The seventh entry in a franchise has no right being as good as CREED is. It's mystifying to me that two of the most emotional reactions I had in a theatre this year came during films that were the sixth sequel, films that followed a series of embarrassing other efforts. And as I let the power of John Williams music wash over me in the latest THE FORCE AWAKENS trailers, I contemplate the possibility that the 7th STAR WARS might make it a hat trick.
(For those curious about the other film I allude to, it's FURIOUS 7 and the incredibly classy and moving way they bid adieu to Paul Walker's character. Yes, that reaction builds from the foundation of a real life tragedy but there were a lot more ways to get that emotional note wrong than there were to get it right.)
The earliest rumors about CREED had me apprehensive. In logline form the hook that "Rocky trains Apollo Creed's son" feels like something that could have served as the genesis of a lazy follow-up. In a larger context where it feels like any existing IP is raised from the dead, zombie-like, and milked for one last drop of blood, it's understandable that cynicism would be an immediate reaction - especially when the franchise already got a fantastic ending in the moving ROCKY BALBOA.
For my money, BALBOA was the perfect bookend to the original film and if I run across it on cable, I have to stop and watch it. Multiple viewings in, that moment going into the last round where his son says, "There's nothing more to prove, Pop! There's nothing more to prove!" gets me every time. The film itself was simply a perfect ending and seemingly the best place to retire Rocky. It would be a shame if Balboa became the guy who stayed too late at the party, and going into the film, that was my chief concern.
I shouldn't have worried. Director/writer Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Aaron Covington have created a film that absolutely deserves to be in the Oscar conversation. I'm sure an anti-sequel snobbery will hobble the film in most categories, save for equally deserved acclaim for Stallone's Supporting Actor turn, but it's nice to dream. This is no film that's going through the motions - CREED goes the distance and then some.
It's not a film where I really feel I need to break down the plot. It follows the expected formula in a lot of places, but soars because all of the main characters are fully three-dimensional people. Michael B. Jordan's been getting critical accolades since at least his turn on THE WIRE and it feels like a near-decade of paying his dues has lead to his coronation here before a wider audience. I don't think movie stars as we used to think of them still exist. Actors like Vin Diesel, Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Hemsworth top-line billion-dollar films when they stick to a particular box and then struggle to even open a film that's too far outside that comfort zone. But I think that this film shows that as long as Jordan is smart about his choices (i.e. avoids any future FANTASTIC 4 debacles), he'll be anchoring major films for years to come.
Jordan's Adonis Johnson is a determined fighter with a complicated relationship with the shadow of his illegitimate father, Apollo Creed. Since he was about ten years old, he's lived with Apollo's widow in a life of privilege, but something keeps drawing him to the same ring where his father died. You have to wonder about a man who outwardly tries to separate himself from his father's legacy, yet seeks out a trainer whose own history is so entwined with that legacy. What exactly is it he's hoping to find?
And then there's Stallone. This is no mere cameo to pass the torch. He's not showing up ala Leonard Nimoy in JJ Abrams's first STAR TREK, there to assure us of the connection to the larger universe. His journey is at least as important as Adonis's. I don't want to spoil much of this, but there's a lot of emotion drawn from seeing Rocky in what is the decline of his life. ROCKY BALBOA was one last hurrah, the final curtain call to show that yes, he still could go the distance. It was a feel-good ending, one where it felt like Rocky had accomplished all he could have ever hoped.
There's just one problem - Rocky still went on living, aging further in a world where it became more keenly apparent he was outliving his usefulness. Friends died, family left. The twilight chapters of the Italian Stallion's story are filled with loss - his wife, his best friend.... and into that comes this brash kid who's very existence seems only to throw in his face everything he can no longer be.
The Adonis/Rocky relationship might be one of my favorite on-screen duos of this year. Making Rocky to a hungry fighter who has elements of both Rocky and Apollo is a masterstroke of writing because this series understands its history and knows how to draw on it. New viewers can experience the story from Adonis's point of view and identify with his thirst to make something of himself. He's got the impulsive nature of youth that allows him to quit a stable job where he's rising fast and then move across the country on a whim. It's the sort of fearlessness that's so admirable when we're young. And the kind of action that seems insane when we're older and have a supposedly broader perspective on the world.
For older viewers, Rocky is our entry point. Through him we're empathetic to the reluctance to hang onto former glories, like an adult hanging around his high school long after he's graduated. We're bemused by the naive youth who has to learn all the hard knocks we took long ago... and as Rocky finds a way to be relevant in this old story, the film earns its own relevance.
I've already seen many reviews focus on Coogler's savvy use of a long-take to showcase one of Adonis's early fights. What I like best about it is that it's a long-take that doesn't call attention to itself as a "Lookit me! I'm directing!" It's not showy because it simply tells the story. We're drawn into the scene and it works to so completely construct the reality of that fight that it took me half the bout to realize, "Wait a minute, I don't think we've had a cut yet.... oh shit, we're not cutting AT ALL! He's going for it!"
As powerful as that moment is, it's nothing compared to the chemistry between Stallone and Jordan. There's a moment between them I really don't wish to spoil except to say that it's a direct callback to possibly the most iconic Rocky image of the series. It's a moment that's beautiful and also heartbreaking in it's own way and it's because of earned moments like that that this film justifies drawing on this series's history.
CREED is no cash-grab franchise extension. It's not a torch-passing fumble like INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was. Hell, it's not even GRUDGE MATCH, in which we got to see both Stallone and De Niro trade on their iconic boxing film pasts. This is a story that clearly meant something to Ryan Coogler, and this wonderful Deadline interview makes it clear just how deep his emotional ties to the Rocky series run. The best stories don't just mean something to their audiences, they mean something to their architects.