Director: Ryan Coogler
Major Players: Michael B Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson
Out Of Five: 3.5
If you’re a member of the new generation, whatever that is, then the movie industry has you in its sights. Or so it would seem. We’ve already had Star Wars for the new generation, followed swiftly by Peanuts. And now comes Rocky. Will you be able to cope?
It has a new name. It might essentially be Rocky VII, but the name is Creed, one that will immediately ring bells with fans of the previous films. But for the much-vaunted new generation and other newcomers, that won’t be mean anything unless they’ve seen another Rocky movie. And this is a film that really needs that background knowledge.
The starting point is a juvenile institution, with the angry young Adonis Johnson constantly getting into fights. But he’s given a home by his late dad’s wife (Adonis’s mother was his mistress) who had inherited his fortune. Fast forward to the present day and he’s a young man working in finance but boxing at weekends. He decides to throw in the towel at work and pursue a career in the ring, which means going to Philadelphia to track down the legend that is Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), now running a restaurant. Initially reluctant to coach the young boxer, he slowly comes round to being his mentor and steers him to winning his first fight.
It’s that background that gives the story its direction. Adonis (Michael B Jordan) is the son of former champion Apollo Creed, initially Rocky’s biggest adversary and eventually his closest friend. In terms of the films, he dies in Rocky IV in an exhibition bout and it’s his death that brings Balboa out of retirement. It’s also his name that motivates Adonis: he’s inherited all his father’s talent and fighting spirit, but refuses to use his name. He wants to make his way in the boxing world on his own terms. Without having seen any of the other movies, or doing a bit of research beforehand, all of that is wasted.
You can, of course, guess where the storyline is going to take you. There’s a love interest for the young Creed: talented singer Bianca (Tessa Thompson) keeps him dangling on a string for a while, then suddenly slips into the traditional role of fighter’s girlfriend all too easily. And there’s Rocky himself, the father figure that Adonis missed all his life and, despite his energy, starts to look his age.
Which makes it a very traditional, old fashioned movie. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it also has the feeling of being just too squeaky clean. Nobody, but nobody, swears and the boxing gyms are so clean you can almost smell the bleach – certainly not the sweat or liniment! The fight scenes are exciting – the constantly moving camera makes them memorable – but they still look too clean and shiny, especially if you’re expecting something on the level of Raging Bull.
So, if you’ve sensed that I’m slightly disappointed with the film, you’d be right. And the reason is this. It’s from Ryan Coogler, whose debut as a director was the excellent Fruitvale Station, an edgy, hard hitting drama based on the real-life shooting of a young black man in San Francisco. With him at the helm, something more adventurous and grittier was on the cards, but instead he’s turned traditional, giving us a triumph over adversity story sprinkled with sentiment. Not that it doesn’t have any power. In fact, it loves to tug hard and long on your heart strings and does it well. But it’s still conventional and too true to the Rocky formula.
The original Rocky was made back in 1976 and, while its shadow permanently hangs over this – not just in the shape of Stallone – it was very much a film of its time. When it was released, America was in need of a hero, having watched as its President was exposed as a criminal. The rags to riches story of a man from an immigrant family who rises to the top, regardless of the obstacles and his own shortcomings, was exactly what it needed and wanted. Are we in the same need? If so, then the values are all there: hard work, determination, loyalty, all packaged together with commitment and skill. But there’s no avoiding that conventionality.
“One step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time.” Balboa’s mantra as he trains Adonis gets inside your head and its repetition mimics the film’s own structure. And while it’s undoubtedly formulaic, it’s a proven winner with audiences and that won’t change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Creed is released in cinemas on Friday, 15 January and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 14 January.