Welcome to the punch…
It’s nine years since the Italian Stallion hung up his gloves in Rocky Balboa, part six of Sylvester Stallone’s now four-decade-long boxing saga. Thankfully, in Ryan Coogler’s Creed, a smartly engineered spin-off, he doesn’t put them back on.
Stallone leaves the punching to Michael B. Jordan, star of Coogler’s Sundance-winning 2013 debut Fruitvale Station. Instead, Sly slips into Burgess Meredith mode, becoming mentor rather than fighter. It’s a clever conceit, heightened by the hook that Jordan’s character, Adonis Johnson, is the illegitimate offspring of Rocky’s one-time (OK, two-time) rival, Apollo Creed.
Born after Creed died fighting Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, Adonis never knew his father – though, as we see from the opening scene, set in 1998 Los Angeles in a juvenile detention centre, he’s inherited the champ’s cast-iron punch. After Creed’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad, the third actress to play this role in the franchise) comes looking for Adonis, saving him from a life of ignominy, the story cuts to the present.
Adonis is a model citizen by day; but by night, he’s nipping down to Mexico for backroom brawls. Despite a promotion in his office job, he quits – heading to Philly to seek out his father’s one-time nemesis, Rocky, and plunder his ringside wisdom.
Stallone’s character doesn’t even come into Creed until the 20-minute mark; when we meet him, he’s clearing tables at his restaurant, Adrian’s. And, despite a mild curiosity when he discovers Adonis’ family roots, he has no wish to head back to the gym. In the meantime, Adonis has other issues – like Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a downtown R&B singer who doesn’t take long to move from noisy downstairs neighbour to potential love interest.
Adonis gradually wears Rocky down; the old prizefighter’s interest is piqued by the smell of the canvas. And an opponent duly arises in the shape of British light-heavyweight champion, ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlon (real-life cruiserweight boxer Tony Bellew). A Scouser, Conlon wants one more fight before a prison sentence is set to curtail his career – and his manager Tommy Holiday (The Hobbit’s Graham McTavish) convinces Balboa to set up the fight.
This may all sound rather so-so – not least because it leaves Rocky behind the ropes, rather than on them – but nothing could be further from the truth. Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington show complete control in their scripting, carefully nodding towards Rocky staples without ever breaking out the Philadelphia cheese. A visit to the side-by-side graves of his late wife Adrian and brother-in-law Paulie, for example, is touching (“yo, Adrian,” he says, softly) rather than maudlin.
Perhaps even more daring, Creed shows Rocky as vulnerable and ailing. He’s no longer the indestructible boxer who punches slabs of frozen beef for fun but a man whose health is beginning to fail him. Without going into spoilery detail, Stallone has never been better as Rocky than he is in these scenes; there’s nothing more crushing than watching a legend look fallible and human.
As for Jordan, he may not have caught fire as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four but he rips up the screen as Adonis Creed. In peak physical condition – yes, he even does one-handed press-ups – he looks the part in those obligatory training montages. Better still, Jordan is fully able to handle the emotional scenes: the need to stand up and be counted, the search for a surrogate father in the absence of your biological one.
In a first for the series, the action shifts to England for the climactic bout, which takes place in a boxing ring housed inside Everton FC’s Goodison Park. It certainly makes a change from, say, Madison Square Garden, though Brit viewers may find it slightly surreal watching a sea of Toffees fans (plus one lone Liverpool FC supporter in his red replica strip).
Still, with the help of Bellew and fellow boxer Andre Ward (who briefly features), Creed’s fight scenes are impeccably crafted. Put up against Antoine Fuqua’s recent Southpaw, they’re just as bruising, as Rocky rouses his charge with the maxim: “One step, one punch, one round at a time.” Backed by a fantastic score from Ludwig Göransson – OK, not quite on the level of Bill Conti’s classic Rocky soundtrack – these moments will leave you breathless.
Yet what really registers is the poignancy behind the body blows. Coogler has crafted a film that doesn’t adhere to the usual fanfare required for a Hollywood ending. Instead, it’s the relationship between Rocky and Adonis that we really invest in, rather than who wins or loses. Harking back to the franchise’s glory days, it’s a movie hardcore Rocky fans will love.