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Non-Review Review: Creed

Creed feels like something of an unlikely companion piece to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Increasingly, it seems that nostalgia is becoming a dominant force in popular culture. There has always been a market for nostalgia, but the past few years have seen an explosion in the management and exploitation of recognisable properties. It seems like almost everything is being fashioned into a franchise. In the seventies or eighties, it would have been unthinkable to imagine a shared universe built around Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Now, the surprise is not so much that the shared universe exists, but that it is good. Creed is a great boxing film.

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If nostalgia is to become a governing force going forward, it is worth reflecting on approaches that work and those that do not. For every franchise that works, there is another that flounders. For every Mad Max: Fury Road, there is a Terminator: Genisys waiting in the wings. The key is to understand this pull of the past and to engage with it; to treat nostalgia as more than just a cynical market force, but to weave a story around it. JJ Abrams has proven quite adept with this, given the success of The Force Awakens at understanding the appeal of Star Wars.

Creed is every bit as successful, engaging with its own legacy and the weight of its nostalgia in a manner that suggests that writer and director Ryan Coogler understands not only what makes Rocky work as a piece of film, but also the gravity that exerts.

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It could legitimately be argued that Rocky casts a very long shadow and that the vast majority of boxing (and even just fighting or competition) movies that followed owe a debt to the film. Along with Raging Bull, Rocky is one the definitive examples of the genre. Whether a boxing film is a direct sequel to Rocky or not, it likely owes a debt to Sylvester Stallone’s underdog story of a Philadelphia boxer who manages to win in the only that ultimately matters. Rocky changed the genre.

It is possible to imagine a version of Creed that could exist without direct ties to Rocky. Coogler is shrewd enough to keep the film accessible, even as he peppers his spin-offs with lots of sly in-jokes and continuity references that further enrich the story. A viewer needs no in-depth knowledge of Rocky to fully appreciate Creed, no awareness of the finer points of the film beyond its own existence. All the background information is clearly and concisely explained, all the character dynamics are intuitive and organic. Creed could exist almost without Rocky.

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However, Coogler is shrewd in how he chooses to connect Creed back to Rocky. Much like JJ Abrams does in The Force Awakens, Coogler recognises Rocky as a cultural touchstone; it is a film that carries incredible symbolic weight and value. The Force Awakens frequently treats relics of the original trilogy (whether characters or ships) as religious artefacts being unearthed after decades gathering dust. Creed does something similar, both with literal objects and also with visual and audio cues; elements are so steeped in pop culture they are instantly recognisable.

Within the world of Creed, these connections to a larger and more meaningful text become a powerful metaphor. As an object of interest and intrigue, Rocky very clearly serves the narrative of Creed. The film’s own connection to Rocky plays out in parallel to the crisis of identity facing Adonis Johnson. Johnson is the illegitimate son of classic Rocky character Apollo Creed. Born outside of marriage after the death of his father, Johnson finds himself struggling with his place in the word. Johnson tries to make sense of what he wants and how to achieve it.

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Creed is very much the quintessential boxing movie, following many of the familiar character arcs and plot beats associated with the genre. Much like The Force Awakens, the basic structure of Creed consciously harks back to its cinematic predecessor. As with JJ Abrams, Coogler even affectionate borrows some of the same visual and aural cues directly from his inspiration. Those look for innovation within the standard boxing movie template are unlikely to find it here; just as they are unlikely to find it in Cinderella Man or The Fighter or Southpaw.

However, Creed very subtly shifts its perspective. Rocky spoke very strongly to economic and political anxieties of late seventies America, to a country embracing the working class in its populist entertainment. A plucky underdog with a clear desire to make something of himself, Rocky Balboa spoke to a particular moment in American consciousness; Roger Ebert famously compared Sylvester Stallone to Marlon Brando. Creed knows better than to try to ape that perspective. Instead, Creed tells a familiar story from a unique vantage point.

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Although he is introduced as a ward of the state, living in a foster home, Adonais Johnson is not a working class hero like Rocky Balboa. He is adopted into a life of material luxury. As an adult, he drives an expensive car and lives in a luxurious mansion. Not only does Johnson work in a white-collar job, he has just received a promotion that will give him his own office and his own secretary. Johnson is not a character who is living from pay day to pay day; he has the resources to just up-end himself and move to Philadelphia without needing work to support himself.

Creed repeatedly contrasts Johnson’s background with that of Rocky. Rocky wonders why a smart and educated young man would want to box; Johnson helps Rocky spell “shadow”; Johnson’s love interest Bianca remarks that she always thought that boxers were more “street.” Class is very consciously a part of Creed, albeit in a different way than it was with Rocky. If Rocky spoke to the working class in the late seventies, then Creed addresses an entire generation of disillusioned millennials.

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Johnson is a young man who was promised the world, who was born into a life of relative comfort as a result of the work done by previous generations. Apollo Creed pulled himself up from nothing and built a legacy in a chaotic world, helping to secure a stable future for his son. Throughout Creed, the issue of legacy comes up time and time again. Johnson engages with broader questions of identity and fulfilment. Indeed, early sequences allude to the existential ennui of Fight Club, with Johnson splitting his time between underground boxing and a white-collar job.

Creed takes these familiar story beats and then filters them through a perspective that is alien to Rocky Balboa. It is quite similar to what The Force Awakens does with its own central characters like Finn and Poe, with Oscar Isaac wryly reflecting that The Force Awakens is a Star Wars movie told from the perspective of “the people who are normally extras in a Star Wars movie.” This is a very shrewd way of approaching a very archetypal and recognisable story, shifting the perspective just a little bit out.

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Coogler then cleverly positions Rocky as an object of insecurity and aspiration. Early in the film, Johnson watches a YouTube clip of the climactic bout from Rocky. Later on, an iconic shot from the film hangs on the wall in Rocky’s restaurant. Johnson finds himself living in the mansion from Rocky IV. When Johnson finally gets a chance to ask Rocky about his father, the two get embroiled in a conversation about the iconic closing moments of Rocky III. Much like Johnson is curious about his own legacy and identity, Creed probes and queries its own connections.

Creed reflects Johnson’s journey as a character. Like Johnson, Creed is perhaps best seen as the illegitimate spawn of an all-time great. Like Johnson, Creed avoids taking the name of its forbearer, even though that name would make an easier sell. Just as Johnson has an awkward relationship with the name “Creed”, so Creed struggles with the weight of Rocky. Mid-way through the film, these discussions become text; organisers try to book Johnson for a major fight on the strength of his father’s name. “Without the name, there is no fight. It’s a non-starter.”

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Coogler very cleverly and very shrewdly plays into all this. His scripting and direction of Creed is initially as wary of the association with Rocky as Johnson is of his father’s surname. The first half of the film adopts a very modern and consciously artistic approach to the material; Coogler offers no less than three long takes of brutal fight sequences, a naturalistic approach that stands quite apart from the aesthetic of the Rocky series as a whole. However, as the film goes on, Coogler consciously weaves more and more of Rocky into his own film.

Creed features quite a few of the stock boxing movie training montages, but only in the second half does Coogler offer Johnson a truly stylised and iconic “running” sequence that harks back to that shot of Rocky climbing the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Although Coogler uses one of his long takes to guide Johnson into the film’s final boxing match, the editing and structure of the fight (not to mention the music cues) feel more in keeping with the tone of the Rocky series as a whole.

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It helps that Coogler’s direction is astoundingly good. Although the final boxing match is shot and edited in a more conventional style than the movie’s earlier bouts, it is a very taut and effective piece of film-making. The climactic bout of Creed ranks as one of the best boxing matches in the history of the franchise, which puts it in good standing in the larger context of popular culture. It is something to watch Creed with a large audience, the third act confrontation eliciting strong emotive reactions from the crowd.

Creed is a very well put-together film. Coogler inherently understands his material, but he also understands how to make it work for him. Creed is emotional and effective, but it is also clear. There is a minimal amount of clutter in the film, with all of the major characters having clear arcs. Coogler has assembled a fantastic cast. The character of Rocky Balboa has always brought out the best in Stallone, and he gives it everything he has. Michael B. Jordan just resonates charisma, anchoring the film and making Johnson a compelling character in his own right.

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There is a tendency to dismiss formula and structure when it comes to storytelling. This is particularly true among film critics, who see dozens (if not hundreds) of films each and every year. When a movie trots through the same beats, it can become drab and exhausting, cliché and predictable. However, Creed is a demonstration of just why these formulas and structures have become so ubiquitous, explaining why most boxing movies adhere to a fairly similar template.

With the right amount of craft and skill, that template provides the framework for something beautiful. Coogler recognises that the traditional boxing movie structure is not a burden, any more than the weight of legacy is a trap. Coogler is able to very shrewdly make both the basic formula and the franchise nostalgia service his own ends as a director. Creed is a great Rocky film, but it is also just a great film. It is a triumph that reminds its audience why Rocky worked so well, but which never loses sight of itself.

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6 Responses

  1. Excellent review. You cover so much and see things I would have easily missed. Glad you liked the movie too, it surprised me but in a very positive way. I hope Stallone wins the Oscar.

  2. I’m curious about what you thought of the previous Rocky movies, or more specifically just Rocky 6. Ever thought of reviewing the previous films?

    • Rocky Six is Rocky Balboa, right?

      I really liked it. I thought it was phenomenal, in fact. (Despite some minor issues with the logical sense of giving that “how hard you can keep getting hit” to a board of medical experts who are really there to ensure you don’t die in the ring.) In fact, I think my biggest issue with Creed (and it’s a small one) is that the film’s arrival and (deserved) praise kinda drowned out the success of Rocky Balboa. It might have “revived” the franchise in a technical sense, but Rocky Balboa had done the same thing earlier.

      (Kinda like how Skyfall tends to overshadow Casino Royale, but without Quantum of Solace to excuse the discrepency.)

      • Well Rocky Balboa was made to give closure to one story (and given how Rocky 5 turned out, it really needed a better ending) while Creed is the start of a different story. Not necessarily drowning out Rocky 6’s success, it’s just Creed had a different mission statement than Rocky Balboa did.

      • Yeah. As I said, it’s a very minor complaint. But I am a bit bummed at how it seems like everybody’s forgotting how good Rocky Balboa was because Creed was phenomenal.

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