Creed movie full length review - Forget Johnny Storm - this is Jordan REALLY on fire
Everyone loves to root for the underdog - it's the pillar of the sports movie genre.
But what about when the 'underdog' has all kinds of privileges, resources, connections, lineage, and is only in the situation he's in out of pride and having a chip on his shoulder? It might sound obnoxious and repellant, but this subtle tweaking of the formula is actually what makes Creed interesting, and stand apart from the glut of recent boxing movies (which fall into roughly two categories: those that do and don't have Sylvester Stallone). But director Ryan Coogler is savvy about how to play a sports flick in the shadow of precedents, boldly aligning with and distinguishing from the Rocky franchise, and crafting both a powerful exploration of obsession and legacy and an infectiously rousing and fun punch-up in its own right.
Masculine melodrama is so mired in the sports genre that the prospect of another dose might feel akin to getting walloped in the face by Rocky, but Jordan's Adonis ("Donnie") Creed sparks interest by being, in many ways, the fundamental outsider for a genre normally inhabited by the downtrodden working class. After an opening teaser of Donnie scrapping in an orphanage as a fiery-eyed child, he's adopted and taken in by the wife of the deceased Apollo Creed, who enshrouds him with his legacy. This Creed is brought up in an imposingly cavernous mansion, his battle garb being an immaculately fitting shirt and tie, ensconced with praise for his work ethic and recent promotion (see? there's thematic resonance to that name). Yet, the hollowness in Jordan's eyes practically rings with the tinny reverb of an arena bell, indicating voluminous depths of dissatisfaction and unresolved personal demons, foreshadowing his inevitable jaunt to Philadelphia, and reluctant following of the footsteps of his father. Donnie often remarks that he's been fighting his whole life, but Coogler's work is deft enough to show that he's not just referring to covert amateur scraps and orphanage brawls. He fights because it's the only way for him to reconcile his own deep-rooted issues of anger, abandonment, resentment and fighting to differentiate from Creed Senior. In short: he doesn't fight because he HAS to, but he does fight because he must.
As a sports movie, Creed hits all the soaring, inspirational euphoric emotional beats, but its character study is just as fun and fascinating. It's a classicist at heart plot-wise, with thereby few surprises and its fair share of clichés to prop itself up with, but Coogler aces them all with breezy, steely confidence. That said, a one-two punch of emotional heft and immaculate technical work certainly helps elevate it against the competition. Ludwig Göransson, filtering Bill Conti through Ennio Morricone, finds the perfect pump-up leitmotif for Adonis, while Maryse Alberti's excellently empathetic camera-work actively mirrors the mood of each scene: starkly desolate in the Creed mansion, jittery with nerves in Donnie's first fight, and soaring in the requisite Rocky 360 degree hero shot, bellowing, circled by triumphant bikers, in a scene so indulgently awesome you'll cheer through the buckets of fromage. And then there are the fights themselves: blindingly paced, bloody and scrappy, all building to the final 'boss battle' against 'Pretty' Ricky Conlan (real life heavyweight champ Tony Bellew, who chirps so well you forget he's not an actor), so electrifying it'll get the juices and tears flowing for even the staunchest sports skeptics.
And, in the blue corner: Michael B. Jordan is a firebrand, ferociously commanding attention and further substantiating his reputation as one of the most promising actors of his generation. If comparisons to Raging Bull feel more natural than Rocky, it's largely thanks to the volcanic power of Jordan's performance, and his ferociously raw, vulnerable, ballsy work making Creed Jr. a living, breathing, doubting, character rather than heroic composite. In spite of his deliberate, nuanced contradictions, he's impossible not to root for. Sylvester Stallone, transitioning seamlessly for star to mentor in reprising his most beloved role, mines new emotional depth amidst the mumbling as Rocky Balboa, including moments of disarming humour, and his own subplot of vulnerability where he is courageous enough to take Rocky's macho posturing to task. Tessa Thompson is flat-out delightful, skillfully imbuing her Bianca with so much effervescent energy and self- respecting firmness that she never enters the domain of stock romantic prop; instead, her courting scenes with Jordan bubble with a surprisingly endearing lightness and tenderness. Finally, the Hobbit (but we won't hold that against him)'s Graham McTavish is good and snarly as Conlan's trainer, excellently trading death stares with Sly Stallone.
Like its titular lead, Creed is unapologetically a product of its populist circumstances and lineage. It's also a classic case of perilously familiar territory being infused with such adept technical precision and emotional fortitude that it's impossible not to be sucked in and raucously engaged. Thanks largely to superb, confident work by Coogler and Jordan, Creed hits fast and hard, and is tons of earnest (albeit heavy on the cheese) fun, even for those utterly alienated by boxing. Just wait for the steps, and try to tell me it's not worth the trudge.