The nostalgic euphoria of Creed
The sports movie is typically a middle-floor, low-ceiling genre. Follow the formula (Down on their luck protagonist rises from the bottom of their sport to the top with the help of an unconventional coach) and the film will likely go down easy, but it will rarely feel triumphant. Many of the most acclaimed sports films aren’t really about their sport; Raging Bull is a portrait of a self-destructive, violent man; his occupation is secondary. Bull Durham is a romantic comedy about a man who never game up on his dreams long after they have passed him by and a woman who happens to love baseball above all else. The results on the field never factor into the plot.
Rocky was, and always has been, different. It’s a rich, character-driven drama, that is absolutely dependent on the sport it’s about and its outcomes. Boxing provides Rocky Balboa the first chance he has ever had to do something he can be proud about. By building the story around boxing, and filling it with characters as wonderful and human as Rocky and Adrian and Micky and Paulie and Apollo Creed, Rocky gave its climax a sense of stakes far greater than any sports film before it, and just about all sports movies since.
Enter Ryan Coogler and Creed. In his positive reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed, Alan Sepinwall said both films were essentially remakes disguised as sequels. I gently disagree; they are a passing of the torch. They harken back to the originals time and time again, because the creators, like the audience, like to be reminded of what we love. But the core of both films (I’ll review The Force Awakens later) is fresh, driven by robust new characters and returning faces with decades of untold stories in their eyes.
There’s something to Michael B. Jordan. A weightiness to his face, to how he carries himself, that expresses so much non-verbally. You know how sometimes you can guess someone’s personality by their body language? Jordan injects that into his characters. We see in Adonis Creed a weight and weariness he has never been able to shake, that he relieves now then by driving to Mexico to box in dingy clubs.
There are two shots in this film that aim to be remembered, and they both succeed. The first occurs after we see Adonis fight for the first time, after he has quit a lucrative job at a financial firm. He is watching his dad’s fights on YouTube. As someone who has often relied on Youtube to explore the history of this sport, this brought a smile to my face. He then projects the video onto his wall, and punches alongside his father, bobbing in and out of the ring. It’s an audacious image, the type that would be too much if it weren’t so thrilling. More than that, it establishes the sport as inseparable from the narrative. From this moment on, we are invested in Adonis’s journey. Coogler and Maryse Alberti, that magnificent French cinematographer, are just getting started.
The other shot that stands out should earn Alberti an Oscar nomination all on its own. It is an unbroken shot of a bout between Adonis and another much-hyped young fighter from Philadelphia. Tracking shots tend to do two things: call attention to themselves in a way that creates tension (we know the shot will break at some point, we just don’t know when) or to help us disappear into the rhythm of the scene. This shot does both. As the camera spins around the fighters and the ring, we are well aware that it isn’t making the manic jump cuts that we’re used to in boxing films. On the other hand, the ferocity of the fight, and how the camera weaves into its fabric, becomes all we can see. Boxing has never been this vicious and physical on screen. Even the geysers of blood and spit from Raging Bull feel like stylistic flourishes to the punishment here. When the fight is over, we’re exhausted. I’ve never seen so thrilling a depiction of any sport on screen before.
I’ve avoided talking about the plot because, well, it does follow the beats of Rocky. That Creed is so good shows how minor the plot can be in the scheme of making good movies. Adonis is a terrific character. And the inclusion of Rocky Balboa as his trainer feels organic, right, and not at all like fan service. Rocky’s story isn’t done yet, and this story isn’t just a rehash of his that have come before. The faces are new and interesting. The style is fresh. The action is thrilling. The plot, as before, is simply holding everything else in place. It’s the everything else that made Rocky great. So it goes with Creed.