Ryan Coogler’s Creed is an implicatively political film, as its explicit subject is the necessity of collaboration for livelihood, which pointedly isn’t to be enjoyed by a singular hero, but by an ecosystem. The irresistibly unlikely circumstances of the film’s existence encourage a meta interpretation that parallels its plot. Or, simply, Creed is about its own creation. The story concerns an African-American, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the son of the deceased legendary boxer Apollo Creed, who looks up his father’s most famous professional nemesis, the Caucasian Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), for the sake of training him for his own ascension into professional boxing. This scenario clearly echoes how the project itself came into being: with a young African-American filmmaker approaching a Caucasian legend, Stallone, with an idea on how to riff on the latter’s iconic Rocky series.
Creed offers an endless feedback loop of anecdotes pertaining to both the characters and their creators, all from different generations and races and who heal themselves and one another—a potentially hokey concept that’s transcended by knowing situational and behavioral specificity. The film follows the Rocky formula to a tee while subtly re-grounding it in the kind of quotidian detail that rendered the series’s first entry so intense and moving. One of Creed’s most important scenes is its first, in which we see a young Adonis Johnson (Alex Henderson) in a correctional facility as he’s reprimanded for fighting. Cordoned off in a holding cell, he’s visited by Mary Ann (Phylicia Rashad), a middle-aged, clearly well-off African-American woman. Adonis believes her to be a social worker, but she corrects him, telling the boy that she knew his father. It’s clear that she’s Apollo’s widow, but the name “Creed” isn’t spoken yet, gradually re-instilling this word with an anticipatory intensity that once emanated from the Rocky films at large. By the time the title appears on screen, it already has the patina of myth.
Mary Ann is wealthy and connected. After all, she was the wife of a legend in the league of someone like Muhammad Ali. The context of Adonis’s change of fortune, as a result of the impassioned whim of a wealthy person, is always intensely a part of the film’s foreground. Adonis had all the makings of another tragedy of lifetime correctional institutionalization, the kind this country produces with sickening regularity, but he’s allowed to join the rarefied elite because of a Dickensian twist of fate. Adonis, an intelligent, intuitive, vulnerable man, hasn’t made peace with this. If Adonis is willing to look himself long and hard in the figurative mirror of his soul (which he does in an exhilarating moment near the end of the film, with Rocky beside him in the fight of his life), he doesn’t believe he deserved to be saved.
Adonis’s torment parallels Rocky’s in the early Rocky films, of course, particularly the first one. Rocky wasn’t about its hero training to win an insanely unlikely fight, and it wasn’t even really about a man whose life was “a million-to-one shot,” as the poster memorably claimed. No, Rocky followed a man as he learned, simply yet not so simply, that he was allowed to want more from life than he presently had. The film concerned a transcendence of self-hatred that was almost certainly autobiographical on the part of Stallone. Creed filters that uncertainty through an African-American experience, and then bridges it with the loneliness and self-hatred felt by an elderly Caucasian, who bluntly states that most of his life is behind him.
Creed revels in racial bonhomie without whitewashing racial difference. Coogler shows how frequently boxing revolves around black athletes who are governed by white handlers, and the Philadelphia of this film has a dangerous, erotic vitality that speaks to an understanding of people, mostly black, who live in ramshackle places on next to nothing. There’s no speechifying, but the aural-visual fabric of the film is casually dotted with realist signifiers, such as the gritty, crowed sub shop that Adonis and his potential girlfriend, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), go to, or the way the public buses look matter-of-factly gone to seed.
These elements inform and enrich Creed’s centerpiece: a depiction of the surrogate family-hood that develops between Adonis and Rocky. Like many young men, Adonis wants nothing and everything to do with his father at once, claiming to forge his own reputation in boxing, while trading on the Creed name to pressure Rocky into mentoring him. No matter what the circumstance, there’s something culturally encoded in American men that spurs them to neurotically court their father’s approval, either through obedience or competition, and Adonis pursues both channels simultaneously. In a beautifully resonant image, Adonis queues up old fights between Apollo and Rocky on a large screen, “shadow boxing” in front of the footage in a manner that alternatingly finds Adonis fighting and inhabiting his father.
This neurosis, this ferocious emotional need for a father, informs Adonis’s initial courtship of Rocky with heartbreaking tentativeness that’s intensified by a sense of the men’s respective social differences, not only racially, but generationally and by means of raw individual temperament. Adonis often suggests a mixture of Apollo and Rocky; he’s cocksure and ballsy, like his old man, but he has Rocky’s nakedness, as his feelings are never far from his surface. And Jordan, a major actor, has a remarkably fleet sense of vocal and physical timing that contrasts poignantly with Stallone’s slower, consciously wizened, iconic rhythms.
There’s a sense in Creed of Stallone being finally freed of his frequent self-consciousness, as an actor, by his young director’s respect. The heart of this film is Stallone’s pleasure in being upstaged, letting go of his need to be in the center ring, which is the ultimate kind of pop-film grace, and which arrives as an especial breath of fresh air after all those noxious Expendables films. The actor has never before been this engagingly take-me-as-I-am, which reciprocally informs Jordan’s performance and Coogler’s sprightly, evocative, intensely atmospheric direction with their own illuminative confidence. The difference between Creed and most pop films is that it isn’t hollowly preaching of self-actualization. Instead, it physicalizes self-actualization, in all its terrifying, fragile glory.
The image abounds in deep, varied, robust colors. Blacks are rich and luscious, often lending Creed the visual tenor of a 1940s-era noir, while whites are sharp and reds and blues are bright, sensual, and ferocious. Grit, at times, is pointedly, purposefully pronounced, offering testament to the film’s aesthetic, which might be called docudramatic expressionism. Image texture is hyper-tactile, sometimes unforgivingly emphasizing the bruises, pores, and wrinkles of characters. The various sound tracks honor the film’s heightened yet precise mixture of the diegetic violence with the non-diegetic mood music that often bridges the sounds of Rocky’s generation with Adonis’s. The club scenes are aurally rendered with a strong sense of bass, and the fights revel in percussive slam-bang bludgeoning. Little details are afforded haunting prominence too, such as the thistle sound of Rocky’s cemetery chair being pulled from its hiding place up in a tree. A dense, beautiful package.
"Know the Past, Own the Future" is a fairly standard puff piece about the making of Creed, though it’s just diverting enough to inspire wishes that it had been longer and more carefully assembled. The context of the film’s making, particularly the collaboration between director Ryan Coogler and actors Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, sounds fascinating, but we’re treated to precious little of it, as the supplement hopscotches from one pat generality to another. It’s more entertaining than these things usually are, but still represents a disappointment. "Becoming Adonis" briefly covers Jordan’s efforts to get in shape for the film, and, once again, once suspects that interesting material has been chopped to pieces. The deleted scenes are mostly transitory bits and pieces that were cut for the sake of pacing, though they’re unusually compelling and well-textured. One of the best moments of Stallone’s entire career is in this collection, when he has Rocky briefly put his glasses in his mouth before elaborating on "shadow boxing" to Adonis. It’s a wonderfully wry and succinct bit of business, alluding to the cagey wisdom that still exists in this warhorse.
Creed cannily funnels decades of American social tension into a tense and moving interracial buddy story. The supplements are forgettable, but the transfer is appropriately top-notch.