Not every “best of the year” film has to be a dark, depressing journey into darkest parts of human psyche. Joy and triumph are both equally important emotions for any sane person to experience. But the problem is many films only grasp at the superficial parts of those emotions with special effects. You really don’t need them, instead you can take the lessons of the past and craft something special, something like Creed.
The Rocky series is one of the longest running franchises in film history that has moments of greatness (the first, the fourth, and the sixth) to moments that were truly embarrassing (not even Stallone defends the fifth). Happily, this new “spin-off” (or reboot or whatever buzzword Hollywood throws around these days), gets to be part of the former by telling the rise of a champion tale from a fresh new perspective.
We start the film with an eight year old Adonis Johnson being held in solitary at a juvenile penitentiary and receiving a visit from Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad). Ms. Creed reveals to Donnie that he is the son of her deceased husband and world famous boxer, Apollo Creed, and takes the boy into her home to raise him as a son. Flash forward to 2015, and Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) can’t help but box like his father before him but still refuses to use his name. Against the wishes of his adopted mother, he quits his comfortable financial job and rents a cheap apartment in Philadelphia to train with his father’s best friend and greatest opponent, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
As I said before, perspective is everything. As a friend of mine eloquently pointed out, this is “not a white savior story.” Rocky does not come to Donnie to save him from a poor life, rather Donnie sheddding material wealth and seeking Rocky out as an eager young warrior seeking a great master in the tradition of Seven Samurai. I truly love this dynamic both in theory and in practice in this film, thanks to fantastic performances from both Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone along with the solid script from Ryan Coogler (who also directed this film).
And they truly are the stars of this film as they begin as absolute strangers to friends to close as family. You get why one character would be upset at the other for certain life changing situations, and you also understand why another character would support the other’s choice even in the face of overwhelming odds. This is communicated through great dialogue and effective use of training montages. Now any fan of Rocky will tell you that it isn’t a Rocky film without montages, though the cinematic technique is typically frowned upon in so-called “serious” films. But the montages here are not merely silent, but rather have quippy dialogue between the protagonists, their allies, and some enemies as all parties get ready for the Big Fight. You get a sense of each lead’s personality as they interact through the training as well as the respect that develops between the student and the teacher.
And even this is not the sole relationship in this film. Jordan does a fantastic job playing off performances with Phylicia Rashad in a realistic mother-son interplay as Ms. Creed refuses to witness another family member fall into the hole that took her husband’s life. The other big exchange is between Jordan and Tessa Thompson as Bianca, an up and coming musician coping with degenerative hearing loss. Their romance is both believable and given some weight to it as both characters struggle with weight of their respective careers. When they have arguments, it’s not for dumb reasons but for perfectly valid ones dealing with their future together and their dreams as a boxer and singer.
Of course, all this talk of character development and fantastic script may seem like I’m not going to focus on the actual boxing, but I’ve been saving this point purposely for last. Because the cinematography of these fights are simply fucking perfect. A match in the middle of the movie is completed with a single take lasting a few minutes, a tall order for any director, actor, and filmmaker. But Coogler and his team rose to the occasion and delivered the finest boxing fight scene in as long as I can remember. Southpaw truly has nothing on Creed.
My mind was made up about my rating for this film the moment the credits rolled. But one thing I struggled with was whether I wanted to include this on my Top 10 of 2015. While the Top 7 were easy picks, I still was struggling with the other three. At first, I was hesitant to include Creed on the list, because it is a sequel/reboot/spin-off/whatever the hell they’ll end up calling this, but my girlfriend got genuinely mad at me. She saw how much I was enjoying this film throughout and even my declaration at the end that this was a damn fine film, so I really had no reason to doubt that.
And you know what? She’s fucking right. The moment I start disqualifying quality films based on where they came from, I’m no better than those stuffy critics who scoffed at Fight Club and The Dark Knight as retaining no cinematic value despite all evidence to the contrary. Plus, a film’s source material is no reason to discount it either. If that were true, then I’d have to reconsider The Godfather and The Godfather Part II because they were based on trashy pulp novels, no better than most comic books at the time.
Just as Donnie struggled in the film to take his father’s name for the Big Fight on the fear that he’d be called a fraud and wanted to chart his legacy, so too did Creed stuggle with being considered a film in the Rocky universe. And like Donnie, the film exceeded all expectations to deliver a crowd-pleasing, inspirational film while setting itself apart from its heritage with unique camera work, an engaging script, and fantastic music deftly blending the rhythms of the 1970s with the hip hop/rhythm and blues of today. This IS a damn fine film, one that I should put on my Top 10 not because of its legacy, but because of what it means in today’s times. You could have already guessed where this is going, and you’re right, this is a high…