When we did our review of Spotlight, we told you the difference between “Based on a True Story” and “Inspired by a True Story”. This film sets up the uncanny valley between the two: fiction mixed with more fiction, but while seeming like a true story, or at least based off one.
Through six movies, Sylvester Stallone has portrayed his most popular and arguably most fleshed out character, Rocky Balboa. The Rocky series started in 1976 and has gone all the way through to 2006’s love letter to the fans and the franchise, Rocky Balboa, which was directed by Stallone himself. What most people remember about the films is he screams “Adrian” at the top of his lungs, fights Russians and works out to a catchy tune that my Norman High “Tigers” Marching Band friends got extremely sick of. There are not many films out there that have the pop culture impact that the Rocky franchise has had. Although, these films may disagree with that assertion.
If you’ve been living in an underground vault for most of your life due to some type of nuclear apocalypse, or no one in your family loves you enough to show you the Rocky films, then let me tell you why Creed is a bit of an odd duck in the world of cinema.
Apollo Creed is not a real boxer. He’s a fictional adversary turned friend in the Rocky franchise. Being based on the real champion of boxing, Muhammad Ali, Creed was introduced in the first Rocky film as the main antagonist and is portrayed by the classic real life action hero Carl Weathers. I can’t vouch for his actual heroics, but he’ll always be my hero. Basically, the first Rocky movie had him being arrogant and getting beat up at the end of the movie to some triumphant music. It’s typically used as an inspirational fable when someone is going through some sort of trials in the real world. Well, as most people fail to remember when recounting Rocky, Creed actually won the fight in the end. That’s pretty much like taking inspiration from a bee stinging someone.
Anyway, throughout the whole franchise, Creed and Rocky come to blows again and again, both physically and emotionally. Eventually, Creed dies in the ring during Rocky IV, by the living embodiment of the Red Menace, Ivan Drago, portrayed by the then semi-coherent Dolph Lundgren. It was an action/drama film in the 1980’s, so of course the villain had to be Russian, it was the Cold War dammit!
Well, the long and the short of it is, Creed dies in this fictional universe and Rocky continues on…for two more films. Now that we’ve established a bit of the history in this fictional universe, let’s talk about the film at hand.
Creed features the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Adonis Johnson. He’s portrayed by the criminally underused Michael B. Jordan (see the latest Fantastic 4 disaster). Now Jordan brings something really interesting to this film. It’s his motivation. Think about it, as an actor, there are so many styles you can employ to create a character: classical acting, method acting, or even the newfangled Neurostethic acting (I’d try to explain the last one but I’m pretty sure it’s made up by the Screen Actors Guild to show that film is continuing to be “progressive”). Jordan doesn’t have a lot to work with here. His emotional input is to be the son of a famous fictional character. It’s not rocket surgery or anything, but it does present a problem: how can the young actor motivate himself when the source material is completely made up?
I’m sure many of you are confused here and saying, “Isn’t that what actors do?” Well, you’d be right for the most part. A role like this could easily be phoned in and done with little to no emotion. Jordan doesn’t take that route. He makes you believe that he really has a chip on his shoulder and is afraid he can’t get out from under his father’s shadow. Remember, his “father” is a fictional character. I truly believe that took a lot of talent on Jordan’s part and I hope he gets to have meaty roles like this in the future.
At any rate, you have Jordan’s amazing performance and determination (both as an actor and as the fictional Creed’s son), but you also have Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. Now I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Sly in real life, but based on his body of work, I’m pretty sure the “Rocky” character is close to his real personality, or at least I hope it would be. Rocky is Rocky. There isn’t too much to say for Sly but he does his job and handles some of the more difficult sequences with the talent of an experienced actor. I will give him the credit of using his age to his advantage instead of falling off the face of the Earth and retiring as so many do. There is a place for older actors and I’m glad he takes full advantage of it.
After the performances given by its cast and a robust fictional lore, the final few things that Creed excels at is its cinematography and fight choreography. Most people don’t tend to notice one cinematographer from the next, but I really have to applaud the amazing job Maryse Alberti does here. Her work is also seen in the fantastic 2008 film, The Wrestler if you want a point of reference. Now, she has won multiple awards for her work, so it’s no surprise that she would do well, but when you are watching Creed, not only do you feel every punch, see clearly the agony and endurance of Rocky and Creed Jr., but you really get a point of view that is spectacular. It’s difficult to describe, but in each and every fight or training scene, you feel like you’re actually in the action. While Creed is only rated PG-13, the work done by Alberti makes it feel much more brutal. Make no mistake, this is a tough boxing movie.
Speaking of the boxing, it is incredible. This is a sport’s film, so of course everything will be an exaggerated version of the real thing, but man oh man do these fights make you want to get up and cheer just as in a real match. In my screening, there were several people that were actually shadowboxing during the titular fight scene, which getting that sort of response from your audience is just cool. The fight choreography was absolutely top notch. I don’t think I’ve seen something as gripping and thrilling since the Neo/Smith fight in The Matrix (yes, I’m just talking about the first one in the subway). I just have to say that it had me cheering, albeit quietly.
Didn’t read my fancy words, here is the short version:
The Rocky franchise can now live on since Stallone has passed the torch to a younger generation. Let’s see how many more movies can be made on this premise. Creed is a sports film through and through. It’s main job is to make the audience feel like they can do anything and sensationalize the sport in question. Check both those off of your list, then add to it an amazing performance by Michael B. Jordan, Sly being Sly, amazing film work, exciting fights and you’ve got a winner in every sense of the word.
Oh, and even though it’s not in the film, a huge pop culture gift the Rocky franchise and the band Survivor gave to everyone (and you’ll be singing it throughout the rest of the day) was this glorious tune:
You can find my personal favorite video version here, but you would have to be a Supernatural fan to really appreciate it.