The third edition of the Creed movies, itself a spin-off of the Rocky franchise, arrives later this week directed by lead actor Michael B. Jordan. I thought this week would be a good time to have a look back at my thoughts on the first two films. (For reviews of the other Rocky pictures, go here.)
Creed (2015) | Directed by Ryan Coogler | Written by Coogler and Aaron Covington, from characters by Sylvester Stallone | 132 min | ▲▲▲▲▲ | Amazon Prime
This movie has no business being this good.
This is the seventh feature in the Rocky series, a 30-year franchise that’s already shown us everything its got: Read its last rights back in 1990 with the awful Rocky V, but staged an unlikely comeback/swan song in 2006 with the tasteful Rocky Balboa. What could another entry possibly have to offer?
As it turns out, an entirely new take on a familiar trope, and the dictionary definition of a great popcorn movie.
Start with a massively talented writer-director Coogler (Fruitvale Station), who breathes this material without it ever feeling like a retread. Then cast The Wire veteran Michael B. Jordan as scrappy boxer Adonis Johnson aka “Baby Creed,” an angry young man resisting the legacy and name of a famous fighter father who died before he was born. Shoot an early scene opposite another Wire vet, Wood “Avon Barksdale” Harris — that was no casting accident.
Then send him from California to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s old pal Rocky (Stallone), looking for mentorship. And find time for a sweet romance with an upcoming Philly musician (Tessa Thompson), whose music is actually terrific.
Creed doesn’t resist the genre structure we’ve come to know; the hungry, underdog pugilist given a surprise shot at the champ, struggles with self-destructive behaviour, anger issues, the sudden appearance of illness in a key character, and at least one training montage to an anthemic score. But along with all of this is a direct, thoughtful way with camera and editing — consider the jaw-dropping unbroken shot through the mid-movie three-round bout — a top-notch sound mix, and a naturalism in the dialogue and performances we haven’t seen since the first time Rocky strapped on the gloves back in ’76.
And a big tip of the critical hat to Stallone himself. Having created the iconic character, written every movie to date, and directed four of them, he hands off his most famous creation to a 20-something filmmaker and gives him a performance of genuine subtlety. It’s the best he’s been in ages.
Creed is nothing less than a clinic on how to reboot, where a brush of nostalgia and a spike of original creative impulse mix in a crowd-pleasing, cheer-worthy good time at the movies.
Creed II (2018) | Directed by Stephen Caple Jr | Written by Juel Taylor, Sascha Penn, Cheo Hodari Coker, and Sylvester Stallone | 130 min | ▲▲△△△ | Amazon Prime
Creed was a clinic on how to reboot a fallow franchise. Ryan Coogler’s 2015 picture was the best entry since the first one back in 1976. It tells the story of Adonis “Don” Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s greatest enemy and greatest friend, Apollo Creed. Everything about it worked — from the performances, to the anthemic score, to the training montages — everything that once felt played out was fresh again.
Of course, its success means the franchise must continue, but this time the freshness has gone off. Creed II is just OK. Following the triumph of the last one, it sure is predictable.
A new contender surfaces: Victor Drago (Florian Munteanu), the enormous son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the Russian boxer who killed Apollo Creed in the ring and who Rocky fought and beat in Russia back in Rocky IV. It was 33 years ago, but apparently not long enough for Baby Creed to forget. Rocky doesn’t want him to take the fight, but Don feels he must, even though he has a lot of other things to contend with, like Bianca being in a family way.
Do you think Don goes through with the fight, against Rocky’s wishes? Do you think Don wins? And do you think this sets up another fight later on, one he has to train for that much harder in order to get back the Eye of the Tiger?
Coogler’s presence in the director’s chair is deeply missed. Caple Jr tries to match his style, but there’s something tentative in the works. He’s just going through the motions, hitting the beats of what a Rocky movie is supposed to be rather than putting his own mark on the story. The fight scenes are fine without being genuinely stirring or doing anything we haven’t seen many times before.
A surprise appearance by a familiar face in the second act briefly enlivens the film, but then it’s a slog right through until the final fight. All the baby stuff is deadly dull, and the immense talent of Tessa Thompson is barely put to good use until that last 20 minutes.
Jordan is a charismatic presence as always, but the writers have given him an arc that feels as if Don Creed learned nothing from the last film, having to go through all the same beats again. And Stallone, inhabiting his most famous role with ease, has one great scene with Lundgren, but otherwise shadowboxes through the picture, moaning about his lost connection with his son.
If there’s a promise of something new here, it’s in the father-son dynamic between Ivan and Victor, and what happens to them from the beginning through until the final, bloody showdown. It’s something about forgiveness and compassion — implied without being seen through. After the rebirth of the hero in the last picture, this film could’ve offered the rebirth of the antagonist. It would’ve required more imagination and risk-taking at the script level, but instead Creed II chooses a safer route, telling an over-familiar story one more time.