Let’s hope that Creed doesn’t get completely lost in the rush of end-of-year films, including major franchise entries such as Mockingjay, Part Two and that upcoming Star Something…. Creed is both nostalgic and original, fresh and old-school. Yes, it can be viewed as the latest in the Rocky series, but considering everything filmed after the original 1976 Best Picture Winner, it would be best to call this Rocky.2. It’s easily the best Rocky film since the original, and it extends rather than drags out the franchise and the concept.
Creed is the story of Apollo Creed’s “love child,” a young man who can’t get fighting out of his system, and can’t yet come to terms with the legacy he possesses. Should he deny it, forget it about it, or embrace it? As he begins to become a real fighter, he enlists the help of the legendary Rocky, whom he has to coax out of retirement to help him. The rest of the story is as clichéd as the previous couple of sentences, but takes nothing away from the film, and in fact provides a great deal of its enjoyment.
This is the next Rocky film, yes, but it’s a film on its own terms. It doesn’t balance yesterday and today completely, and the juggling of themes and moods doesn’t always work, but this is an example of the voice of a fresh, relatively new filmmaker, Ryan Coogler, who succeeds in resurrecting a cinematic myth with respect and creativity.
Creed is played by Michael B. Jordan, known best for a fine turn in Coogler’s previous film (and except for Creed, only other feature) Fruitvale Station, and the unfortunate 2015 version of Fantastic Four, where perhaps 12 people saw him as Johnny Storm. He has clearly spent hours in the gym, and looks something like a fighter, but just not quite one in the same weight class as we are led to believe. Jordan is an intelligent, thoughtful actor, and brings a sensitivity to the role that the casting of a mindless palooka would have missed. He provides a depth to the character that isn’t found in the script, and it adds immeasurably to the film. He’s already won the Boston Online Film Critics Association Award for Best Actor for this one, so he’s far more than just a guy who can look the part.
The big surprise of the film, though, is Sylvester Stallone, who is giving perhaps his best performance in any film, including the original Rocky. (He just won the above group’s Best Supporting Actor Award, as well as a Golden Globe nomination.) His relaxed approach and genuinely touching acting moments may well snag him a sentimental Supporting Actor Oscar nomination—one he’d never win, but one that a nostalgic-feeling branch of the Academy may want to reward him with. He’s clearly not working the nostalgia angle, though, and brings a fresh, modern, and loose feel to his performance. He’s the Rocky we may remember from 40 years ago, but he is re-presented here as a real, tired, but vibrant and believable person.
The music is emblematic of the struggle of the film to combine diverse elements into a single film. The film has to be current yet evoke the legend. It seeks to be respectful, even evocative, of the original Rocky storyline but wants to feel like today. The music that works the best is hip-hop, which has the energy and feel of the life and struggles of Creed and his friends. Then there is a full, lush orchestral sound that seems to try to evoke the ‘70s sound of the early Rocky age. But it seems out of place, and I was at times wondering if we were about to be treated to a chorus of “Come Saturday Morning” from The Sterile Cuckoo. Then there is the full dramatic, orchestral sound of the “big scenes” such as fights, running, and scenes of working out, which are modern replays from the earlier Rockys, and are a bit much, tending to overplay the moment.
The balance of old and new, freshness and deliberate nostalgia, are worthy of some serious study and could easily be the topic of many a film paper. But for the regular filmgoer, this is an enjoyable film on its own as well as a model for how to respect the franchise, evoke the best parts of yesterday, and still be an inventive, entertaining and engaging film.