It seems like every single once-popular property is being rebooted, reignited or revisited these days. If it got audiences into the cinemas or in front of the TV years ago, it’s being trotted out again in the hopes of lightning striking twice. In almost 98% of instances, they end up being tired, clichéd and unoriginal. However, there are those very rare moments when some kind of magic happens and against all odds, it actually works - a once great idea is reinvigorated and given a totally new lease on life. One would expect an attempt to restart the 'Rocky' franchise might fall in the former - but believe it or not, Ryan Cooler’s ‘Creed’ is pretty much the best example of the latter you could want. In fact, this film might be the biggest cinematic surprise of the year.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is an aspiring young boxer determined to make a name for himself. He also happens to be the illegitimate son of boxing legend Apollo Creed, who died during a match before Adonis was born. Weighed down by the enormous chip on his shoulder, Adonis has no direction or aim in life other than to box, and in order to push himself to the next level and contain his uncontrollable anger, he turns to the only person who will take him seriously enough to train him - his father’s greatest opponent, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
On the page, ‘Creed’ hits every expected narrative beat and cliché, mirroring strongly the story of the 1976 original. From a storytelling point of view, Coogler and Aaron Covington’s screenplay doesn’t hold any surprises - in many ways, the story of ‘Creed’ is exactly what you expect. Here’s the thing though - unlike most films where this is the case, this film knows this about itself. What becomes extraordinary is not the story itself, but how the story is told, because as a piece of blood-pumping, heart-racing, jump-to-your-feet entertainment, ‘Creed’ is an absolute knock-out. Coogler made a name for himself with his debut film ‘Fruitvale Station’ (2013), but with ‘Creed’ he proves himself a filmmaker to be reckoned with. His approach is fresh and constantly inventive, taking material we’ve seen so many times before and approaching it from a new energised perspective. Every frame is bursting with bravado and passion, as immediate and energised as the sport it explores as it revels in the sentimentality and romance of the story its telling.
From a technical standpoint it’s a minor miracle, with key sequences executed with shocking finesse, the camera spinning and wheeling with intense clarity of purpose. It also helps that each character is so beautifully clear, not only Adonis and Rocky, but even Adonis’ love interest Bianca (Tessa Thompson). The film makes it hard for us not to care about these characters, and even though their arcs play as we would expect, they’re played out with the same freshness as the filmmaking. There are some genuinely powerful emotional beats in this film, a few that will have you shaking your head wondering how the hell something so clichéd could possibly hit you so hard.
Michael B. Jordan is perfect casting as Adonis, one of the few young actors who manages to balance intense physical presence with attention to detail and a sense of play. Adonis isn’t the kind of underdog Rocky was, but the film never shows him as such. He has a whole different set of demons to fight, and it’s to Jordan’s credit that he engages with them so effortlessly. Thompson also surprises as Bianca - you think you’re getting the inactive love interest with her, but she ends up being as dynamic as our protagonist, and Thompson sparks with electricity. However, even though he isn’t the lead, the film still belongs to Stallone, who is absolute magic as Rocky. He has charted the life of this character, not just on screen but in himself, and he’s still able to wield the same power as he did in the Oscar-winning original. Coogler has brought the character to a beautiful place on the page, but it’s Stallone that delivers the performance with such grace and dignity. Every moment he’s on screen is a joy.
‘Creed’ hits every expected narrative beat and cliché, mirroring strongly the story of the 1976 original.
Of course, a 'Rocky' film wouldn’t be anything without its fight sequences, and it’s in these that the film, the direction and the performances hit their peak. Each of the two centrepiece fights are a masterclass in filmmaking, each as surprising and intense as the other. Cinematography and sound design coalesce so that you feel every punch, every step, every breathe of it. The first sequence in particular will easily go down as one of the best film moments of this year.
‘Creed’ is a 'Rocky' film through and through, and in the best possible way. It captures all the spirit and magic and sentimentality of the original, and reinvigorates it for a new audience in such a glorious way. It’s explosive, passionate, daring and immediate, with great central performances and bravura filmmaking from Ryan Cooglar, who pretty much cements his position as a filmmaker to watch. It’s exactly the film you expect it to be, but executed with a quality of filmmaking you’ll never see coming. In the midst of all the flabby and dull reboots and remakes coming out every week, ‘Creed’ is a bolt of lightning, easily the biggest surprise of the year. This is why we go to the movies, to be this surprised and entertained, and this film delivers that with a punch right between the eyes.