Indie director vs. Rocky sequel

Our review of Creed, the latest entry in the 39-year-old boxing film franchise.

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Traditionally, franchises and blockbusters were handed over to journeymen directors with workmanlike style and limited potential. There isn’t much space for idiosyncratic auteurs in the world of serial filmmaking and, even if they do slip in, they don’t tend to stick around. Paul Verhoeven is a genius, so of course he’s nowhere to be found on the two Robocop sequels. Long the playground of get-it-done filmmakers like Irvin Kershner, George P. Cosmatos and the like, studios have taken a sharp turn in the last few years by handing off franchises to breakout indie sensations.

It’s hard to imagine this happening even 20 years ago. Can you picture Steven Soderbergh roaring out of the gate with Sex, Lies & Videotape only to be handed a remake of The French Connection starring Patrick Dempsey? This has both good and bad implications for present-day audiences; a young filmmaker is more likely to have an interesting, unsullied approach to the material, but they’re also more likely to get swallowed up by the studio machine. When Ryan Coogler was announced as the director of the seventh film in the Rocky franchise, I was cautiously optimistic. It was the first time the franchise was handed to someone other than Stallone or original director John G. Avildsen, and I thought Coogler’s debut Fruitvale Station was very good. On the other hand, I couldn’t really fathom how his low-key, gritty approach would really serve a series that has made a point of moving away from the scuzzbucket grit of the original Rocky.

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Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) spent most of his early life bouncing around youth centres and group homes until he was taken in by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of the greatest boxer who ever lived, Apollo Creed. Mary Anne has a vested interest in Donnie because he’s Apollo’s illegitimate son, born out of an affair that ended abruptly with Creed’s death. Creed finds Donnie an amateur boxer working in a financial firm — pencil-pushing, as you may have guessed, isn’t how Donnie wants to spend his life. He quits his job and moves to Philadelphia, where he tracks down his father’s old friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), now a doddering old restaurateur who nevertheless agrees to be dragged back into the game so that he can train Adonis to fight the Liverpudlian world champ, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), whose opponent has just been forced to drop (because Conlan slugged him during a press conference).

Apart from the stuff about Donnie’s parental lineage, Creed reveals itself pretty early on to be more or less a straight redo of the first Rocky movie, garbage-strewn Philly streets and run-down gyms included. Stallone takes the Burgess Meredith role, Tessa Thompson’s Bianca movies into the Adrian role and the film more or less unfolds as you’d expect. Coogler brings a lot of texture to the proceedings, keeping the camera in close quarters and the mise-en-scène relatively unfussy. As in Fruitvale Station, he lets much of the action unfold in long takes, often following characters from behind as they go about their business. It’s quite a contrast from the previous films in the series (barring, of course, the first one) but things get considerably more awkward in the writing.

Coogler and co-writer Aaron Covington aren’t content with simply furthering the Rocky story; they’re also concentrating on making a Rocky movie, which means hitting a lot of the same beats the first film did. It’s refreshing to see the boxing world from a black perspective (most boxing movies are incredibly whitewashed considering the actual make-up of professional boxing) but beyond that the film is much more concerned with the signifiers of the Rocky movie: the love story with the unpredictable love interest, the training montages, the I’ve-got-something-to-prove-attitude, the triumphant run through the streets (this time augmented by teenagers riding dirtbikes)… I’m aware that many people enjoy the comfort of familiarity that a franchise like Rocky brings them, but I even preferred the clumsy, over-the-top sentimentality of Rocky Balboa over this efficient but familiar tracing job.

Creed certainly has qualities beyond its qualifications as a Rocky movie: Jordan is a compelling lead and the film gets surprisingly restrained and affecting character work out of Stallone. The fights (except, ironically, the final one, which is an editing mess) have a rawness and an immediacy that works better than most of its ilk. It’s not so much that Creed is bad, really — everything it does, it does competently. It’s just such an obvious and safe lateral move that I can’t help but expect more from Coogler. Given the keys to the kingdom, he opted for a quiet, respectful party that ended at a reasonable hour. ■

Creed opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 27. Watch the trailer here: