Friday 5 February 2016

Rocky 'requel' Creed fails to deliver a knockout punch but just about wins on points

New movie review

Director: Ryan Coogler
Starring: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Running time: 133 mins

Rocky (Stallone) trains the late Apollo Creed's son, Adonis (Jordan)

Like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Creed has gone the 'requel' route. Ryan Coogler's film is part Rocky sequel, part reboot, and at times borrows wholesale from the original 1976 picture and its various follow-ups. That said, it's a definite cut above other recent boxing flicks, such as last year's Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Southpaw, which was horrible on so many levels even thinking about it makes me depressed.

Michael B Jordan (Fruitvale Station) is Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, the Muhammad Ali analogue (played by Carl Weathers) who lit up the first few Rocky films before being punched to death by evil Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in the franchise's fourth installment. Rescued from 'juvenile hall' by Apollo's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), he grows into a successful young man but the lure of the fight game ultimately proves too strong and he quits his day job to pursue it full time. Relocating from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, Adonis enlists former heavyweight champ Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) as trainer and begins his ascent to a shot at the world title.  

Adonis Creed in fight action against Leo Sporino (Gabe Rosado)

The main problem with Creed is that Adonis is a privileged rich kid - yes, he had it tough in his early years but ended up living with his adopted mother in a great big mansion. Therefore his successes don't seem as hard won as they were for Rocky, who, lest we forget, started life as a down-on-his-luck, has-been fighter who would probably have spent his life in total obscurity had not Apollo Creed come calling. You never doubt Adonis's determination or ability but somehow a feeling that he never really paid his dues takes hold early on and persists. Unfortunately, enlisting his dad's old friend and rival, 'uncle' Rocky, only reinforces this belief. 'Pretty' Ricky Conlan (real-life UK boxer Tony Bellew), the champion he fights at the end, might be a caricatured Scouser on his way to prison for "running around Toxteth with a gun", but he is far more authentic. With his background ("my old man worked on the docks"), you feel he perhaps has more in common with Rocky than Adonis does. And so, especially as a Brit, my loyalties weren't entirely with Creed in the final bout. Worse case scenario - he loses badly and goes back to his big-arse house in California. Rocky was the ultimate underdog story and this really isn't.

Creed during his world-title fight with Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew)

Jordan is a fine actor (anyone who can emerge from the Fantastic Four car crash with his dignity and reputation intact has to have something going for them) and he's totally convincing here, particularly in those moments when he opens up about the father he never knew. The same goes for Tessa Thompson (Dear White People) as love-interest Bianca, a hearing-impaired musician with a story every bit as intriguing as Adonis'. But, let's be honest, it's Stallone that really elevates this. The later Rocky films are mostly bilge but Balboa is nevertheless one of American cinema's greatest characters. Washed-up punchbag, turned beloved world champion, turned ageing restaurateur. He's a man who has seen and done it all - taken on the world and won - but was almost certainly happiest living a simple life with Adrian, the woman he loved, long ago lost to cancer. 

I love the fact Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stays true to Rocky's origins - no mansion for Mr Balboa, no glamorous blonde on his arm, no limo parked on the drive (no drive!). He is what he always was - a taciturn, hard-working stiff with a heart as big as a mountain. He's like a wounded old lion at times here - melancholic, nostalgic but still fighting; this time going glove-to-glove against cancer rather than a boxing rival. Stallone can do this stuff in his sleep by now but he does it beautifully. If people think Robert De Niro has sold himself short recently, with the likes of Dirty Grandpa and Last Vegas, they should take a look at Stallone's movie career and weep. He could have been a fine character actor but took the money and the fame instead, allowing himself to be lumped together with fellow '80s action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lundgren, who, frankly, were never fit to lace his gloves. Take another look at James Mangold's Cop Land, if you don't believe me, because he is terrific in it.

Adonis begins a relationship with musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson)

Stallone and Jordan have real chemistry and share several memorable scenes, particularly early on when they discuss the late Apollo (Rocky reveals who won their fabled third 'behind-closed-doors' fight), and later when they climb the 72 stone steps (the 'Rocky Steps') to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Both sequences gave me genuine goosebumps, as did the moment when Bill Conti's Rocky theme ('Gonna Fly Now') started up as Adonis prepared to enter the ring for his climactic fight. That said, respectful nods to the original movie and its five sequels are understandable but, just like JJ Abrams' clumsy Star Wars reboot, at times Creed feels just a bit too familiar. At one point, during training, Balboa even gets Adonis to chase chickens - just as Burgess Meredith's Mickey Goldmill did Rocky 40 years before. There's an awful lot of this kind of stuff and I hope any further sequels go off in a more imaginative direction, although Internet talk of Adonis fighting Ivan Drago's son in the next film suggests otherwise. 

The movie's trailer

Creed scores big with its fight scenes. One reason I'm generally not a big fan of boxing movies is the cartoonish way in which the bouts are too often portrayed. Dredging up the wretched Southpaw as an example, I frequently had to remind myself I was watching two men fighting, rather than a couple of CGI superhumans, as massive punch followed massive punch and horrible facial injury followed horrible facial injury. The whole thing was ridiculous. Boxing can be brutal, yes, but there's an awful lot more to it than pummelled noses and colossal haymaker punches. It's a hugely technical discipline in which employing a solid defence and avoiding getting hit are at least as crucial as socking your opponent on the jaw or in the ribs. Coogler's film embraces that notion as much as any Hollywood movie about the sport ever has, whilst delivering a couple of terrific fights. 

The final throwdown with Conlan - who I sincerely hope we see again - certainly gets the blood pumping but it's an earlier bout against Leo Sporino (real-life Philadelphian boxer Gabe Rosado) that is the stand-out. The frenetic two-round punch-up is shot in one take by Coogler and his cinematographer Maryse Alberti, and it transplants you from your cinema seat smack-bang into the ring amidst the action more effectively than just about any fight movie this side of Raging Bull. Coogler has likened the scene to a monologue - Adonis out on his own, truly expressing himself for the first time. It's a genuinely bravura moment in a film that doesn't quite have enough of them.

Rating: WW½

Creed is in UK cinemas now 

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful


  1. I've always had a lot of time for Stallone. He's made some terrible films but he's also made some excellent films, and as you say, he's a much better actor than his reputation suggests. He's also a cleverer man than many think; his speech impediment makes people believe that he's a bit slow, but I remember seeing an interview with him in which he discussed film in general and he was insightful and sharp.

    Like most of these action heroes, he's a right wing nutter at times, but I've got a lot more respect for him than most of his peers.

  2. On the one hand it would be easy to say he's squandered his talent making rubbish, on the other he'd made a lot of money and clearly made a lot of people happy. People with terrible taste in films, admittedly. It would be great to see him take on a big, meaty dramatic role with a decent director again though.