As is regularly proven anew to me by my weekly rummaging through old papers to find old reviews that are theoretically worth sharing, I have carved out a privileged place for a person who still feels a compulsion to write about new movies. I was once required to see every atrocious piece of celluloid-wasting Hollywood byproduct that came to our little town. Now, I reserve my time in theaters for material that promises to be interesting in way or another. This doesn’t totally protect me from less compelling fare, especially during Oscar season when an obligation can arise to see earnestly dreadful important dramas. Still, I’m keenly aware that things could be far worse. Given my blessed selectiveness, I never would have expected that one of the films I’d feel the greatest obligation to see as awards bait cohabitates with holiday mini-blockbusters would involve Sylvester Stallone playing a character for the seventh time, and yet here we are. In a year of unexpected artistic comebacks, from George Miller’s riveting roar down Fury Road to Ridley Scott returning to science fiction for perhaps the best film of his career, is there anything more improbable than a film featuring Rocky Balboa approaching greatness?
It is immediately worth noting that the success of Creed stems from its uniqueness within a film franchise that is very nearly forty years old. There is that title, of course, which already signals a very different route. For the first time, the boxer nicknamed “The Italian Stallion” is not name-checked in the title of the film. More notably, Creed represents the very first time that Stallone isn’t the sole credited screenwriter for a film featuring Rocky. Indeed, beyond the obligatory producer credit and the fact that the film traffics in characters and graciously borrowed scenarios he credits decades ago, Stallone has no input beyond being another actor who showed up on the set when his name was on the call sheet. The many inversions in the work — thematic, cultural, racial, dramatic — are blasts of stoking oxygen into the inferno of film critic think pieces. That could (and likely will) become tedious as the discourse echoes into redundancy, but for right now it is indicative of a strangely thrilling truth: for the first time in the bountiful rounds of the film series, an outing with Rocky feels like it’s actually about something, or at least something more than offering a parallel to Stallone’s own professional life.
Even as Creed moves beyond that simplistic avatar storytelling, it also exploits it. As always, meta-fictional pleasures are found in considering the ways in which Rocky Balboa sits in a desperately similar place as the man who plays him, up to the fact that, nearing the age of seventy, it’s clearly time to honorably step aside and defer to younger combatants. It’s increasingly likely that Stallone will earn his second Academy Award nomination for acting, and could very repeat the Best Supporting Actor win recently bestowed upon him by the National Board of Review. To my amazement, there’s worthiness to that outcome, but the film fittingly belongs to the actor in the title role. As Adonis Johnson, Michael B. Jordan takes the complexities built into the role and somehow adds further layers, playing the character’s waves of rage with wrinkles of compassion and his vulnerability with steely underpinnings. A moment of preening celebration can immediately be unraveled by a wave of fear, and Jordan makes the rapid swing between the two intensely right. This is star-making territory.
It is Jordan’s director from Fruitvale Station in the director’s chair. Ryan Coogler, who also cowrote the script, takes to the film with fervent integrity, seeing it as much more than a simplistic act of product preservation. The Rocky films are weighted with added personal meaning for Coogler, and he brings every bit of that to bear on the work. The film is about legacy and family, about straining to make one’s own way while gradually coming to terms with the natural inability to shake off the past. Not every swing connects (an exploration of the split life Adonis lived, half in the group homes and juvenile detention centers of an impoverished youth followed by another half in the mansion of the revered prizefighter father he never knew), but they’re all delivered with an admirable emotional and intellectual force. Coogler doesn’t discard the familiar cues of the prior movies. Instead, he uses them judiciously, reinvigorating them with a resonance beyond mere nostalgia. If the plot is awash in the implausible, Coogler and his collaborators so openly acknowledge that they’re in the business of myth-making that picking at the flaws becomes the sort of choice only the most dour of killjoys would make. It’s much more pleasurable to go ahead and believe that Creed can fly.