Rocky franchise not yet down for the count: Coogler’s newest entry invigorates series
Ryan Coogler, who grew up in Oakland and Richmond, was an unknown filmmaker with just a few shorts under his belt when he became the toast of Sundance in 2013, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for his very first feature, the Bay Area-centered Fruitvale Station. The film went on to garner 52 award nominations and 38 wins, and now, just two short years later, Coogler is at the helm of the seventh movie in one of the most renowned, revered film franchises in cinema history: Rocky. Fortunately, Coogler proves his Sundance success was no fluke, as his second feature and the newest Rocky film, Creed, maintains the spirit of its predecessors while bringing fresh energy and depth to the storied series.
Creed tells the story of Adonis “Donny” Johnson Creed, the illegitimate son of Rocky’s original boxing rival and longtime friend, Apollo Creed. Michael B. Jordan, who also starred as Oscar Grant in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, reunites with Coogler here to bring to life the story of a son finding his path in the shadow of a famous father he never knew. Born after Apollo’s death and raised by his stepmother, Mary Anne Johnson Creed (Phylicia Rashad), Donny is first introduced as a defiant young boy living in a Los Angeles group home (his mother, we learn, also died when he was young). Mary Anne takes Donny in after he’s gotten into trouble for fighting (naturally) one too many times.
Of course, being his father’s son, young Donny can’t shake the boxing bug, and, much to his step-mother’s chagrin, Donny, now a young man as the film flashes to present day, leaves a lucrative finance job in L.A. for Philadelphia, to seek out none other than his father’s friend and retired boxing champ Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, reprising his career-making role). Donny is convinced Rocky is the one who can train Donny and turn him into the champion he knows he is destined to be.
While the premise may sound a bit hokey on paper, on screen, it plays out remarkably well, thanks, in part, to stellar performances both from Jordan and Stallone, who graciously turns the series over to the new kid, and seamlessly moves into the role of the boxing ring’s wise, elder statesman. Creed is actually the first of the Rocky pictures to be written by someone other than Stallone (it was co-written by Coogler and first time screenwriter Aaron Covington), which undoubtedly also helps to shift the film’s focus to a new, fresh character.
That said, though, Coogler makes sure to honor the legacy of the nearly 40-year-old series, with enough nods to the Rocky history to please die-hard fans. We get lots of conversations about and updates on various characters (Rocky, retired, runs a restaurant called Adrian’s, named for his late wife; he also regularly visits the graves of Adrian and her brother Paulie). In a particularly nice touch that hard core fans will appreciate, the film even opens today, November 25th, 40 years to the exact day of the date on the on-screen title card at the beginning the original film, Rocky, way back in 1976. We also get flashbacks to many of the franchise’s best boxing bouts (including many scenes of Carl Weathers as Apollo), conveniently shown on screen as You Tube videos that Donny watches over and over. And of course, once you hear the first notes of Bill Conti’s iconic Rocky theme, even the most sequel-exhausted Rocky fans will no doubt stagger back to their feet to see what the next round holds.
But that’s not to say a newcomer to the series won’t enjoy this picture; it works fine as a stand-alone film, even if novice viewers may miss some of its insider references. Boxing aficionados will enjoy the raw, authentic, action-packed fight scenes, including, naturally, an epic match with a villainous Liverpudlian with a bad-boy rep. As pure drama, too, the story works on many levels. Aside from the classic absent-father/son-finding-himself conflict, Coogler throws in both a bit of romance (Tessa Thompson is well-cast as Bianca, Donny’s spirited musician neighbor and love interest), and an exploration of Rocky’s post-fighting career – including an unexpected twist – that grabs the viewer and brings emotional depth to what otherwise could have just been another clichéd sports movie.
Coogler also smartly imbues the film with an overarching, gently teasing humor, which keeps the picture from taking itself too seriously. Coogler seems to be winking at the audience and saying, “Yes, I know it’s number seven (SEVEN!), so all the more reason we shouldn’t have some fun.” Some of the funniest jokes are at Rocky’s expense, and Stallone, with his sly (pun absolutely intended) delivery and down-to-earth, everyman appeal, gives and takes punch lines with comic aplomb. Most of the jokes have to do with Rocky growing old (a scene in which Rocky confusedly looks up at the sky after Donny tells him a photo he’s snapped on his phone is now “in the cloud” garnered a pretty big audience laugh). And of course it helps that Stallone and Jordan have terrific chemistry; the picture wouldn’t succeed unless their rapport feels relaxed and true. Jordan’s bottled up anger is well matched by Stallone’s been-there-done-that wisdom, and, even with the well-worn surrogate father trope at play, it’s to the actors’ credit that the pair’s growing bond never feels false or forced.
For those who are more than familiar with the earlier pictures, though, there are plenty of bittersweet moments that may have you ruminating on the nature of time and aging. There’s a scene, for example, in which young Donny encourages a heavy-breathing, slow-walking Rocky to make it to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum – the very steps made famous in the first picture, when Rocky joyously and gloriously sprints up them. To watch Rocky pant and pause up the steps here is to realize that if Rocky is 40 years older, well, you might be, too.
Indeed, what with another legendary franchise – one that premiered in 1977, only one year after Rocky – bringing yet another highly anticipated new chapter to the screen next month, the question becomes: will Han Solo need a wheel chair to board the Millennium Falcon? But no matter if he does; our heroes are still our heroes, grey hair and reading glasses (yes, Rocky sports them) notwithstanding. The battles may be of a different sort now, but they are just as great, and can still be won; grace and wisdom, Coogler tells us here, will always be the true champions.
Creed opens today at Bay Area theaters.