The Rocky universe wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for you. As an angst-ridden, out-of-work actor in 1976, you created the boxer Rocky Balboa as the ultimate underdog. The first movie was a fluke and almost didn’t happen. That it went on to win multiple Oscars Including Best Picture, then spawned a lucrative and beloved franchise is nothing short of miraculous.
I knew before walking into the theatre to see Creed that I would address this letter to you. How could I not? After successfully bookending the series with the surprisingly satisfying - albeit fantastical - Rocky Balboa in 2006, if Creed failed I could hold you to task for letting the franchise down again (ahem, Rocky V). If Creed was good, I could congratulate you for backing the right horse in director Ryan Coogler, and the right jockey in actor Michael B. Jordan. What I didn’t expect was that after seeing you reprise your role as Rocky that I would genuinely want to address this letter to you, the actor.
Creed isn’t just the best Rocky film since the first one, it’s the best Rocky you’ve been in decades.
I’ve made no secret of my love for the Rocky franchise here before, and of my love of boxing movies in general. My first review for DC&C was of your forgettable Grudge Match, a film that left such a foul taste in my mouth, it might be part of why your portrayal of an aged Rocky Balboa is such a revelation. But being a fan of the Rocky movies means accepting certain idiosyncrasies - cheesy dialogue, treacly sentimentality, repetitive montages, and a predictable plot – as part of the deal. This is why Rocky Balboa was such a great film to end the series on, as it eschewed many of the more cringe-inducing moments of the previous five films. But it’s also why I was reluctant to see Creed. I was worried that it would either stick too close to the franchise’s winning but tired formula, or go too far in a new direction and alienate the die-hards.
Creed stands on its own, and as a lifelong fan, I am happy to stand behind it.
We meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson as a kid who has lost his mother and is stuck in juvie, where he is constantly in trouble for fighting. Donnie is taken in by Mary Anne Creed, widow of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Apollo Creed, who knows he is the product of her husband’s infidelity. Flashing forward to present day, Donnie, though raised in the lap of luxury, gives up his cushy job to pursue his dream of being a boxer. Not finding anyone willing to train him in L.A., Donnie moves to Philadelphia and convinces Rocky to train him. When word of Donnie’s parentage leaks, he is invited to be the longshot on a ticket fighting against the reigning world champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlon.
The set-up is a tweak on the original Rocky movie, where you were the unknown in a fight against the champ, except Donnie isn’t broke and fighting for a purse. Like Rocky, he’s fighting because it’s all he knows how to do. Of course there’s a love interest, but unlike your Adrien, Bianca is confident, successful, and determined, which makes her Donnie’s equal. She’s more than just a cheerleader, and it’s a welcome change. Obviously Coogler, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Covington, was careful to keep the spirit of the franchise intact, but he also borrows from one of my other favourite boxing films, The Fighter. Coogler makes the streets of South Philly look almost exactly like they did when you first ran through them in ’76, but he filmsthem like David O. Russell filmedLowell, Massachusetts – the camera constantly moving; the cars, storefronts and faces almost pastiche; the pace rapid-fire but steady; the background subliminally reminding Donnie of where he, and you, came from.
For the fight scenes Coogler cribs a page from Scorsese (but not specifically from Raging Bull, the boxing film upon which all others are measured). In one of the standout scenes, he films the match as one continuous take: through the crowd, into the ring with the corner men, and from Donnie’s POV. For the Big Fight Scene, Coogler follows behind you as you walk to the ring beside Donnie, your hand never leaving his shoulder. Because Coogler knows what we all know; boxing movies are really about relationships. They’re about family. We see it when Donnie puts the fight between Rocky and Apollo up on a big screen TV and shadow boxes his dad. And though it wasn’t as saccharine as Rocky fans are used to, we all know what’s coming – by the end, you’ve become the father Donnie never had. I couldn’t have predicted, though, that you would almost steal the whole movie.
Michael B. Jordon is the perfect fit for Creed, and the two of you have natural chemistry, perhaps because he was written to be more humble than his father. But Creed isn’t just about introducing audiences to a new hero, it’s about giving the old one his due. Even though you’ve owned the character of Rocky for close to four decades, and you wear him as comfortably as Rocky wears his trademark porkpie hat, perhaps you had become too close to him. This is the first Rocky film where you haven’t written your own dialogue, and the writers inject some much needed dimension into the character, which you deliver in spades. Rocky has his own fight here and you make it just as compelling as any he’s had in the ring. Donnie may be the muscle in this film, but you are the heart.
I’d like to end with a prediction, which you should take with a huge grain of salt, because I loved this movie so much so that my judgement might be clouded, but here goes: I predict you might just get an Oscar nom for this role. Think about it, the Academy creams over these kinds of stories, and I’m not just talking about the one up on the screen. If you get nominated for Best Supporting Actor, it would be the first time any actor has been nominated for playing the same character twice, years apart. I’m not saying it would be a lock. So far it looks like you’d be up against some heavy hitters. But who doesn’t love a good underdog story?
Still in your corner,