The boxing ring is an attractive setting for exploring themes of determination, courage, and discipline. You won’t find a better offering from this century than Ryan Coogler’s Creed. This fantastic film manages to respect the stories that came before it in the Rocky universe while contributing a freshness to the standard underdog story. Coogler’s direction is apparent and smart, especially during the thoroughly engaging boxing sequences. Coupled with powerful performances from the leads, Creed delivers far more than the satisfying knockout punch of the standard boxing flick.
Creed dramatizes the ascent of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, through the world of boxing under the tutelage of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone). We are first introduced to Adonis (“Donny”) in a pre-title sequence of him as a young child at a correctional facility. He fights with the other boys and is a general ball of rage. Apollo’s widow tracks him down and offers him a home, and the boy’s fists unclench as he asks his father’s name. It is a wonderful little bit of visual storytelling, and a great detail. So, by the time “Creed” blazons across the screen, we already get a great taste of Coogler’s directorial flavor, and we’ll get our full meal over the next two hours.
Donny works a respectable accounting job in Los Angeles, but steals down to Tijuana on the weekends to an underground boxing ring. Despite a new promotion, he sees God in Boxing, and is determined to train and make a name for himself. While his motivation may seem underwritten at this point, the climax of the film makes it much more apparent. But for now, we’re fine with Donny traveling to Philly and pleading with Rocky Balboa for training. And, while Rocky doesn’t immediately jump at the offer to train Apollo’s son, he eventually acquiesces.
Stallone is absolutely revelatory in his reprisal of Rocky. By dialing back his performance and relying on subtlety and the character in his aged face, he wrests genuine emotion from the audience on multiple occasions. He alternates between pithy jokester, seasoned trainer, and damaged old man with startling ease. His is certainly the most affecting performance in a film rife with great ones, and early chatter regarding a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination is not unfounded in the least.
But it is hard not to notice the burgeoning star behind the camera, Ryan Coogler. Boxing films can be quite derivative with regards to staging and shooting the fights, but Coogler is able to showcase disparate stylistic prowess for the two most crucial fights in the film. What’s more impressive is that each technique aids in the storytelling, to the point that the director’s choice becomes a fundamental part of the fight.
The first major fight of Adonis Johnson’s career is against a sparring partner at his gym and is shot in one continuous take beginning with the long walk from Donny’s dressing room into the ring, through the pre-fight announcements and preparations, and into and throughout multiple rounds of the fight as the actors and cameramen perform an elaborate dance around each other while expert boxing technique and intricate camera work play off each other in magnificent fashion until the final 10-count releases the audience from this whirlwind single shot.
The climactic fight is terse. Cut all up everywhere. The brutal exchange of punches from the combatants is often interrupted. Rocky shouting instructions. Professional HBO commentary. Reaction shots from the audience. Not every round of the 12 is shown, but there is a rapid progression from one to the next. Always with cuts, though. Plenty of shots of blood, bruises, beatings. Even adjacent punches can be separate shots. This continues through the final seconds of the fight.
The contrast should be clear. The methodical length of the first fight utterly immerses the audience in the experience, mirroring Donny’s figurative jump into the deep end. We are not protected, nor offered respite from the fight, as this sequence commands our attention throughout. Tension builds as the scene progresses, and we hope for a release. The camera movements, zooms, and pans are able to highlight particular aspects of the scene upon which we should focus, and also offer more variety than a static long shot of the two boxers.
And then, the frenetic progression of the second fight almost overwhelms us with detail. Like Donny, we have so much to pay attention to during the fight, and one slip up could send us reeling (though for him, failure means losing to knock-out; for us we merely become confused). The multitude of cuts never distract or inhibit clarity, though. Instead, it feels as if they lengthen the fight by providing immeasurable distinct moments. And the moments are so brutal. The fighters exchange punches and then spit blood into buckets. Donny has his eye swollen shut, but continues the fight when his trainer aids him in an unexpected but brilliant way. Eventually, we’re left wondering if it will end, and know that the very next cut could produce a knock-out punch. We’re the director’s playthings now, as our emotions ride on the wave of the fight. Each punch and reaction is distinct, and our excitement swells with the return of some familiar music . . .
It’s just fantastic. Like almost any movie there are a few flaws, but they are minor and insignificant. The introduction of Donny’s love interest Bianca (a capable Tessa Thompson) is a little hammy, and their relationship goes through some manufactured hardships, but she is far more interesting than most women in movies like this. Nearly every subplot feels earned and contributes well to the story, but I am sure some things will feel unnecessary to some. Overall, though, there is such value in this film that even slight stumbles like these deserve to be ignored in respect of the wonderful artistry evident onscreen elsewhere.