Sylvester Stallone burst onto the cinematic scene 40 years ago as the writer and star of a tender little film about a small-time fighter with a big heart who finds love, honor, and self-respect while being beaten to a pulp in the ring. He goes the distance, and in doing so, he fulfills his dream. The budget ($1 million) of this film was so low that stars Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith shared a cramped dressing room and producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler had to mortgage their houses to come up with an additional hundred grand to complete it, but it too went the distance. Rocky was the feel-good film of 1976 and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Stallone, who had been earning $36 a week as an usher while trying to make it as an actor, became the star of multiple action-film franchises from Rambo to The Expendables, but he eventually became more caricature than character. Rocky spawned six sequels over four decades that also became increasingly hollow imitations of the original. Until now.
Creed, the latest entry in the franchise,manages to match the storytelling magic, cinematic quality, and emotional impact of Rocky by paying homage to the original without becoming a knockoff. In this film, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the abandoned love child of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky’s nemesis-turned-friend in the earlier films. Raised in foster care and group homes after his mother’s death, Adonis is a troubled kid with something to prove. Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad) finds him and brings him into her home, where he receives a good education and entry into a good job. But he still has something to prove, and he needs to do it in the ring.
Here the roles begin to be reversed. Johnson-Creed is now the young man with heart who can’t seem to get a break or a trainer, while Rocky (Stallone) has become the curmudgeonly trainer who agrees to take him on. This is not the arrogant, cocky Stallone of recent films, but a subdued, introspective mentor who knows his time in the spotlight has ended and is somehow relieved by that fact. Rocky is worn down by loneliness; Mickey (his trainer, Burgess Meredith), Paulie (his best friend and brother-in-law, Burt Young), and his beloved Adrian (Talia Shire) have all passed away. He takes a fatherly interest in Adonis, who calls him “Unc.”
Rocky spawned six sequels over four decades that also became increasingly hollow imitations of the original. Until now.
Adonis connects with a love interest similar to Rocky’s Adrian. Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is a professional singer who also faces broken dreams: she has a degenerative ear condition that is stealing her hearing. Yet she faces the loss with courage, optimism, and determination. She will not let fear of the future destroy her enjoyment of what she has today. Bianca is no blossoming wallflower as Adrian was, but she provides a strong, modern counterpoint to Adonis.
Creed is what a movie ought to be, and what the original Rocky was: a strong story with believable characters facing believable conflicts; music that supports rather than controls emotion; and cinematography that captures the grit and reality of the story without cheap (or not-so-cheap) manipulation. The film contains a number of extended-shot scenes designed by cinematographer Maryse Alberti to enhance the sense of realism. Watch especially for the two rounds of Adonis’ first professional boxing match that are captured in a single shot — no editing, no slo-mo, no cutaway shots, just perfect choreography from actors, director, makeup artist (who applied blood to one fighter while the camera was in close-up on the other) and steadicam operator Ben Semanoff, who must have been bobbing and weaving as much as the fighters in order to stay in position. It required a dozen takes to get that single shot, and it was worth it. “Everybody thinks we were cheating, but that is one shot,” Alberti is quoted in Variety.
The film builds inexorably to the big fight, and it’s a doozy. The punches feel real and unrehearsed. But Creed really isn’t about boxing. It’s a story about ambition, disappointment, determination, and going the distance — about having a creed, and living by it.