Reel Talk

Creed and the Peril of Legacy

Creed Poster

Film series that go past four movie can be a really mixed bag. Usually the first movie is actually pretty good, because clearly there was something there to make profitable, but more often than not the movies decrease in quality pretty quickly. Especially when you’re looking at a movie that didn’t really start off as something that should be serialized. Slasher movies and superhero movies kind of come built in with the expectation that there’s going to be further adventures to see. But when you take a legitimately wonderful drama, and start checking in on the characters every few years, it may not always be the best bet. Rocky is an amazing movie. In every respect. It’s well made, well acted, and delivers both on drama and excitement all the way through. It’s a very interested character study of a truly lonely man who is trying to find success and happiness in the only way he can. And then the sequels happen. Yeah, Rocky movies can kind of be like James Bond movies, even if they’re not very good, there’s still things in them that can be enjoyable. They get really stupid, really quick, but they’re still a fun series. Then, in 2006 we all laughed when Sylvester Stallone announced there would be a sixth Rocky movie, just called Rocky Balboa. And shockingly, it was really good. It got rid of the ridiculousness of the 2nd through 5th movies, and went back to what the first movie had going for it. It was a refreshing take on a character who had become a punchline, and breathed new life in him. Then they didn’t make a 7th Rocky movie, and I think everyone just assumed that the character had been put out to pasture after finally getting a worthwhile send-off.

But then they finally got around to making a seventh movie in the franchise, even though it’s more of a spin-off. When I first heard about Creed, a movie about Apollo Creed’s son being trained by an old Rocky, I thought it sounded a little silly. It kind of seemed like some studio executive had the wonderful idea to make a Marvel Cinematic Universe with Rocky movies. Did we really need a movie about Apollo Creed’s kid? Hell yes! I went and checked out Creed the other day, and I’m here to tell you that it’s amazing. And you need to go see this. Once it came out I was pretty comfortable with calling Rocky Balboa the second best movie of the franchise, but that spot has now been taken over by this wonderful new flick. And it’s kind of making me want to go back and revisit Rocky, because who knows, this may be a better movie. This so easily could have been a cash-grab, a nostalgic waste of time that existed to bilk people out of some money around the holidays. But instead the team of director Ryan Coogler, writer Aaron Covington, and the three principal leads Sylvester Stallone, Michael B Jordan, and Tessa Thompson have crafted a truly wonderful movie that was far better and well-crafted than I think anyone else would have assumed.

Creed Prefight

Creed follows the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who is hilariously named Adonis (but he goes by Donnie) who was rescued from a youth facility by Apollo’s wife Mary Anne, who has learned of her former husband’s child. She takes care of the boy, raising him to be a good man, but when he get old enough he starts to feel the desire to become a boxer like the father he never knew, even though he knows that it was boxing that killed him. And let me make a comment right here that I thought it was fascinating that this movie, which is incredibly dramatic and wonderful, made a lot of comments about the fact Apollo died in the ring, but wisely didn’t mention the fact that he died fighting a goddamn Russian cyborg while dressed like Uncle Sam. Probably was a good call. Anyway, Donnie leaves his life of luxury in Los Angeles, because all of the trainers in the town won’t take him seriously, since they know he’s the son of one of the best boxers in the world, and assume he’s just a spoiled rich kid who doesn’t want to actually earn anything for himself.

So Donnie packs up and moves to Philadelphia to get mentored by his fathers best friend and biggest rival, good old Rocky Balboa. He shows up at the restaurant that Rocky owns (called Adrian’s, which was wonderful and sad) and asks Rocky to train him, bringing up who his father is. Rocky is shocked that Apollo had a son, and respects Donnie’s idea to keep his parentage a secret from everyone else, but declines the offer. We think at first that it’s just because he’s old and grumpy now, but slowly the movie starts to reveal something amazing. They actually got a wonderful performance from the golem that we call Sylvester Stallone! And that performance shows the truly tortured and incredibly lonely life that Rocky Balboa lives now. Adrian, Mickey, and Paulie are all dead now. He has no one left in his life. He lives alone in a house, and just putters through life, reading the newspaper to the graves of his family. He doesn’t want to train Donnie because he’s given up on life, and doesn’t want any more attachments. But we quickly learn that Donnie is a very persistent man, both with Rocky and his new love interest, a musician who is gradually going deaf who lives in the apartment below him, Bianca. Donnie begins a relationship with both characters as he starts to bond with Rocky and fall in love with Bianca. He begins training like crazy with Rocky for a match coming up with a local champ. We get great training montage work of Donnie working as hard as he can to become the best fighter he can be. I’ve actually done some boxing training, and it’s really crazy how that kind of training actually is the best you can do. It’s also crazy how intense a workout just punching the heavy bag can be. It’ll kick your ass quick.

Creed Training

And of course, he wins the first match. Pretty handily actually. And it’s at this point that you realize how extremely well directed this movie was. The way the fight scenes are directed are truly wonderful, and are going to be the new gold standard for boxing movies for years to come. It mixes long shots that mimic the coverage you would get watching the match on HBO with very close up handheld cameras that dance and zoom around the two fighters giving an incredibly intimate and brutal viewing of the fight. But after the fight the manager of the loser leaks the information that Donnie Johnson is actually Adonis Creed, and the world goes crazy. We’re then introduced to the villain of the movie Pretty Ricky Conlan, who was maybe the weakest part of the whole thing. Rocky villains usually have a lot more depth to them, or at least menace. This British boxer is just kind of antagonistic and evil for no reason. His manager and him decide that this will be Ricky’s last match, and he’s deciding to go out on top by beating up the son of a legend. So Donnie and Rocky begin training hardcore for the match, even living together in a series of hilarious scenes.

But the drama of the movie starts to get cranked up around this point. Donne isn’t appreciating the attention he’s getting because of being Creed’s son, and starts to get a little standoffish about the whole thing. We then learn that Rocky was cancer, and in one of the most crushing and beautifully acted scenes of the movie, we see Rocky deny chemotherapy, wanting to just die. He explains to the doctor that everyone he loves has died, and he would rather join them than fight anymore. But Donnie learns about this, and gets super pissed, because Rocky is essentially saying that he doesn’t think Donnie is worth fighting for. So they have a little falling out, which leads to him getting in a fight and losing Bianca, reaching his lowpoint of the movie. But everything ends up okay, and he makes things better with Rocky, convincing him that life is worth fighting for again, and we get a truly wonderful training montage/Rocky getting chemo montage. And man was it effective seeing Michael B Jordan running through Philly with the classic Rocky theme pumping in the background while he’s followed by an army of teenagers on crotch-rockets and ATV’s. Which was a weird thing that the movie just kind of passed by. Apparently teenagers in Philly love just cruising around on little vehicles, doing wheelies, like it’s no big thing, and the movie just kind of barely acknowledges it  and moves on. So they head off to England for the big fight, and Bianca even shows up to resume the relationship. And the fight begins! He even gets a package from Mary Anne with new trunks styled after the kind Apollo won. Which is such an amazingly powerful scene. And the actual fights begins,and holy crap is it great. It’s a brutal fight where Conlan assumes he’s going to win right away, and spends most of the pre-fight making fun of Creed for being unworthy of the last name. The fight is beautifully choreographed, and even has some crazy moments that change the lighting so that the fighters are under a spotlight and the crowd fades away like it’s a damn Brechtian set. And all the while we hear the announcers talk about how no one thought Creed was going to get this far, and be this good, which is a wonderful meta-moment where the filmmakers are full on bragging about how they knocked this movie out of the park. And Donnie makes it the whole way. He knocks Conlan down, the first time in his career, and makes it to the end of the match, and just like Rocky, he loses, but by split decision, having earned the respect of Conlan, the boxing community, and himself. The movie then ends with Donnie and the extremely old looking Rocky climbing the steps that are so famous to the serious, letting Rocky get one last triumph.

This movie was so amazing, and so much more than I ever would have thought. The whole movie serves as an examination of the problems that come along with legacy, which make a wonderful story about Adonis Creed finally becoming worthy of his father and proving that he’s actually worth something, while also serving as a really interesting commentary about the movie itself. The Rocky franchise has a such a powerful legacy about it, and it must have been an incredibly daunting task to try and make a movie that would stand along some of the most beloved movies of all time. And boy did they do it. Everything about this movie worked for me, except maybe the kind of half-baked villain, and it just made me so happy to see Donnie and Rocky’s triumphs. It was incredibly emotionally effecting, and definitely brought some tears out at multiple times, without leaning to heavily on the whole nostalgia thing. It definitely tips in there some time, like using the music, the ending, and some slight references to characters from older movies, but it stand by itself too. It wasn’t an exercise in nostalgia, it was building a new story from the groundwork of another story, and succeeded in creating an equal film.

Although I’m curious if in ten years we’re going to get a fourth Creed movie where he solves the conflict in the Middle East by like, boxing an ISIS super-man.

Creed was written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, directed by Ryan Coogler, and released by Warner Bros., 2015

Creed Triumph

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