Coogler and actor Michael B. Jordan, the duo that wreaked havoc on our emotional spectrums with 2013’s Fruitvale Station. Creed had been a longtime passion project of Coogler’s, and he found himself in a situation where he had to sell his vision not only to audiences, but also to Sylvester Stallone, who had justifiable misgivings about reprising his iconic role. But this vision is where Coogler’s strengths lay, and it’s his compelling story—co-written by Aaron Covington—that persuaded Sly to come around, and had skeptics change their tune. It’s the nuances of the family dynamic involving Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son that make Creed a true underdog story, much like its predecessor. Jordan has the youthful charisma that gave him the clout to portray an aspiring contender. Fans of HBO’s dramatic series The Wire became familiar with Jordan’s screen presence when he played sixteen-year-old Wallace, a standout role that won him accolades among a cast of dozens. He then went on to play Vince Howard in Friday Night Lights, a character teetering between the glory on the football field and a life of unrelenting crime. Since then his rising star has presented us with characters that we root for and sympathize with, making him a perfect choice for embodying the spirit at Rocky’s core. The only remaining obstacle was making sure that Jordan had the physical prowess of a light heavyweight fighter, and Jordan got into shape for the role with diligence and discipline.
There was another seventh entry in a culturally defining franchise spanning almost forty years that came to theaters shortly after Creed, and although Star Wars: The Force Awakens satisfied audiences and received critical acclaim, one complaint against it was that, structurally, it was too similar to the original movie, to what the audience has already seen. This is a valid concern when stretching out a series over five decades, because nostalgia can be a film’s undoing if it’s not handled properly. Every sequel to Rocky relied far too heavily on flashbacks and the references to the past, weighing the film down with unnecessary reflection where more forward momentum was needed. Perhaps the reason that Coogler handles this situation so masterfully is because Creed is meant to stand apart from the Rocky series, using Rocky’s character as a familiar face to facilitate a smooth transition from one man’s story arc to the next.
Make no mistake, Creed certainly has abundant parallels to Rocky, but Coogler appropriately shows restraint. The protagonist’s rise from humble beginnings, the uncertainty of the future, the discovery of true love, the relationship with the reluctant trainer, the training montage, the brash antagonist who’s taught humility even in the face of victory, and going the distance against overwhelming odds are all echoes of the 1976 original. But when parallels are handled gracefully, they can accentuate that sense of wistfulness rather than give us the feeling of being subjected to lazy writing or a lack of imagination. In fact, references to past events and characters serve to enrich the plot without being shoehorned in heavy-handedly. For example, conspicuously absent from the film is Tony Burton’s character Duke, Apollo’s trainer who trained Rocky after both Apollo and Mickey died. But we’re subtly presented with Tony “Little Duke” Evers, Duke’s son and head trainer at LA’s Delphi gym, who shares a tumultuous relationship with Adonis and is one of the few people who knows about his parentage. Questions we might have, such as where Robert Balboa Jr. is, or if Mighty Mick’s Gym is still in business, are answered in service to the plot. Then there are the symbolic references. The shot of the turtle in the aquarium while Adonis and Bianca make love for the first time is reminiscent of Rocky’s courtship of Adrian, who worked at the pet store across the street from Mighty Mick’s. Adonis training in grey sweats like Rocky’s, chasing the chicken as a training exercise in speed, and falling in slow motion after being knocked down in the ring—calling to mind images of his loved ones while semi-conscious—are all inferred homages. There are more, but perhaps the most arresting—at least in terms of emotional impact—is the gift that Mary Anne Creed sends to Adonis right before his big fight, the stars and stripes trunks that his father wore in his first fight with Rocky, with the name Creed embroidered on the waist band. These trunks have been significant for different reasons in subsequent entries in the series, but this is without a doubt the most impactful bequeathal of them.
Another way in which Coogler handles paying respect to his antecedent while enlivening his story is by making Creed a Philly-centric film. Adonis is an outsider from LA, and it’s through the lens of his perspective that the audience re-familiarizes itself with what sets the City of Brotherly Love apart. Rocky conveys to Adonis the idea that Philadelphia produces the toughest fighters while at the same time introducing Adonis to the neighborhood youths that roam the streets on their motorbikes and ATVs. On their first public outing together, Bianca shows Adonis the ropes when ordering a cheesesteak, going on to explain the meaning of a “jawn” and the significance of the music venue The Electric Factory giving rise to such prominent live acts as The Roots. These are fleeting lines that give substance to the setting of the film, a setting that is just as important to the story as any supporting character. One more example of how Coogler handles a supplementary facet of the film with just the right amount of emphasis.
One particular of Creed that is handled beautifully is the score. Fans of Rocky had to wonder before Creed came out whether Adonis would be adopting Bill Conti’s classic “Gonna Fly Now” and all related compositions. Furthermore, would Conti even be involved? For Creed, Coogler collaborated with his Fruitvale Station composer Ludwig Göransson, who handled his responsibility with deference to Conti’s accomplished body of work on the Rocky movies. What Göransson does is blend notes of Conti’s score, such as “Adrian’s Theme” or “The Final Bell” with original compositions in the same vein as the orchestral instrumentals that Conti used to captivate audiences. Adonis’ own training montage theme, “Fighting Stronger,” is written for his character, but in the spirit of “Gonna Fly Now,” with similar lyrics to the latter, and contributions from Childish Gambino, Jhené Aiko, and Vince Staples. It’s a theatrical, theme-driven song, unique unto itself while paying tribute to its inspiration.
Rocky has cried, bellowed, and groaned his way through six movies up until this point, but Stallone’s performance in Creed is reserved, as if old age has mellowed The Italian Stallion out. And it works here. Stallone’s understated portrayal of Rocky, under Coogler’s direction, is in contrast with his previous, larger than life performances of the former champ, and this contrast lends itself to the emotional impact of certain scenes, such as Rocky’s guilt over failing to stop the fight that killed Apollo, his son’s absence in his life, or his dealing with the news that he has cancer. Less is more here, and after so many years with Stallone the action star, we’ve become pleasantly reacquainted with Stallone the actor. As sad as the uncertainty is as to whether we’ll ever see Rocky again, we can at least take solace in the fact that the character has come full circle.
Adonis may have shown the world that he has the makings of a great champion, and this is most likely due to Michael B. Jordan showing us that he has the makings of a great actor. His most poignant scenes—dealing with the news of Rocky’s illness, his counter-rejection of Rocky after Rocky claims that they aren’t actually family, or receiving the red, white, and blue trunks from his adoptive mother—show us his true acting range, and tug at the heartstrings of the most unfeeling of individuals. Perhaps the most out of left field moment that moved audiences is when Rocky wants to stop the fight against Pretty Ricky Conlon, claiming that Adonis has nothing left to prove. When Adonis rejects this, Rocky asks him what it is that he has to prove, and Adonis replies, “That I’m not a mistake.” The line sums up the whole journey for the character up to this point, and it is as touching as it is profound. The vulnerability Jordan displays here stops the audience in its tracks, and serves to reinforce the theme of earnestness in the face of loss, a universal theme in the Rocky mythology.
In 1976, audiences watched as Rocky charged up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and triumphantly threw his hands up into the air, inspiring an entire generation. In 2015, fans of the franchise watched as Adonis Creed slowly escorted the ailing champ up those same stairs, momentarily stopping for Rocky to catch his breath, but seeing the ascension through to the very top. As the pair stands atop the steps beholding a sun painted cityscape, Rocky having alluded to the feeling of flying that that vantage point can instill, conflicting emotions characterized by duality arise. On the one hand it feels like a long journey may finally be coming to an end, and on the other hand it feels like a new beginning. That’s just the way life is sometimes.