#23 — Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson in Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015)
I don’t begrudge Sylvester Stallone the victory lap he got to take for his seventh performance as the hangdog Philadelphia boxer Rocky Balboa. While he’s perpetrated a great many heinous acts on moviegoers (he didn’t just star in Rhinestone, Cobra, Over the Top, and Cliffhanger; he also helped write them!), there’s something appealing, even charming, about his unlikely perseverance in the business. There might have been a little more sourness had the Academy Award nomination he received actually turned into a win, but, as was the case almost forty years earlier, Stallone couldn’t deliver the needed knockout against a better performer and performance. It further proves that the Academy’s sentimental streak faded away to near nothingness at right around the time Lauren Bacall lost to Juliette Binoche. If only that withering had happened about a generation earlier, we’d have Oscar winners Klaus Maria Brandauer and Michelle Pfeiffer, and the Academy’s historical reputation as a just awards-giving body would be touch sturdier.
The only real problem with the admiring attention bestowed upon Stallone is that it obscured the towering acting achievement that did reside in Creed. As Adonis Johnson (or, to be complete, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed), Michael B. Jordan manages the sort of charismatic, star-making turn that can elevate even the shabbiest act of calculated franchise revival. In the case of Ryan Coogler’s shrewd repurposing and inspired racial inversion of the Rocky saga, Jordan’s acting brings it strikingly close to true cinematic art. He does what any performer should always do, regardless of the perceived weightiness of the material: he delves deeply into the character, considering what shapes him, drives him, haunts him. In Jordan’s portrayal, Adonis churns with the conflicting tributaries that have fed into his life. He spent half his childhood living in persecuted poverty and the other half secure in the mansion and transferred privilege of the biological father he never met. He wants to escape and then erase his own past, but he’s also obsessed by it, standing in the shifting lights of one his his father’s heavyweight bouts projected on the wall and mimicking the blows that left the man staggered. Jordan takes incidents like this from the screenplay and engages in the alchemy necessary to transform them into emotion, felt as much as seen.
Maybe most impressively, Jordan keeps suggesting the welling anxiety of Adonis, basically acknowledging the inner weakness of am individual who’s fervently built his physical strength. Adonis is adrift and bereft, desperately longing to define himself. It’s not simply a name he can’t quite settle on. It’s a whole identity. Adonis keeps trying out personae only to find he can’t quite sustain them. My favorite single moment in the performance comes right after Stallone’s Rocky has given Adonis the reluctant but clear go-ahead to pursue an improbable title bout at the very beginning of the younger man’s boxing career. Adonis shouts out in triumphant excitement only to have that thin veneer of bravado immediately dissipate to reveal a more truthful deep worry. Jordan manages this transition in a flicker, as natural as an inhale followed by an exhale. The character runs hot, with a hair trigger temper, but increasingly he exhibits confusion as to why this agitated boisterousness is part of his being. Throughout the film, Adonis tries on different guises — business professional, fighter, son, boyfriend, underdog, local hero — all in the name of scraping toward a settled sense of self. In some ways, that inner quest manifested as outward posturing mirrors the craft of an actor. To give Adonis his due, Jordan has to stand before the viewers fully exposed, his work stripped to its raw essentials.
There are rumblings about continuing the story of Adonis, just as Rocky stepped into the ring, figuratively and literally, over and over and over again. Coogler, a longtime devotee of the Rocky films, may very well be able to pull off extending the story without diminishing it, continuing to add nuance and insight. I wouldn’t bet against him. Still, I’d be extremely happy if all involved simply let it stand. The sense of discovery is profound, particularly in Jordan’s performance, and the story feels properly settled. Jordan already proved he’s a champion in this particular ring. There are other acting fights to be won.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth