The task of the good sports movie is to create an experience of such authenticity that, in order to truly invest in the struggle and victory of the athlete, your audience is willing to engage in sci-fi levels of suspended disbelief. Fail to gratify their vicarious efforts, however, and even the most earnest project will be deemed corny.
But the good sports movie — which Creed, by the way, happens to be — accomplishes this task, whether the journey in question is finishing a high school wrestling match, or defeating the World Cup champs.
I went into Creed knowing nothing other than what the promo posters hanging around BART told me: that it was a continuation of the Rocky franchise, that it was starring the babe Michael B. Jordan, and that Sylvester Stallone was gonna be in it, too. Feeling like some away-from-home entertainment but not wanting to deal with the insanity of The Force Awakens, we opted for the path of least resistance and bought Creed tickets instead.
Here’s what I was expecting: a sustained and substanceless workout montage masquerading as a feature-length film; casual misogyny/racism so obviously pandering to a certain audience it didn’t even have the excuse of moving the plot forward or drawing a laugh; and a long, protracted, highly-CG’d fight scene culminating in Creed, Jr., knocking out a comically evil enemy.
While I genuinely enjoy so-good-they’re-bad-movies, even the ones about sports (and really, if you read cheesy shitty sports movies as a kind of butch camp, so much the better), I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Creed was not in that category at all. Had I bothered to check its rating on Rotten Tomatoes (93%) or seen that it was directed by Fruitvale’s Ryan Coogler, maybe I wouldn’t have been so blown away. Low expectations, and all.
But I don’t think so. There’s a lot to praise in Creed, from the script (well-written, funny at turns, unafraid of courting the gravity of truly high stakes), to the steady momentum, to the solid acting from almost every main character.
Stallone falls back easily into the role of Rocky Balboa, his tough-guy laconicism, which once communicated menace wrapped around a mushy core, now made endearing by age (or am I just a sucker for Hollywood bruisers who stage redemptive comeback flicks after years of flops and weird plastic surgeries?). He earned that Golden Globe nomination, and I hope he gets it.
Jordan plays what we would have once called the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s friend, competitor, and co-star until Rocky IV, in which he dies while fighting Ivan Drago. Adonis Johnson Creed — known as “Donnie” to those close to him — is seeking to reconcile his own genuine love for the ring with the loss of a father he never knew. But will he learn that individual identity is never really distinct from those who shape us? I’m trying to keep this review spoiler-free so I won’t tell you how that goes, but I will say this: Donnie’s hero journey involves chasing chickens, and also culminates with a perfect setup for Creed: Part Deux.
Jordan more than demonstrated his depth and capability in his previous collaboration with Coogler, and he and Stallone work really well together. I do think he still has some growing to do as a leading man, which isn’t to say Donnie doesn’t have his moments. One that stuck with me: Jordan’s expression perfectly capturing elation and fear when he decides he’s going to fight the world light heavyweight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (played by the actual world light heavyweight champion, Tony Bellew).
But in readjusting my initial expectations of a sports bone(r)head meatfest, maybe I’m being too hard on him. If you wanted to argue that the iconic role of misunderstood underdog, especially in this context, is an extraordinary challenge for even the most talented actor to undertake, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
That being said, even if I didn’t think Jordan’s performance was as strong as Stallone’s, I don’t see this as Creed’s weak point. If it has any, the romantic relationship between Donnie and Bianca (played by Tessa Thompson) would be at the top of my list. As beautiful and talented as Donnie, Bianca is the up-and-coming chanteuse whose box braids and dark synth music couldn’t have screamed FKA Twigs more if she’d started doing death drops onstage. On paper, seeing their own struggles mirrored in that of the other (plus the fact that they’re both incredibly good-looking people) should be enough for some kind of chemistry to exist between them…And yet, I didn’t really see it.
I’m inclined to diagnose this as having more to do with the shoehorning of romance into the script (typical for this genre) than with any technical shortcomings on behalf of either actor: there simply wasn’t enough script time to really develop their relationship. Even the inevitable “space” that Bianca requests when their relationship gets (R)ocky doesn’t carry any conflict for the viewer. Actually, it makes a lot of sense — this talented millennial couple should be focusing on their own respective careers, rather than each other.
In any case, the emotional focal point of Creed is the connection between Donnie and Rocky (or “Unc,” as he calls him), the authenticity and tenderness of which is more than enough to make up for the romance whose only function was to satisfy the straight male sports movie formula.
Which isn’t to say Creed doesn’t charmingly deviate from this formula on occasion (no women were harmed in the making of this movie, or at least the final version of it). But even where it does play to stereotypes, the pleasure of long-term movie franchises and sequels is building on the mythos of their earlier chapters. When Donnie recreates the iconic Rocky running scene, instead of sprinting up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he’s flanked down the street by a bunch of young Black men on doing wheelies on motorbikes. Hi-def and scored to perfection (interwoven original recordings by contemporary voices like Future and Meek Mill with samples of the original Rocky music), it is as difficult not to get giddy as he roars triumphantly into the camera as it is to hold back tears during his most touching moments with Balboa.
Whether or not it’s truly the dark horse Oscar contender people are saying it is, I’m giving Creed all my thumbs and considering watching it again before it leaves the theaters. Because at the very worst, it’s well-shot sports porn for people who love nostalgia, boxing, and beautiful men.
But I think it’s a lot more than that. At the risk of sounding corny, there’s a lot of heart here. Plus, we get to enjoy a fresh talent like Jordan taking on the mantle of Rocky without having to give up Stallone himself. It’s a nice compromise.
Since I don’t have the time/don’t think I’m equipped to discuss other stuff this movie brought up for me, I hope others do! I’d love to see more discussion around: 1) the ghettoization of “Black” movies and how continuing the Rocky franchise with a Black protagonist/predominantly Black cast resists this categorization? [or does it]; 2) the future of the Rocky/Creed franchise; 3) a different take on Jordan’s performance. So, you know, get at me.