“Creed,” Surprisingly, has a Deft Touch

by Ryan Anderson (@randerson_ryan)

I’m as surprised to be writing this as you all are to be reading it, but, here goes: the umpteenth iteration of the “Rocky” series, in theaters now, is actually, (gulp), good, and–wait for it–Sylvester Stallone may be worthy of an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

Is this bizarro world? No, Ryan Coogler, director, Stallone, as an aged Rocky Balboa, naturally, Michael B. Jordan, Adonis “Donnie” Johnson Creed, and Tessa Thompson, Bianca, combine to make “Creed” a sincere, compelling drama.

Jordan’s Creed is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, who battled Balboa so memorably in the original “Rocky” films, and, though he wants to make it on his own in boxing without using his father’s name, he does travel from California to Philadelphia to coax Balboa into training him. Balboa, wasting away in his restaurant, has been out of the fight game for years, but he feels compelled to assist the young lad when he discovers he’s Apollo Creed’s son. He goes about building a raw, angry, and talented young Creed into a legitimate contender, while the training pugilist falls in love with a neighbor, Bianca, a musician with progressive hearing loss.

The main characters are three-dimensional, and Coogler takes his time with the film, so their relationships develop organically according to their natures, not to serve plot contrivances.
I haven’t seen a performance this good and human from Stallone since his emotional role in 1997’s “Cop Land,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him nominated for an acting Oscar for only the second time in his career–the original “Rocky” was the other. Let’s face it, he’s mostly been an overgrown cartoon meathead in most of his films; one could certainly argue Stallone’s only legitimately good acting performances are in “Rocky,” “Cop Land,” and “Creed.” But, while Mark Twain told us politicians, prostitutes, and old buildings become respectable with age, we now may need to add Stallone to that list–he’s downright venerable in “Creed.” He underplays with aplomb, embodying heart, grief, and guilt.

There’s acknowledgement of his age and the passing of time, but not all of it is macabre. Early in the film, there’s a swell scene where Creed asks Balboa for some drills to increase his hand speed, and a reluctant Balboa scribbles down multiple suggestions on a sheet of paper. Balboa then tears the sheet to give it to Creed, but Creed says he doesn’t need it, because he’s already taken a photo of it with his phone. Balboa is clearly flummoxed, and he’s even more confused when Creed tells him that, even if he were to lose or damage his phone, the material is already safe and available in “the cloud.” Creed and Bianca are a quality couple, because both do what they do out of love and passion. He could die in the ring and/or sustain mental and physical damage, and her music career is like sand slipping through an hour glass due to progressive hearing loss. But, at dinner one night, both acknowledge their chosen vocations make them feel “alive,” so they’ll continue. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the crackling diner scene in Michael Mann’s magnificent “Heat,” when a detective played by Al Pacino and a thief played by Robert De Niro vow not to abandon their occupations, despite the attendant dangers. Pacino’s character admits, “I don’t know how to do anything else,” and De Niro’s character agrees; Pacino then explains, “I don’t much want to, either,” and De Niro concurs. Creed and Bianca know doing what they do can hurt them, but they do it, anyway, so they understand each other.

Often, in hypermasculine boxing movies, the female characters are superfluous or shrill caricatures, but Bianca is a strong, independent women with her own hopes, dreams, and talents. She’s with Creed because they hold each other in mutual esteem and respect; she’s not a sycophant, nor is she a hood ornament basking in his glow.

Jordan is, as the kids say, “cut,” and his dedication to get in shape for this role is admirable. He’s a young, fresh face with a major future, as is Coogler, for that matter.

The mean streets of Philly are almost a character on their own in “Creed,” as well, and it’s undeniably a nice touch for a boxing picture. Philly was home to the likes of Joe Frazier, so when Balboa tells Creed Philly fighters are tough and special, we know he’s right.

The boxing scenes are well-staged and believable. Yes, “Creed” piles on the cliches and melodrama, but what would you expect from a boxing movie? The very sport is inherently melodramatic and cliched.

I know boxing is withering in the public consciousness, but I hope it never dies, because I grew up watching and loving “the sweet science,” even with it’s seedy underbelly of corruption, and because it makes for such rich cinematic takes–”Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby,” etc., and now “Creed,” which earns a 60, plus, on the 20-80 scale from me.

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