39 years and countless Razzies later, Sly’s gone and bagged himself another Oscar nod for his most treasured role: the Italian stallion himself, Rocky Balboa. After 2006’s heavily nostalgic sixth instalment to the increasingly bloated franchise that saw a well-and-truly retired Rocky miraculously take the current heavyweight champion of the world all the way in an exhibition match, fans of the series prayed to good ol’ Adrian up in the sky that this’d finally be the last time we’d see the Philly legend strap on his gloves. Yet Creed – the spin-off we all winced at, mocked and laughed about on first learning of its existence – has, pleasurably, breathed a new lease of life into the series.
Written and directed by Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler, Fantastic Four’s Michael B. Jordan takes centre stage as Adonis Johnson – the illegitimate son of Rocky’s most fierce rival, Apollo Creed – to step up as the franchise’s new leading guy. Similarly to the ill-advised Rocky VI, Stallone steps into the mentor role to help Creed Jnr. get battle ready for a money-spinning fight against world champ ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlon (played by real life boxer, Tony Bellow).
With many a sports film, blow by blow it’s like reading off the same tired script sheet of eye-rolling predictability. Though there’s nothing in Creed that necessarily beats away that genre stereotype, what Coogler has done – and along the way diminishes the plain-out-awfulness of the series’ latter fodder – is provide plenty of heart, lots of spirit and an acceptable-ish dosage of sentimentality to the well-loved franchise.
It’s a slight twist on the ol’ underdog tale: Adonis had a difficult start to life, in and out of kids’ homes, but after being adopted by Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), the self-taught fighter grew up in the Apollo mansion in the heady heights of Los Angeles. “I’m afraid of taking on the name and losing,” the rookie states – only letting the world know of his family name when outed by a disgruntled boxing coach. Nicknamed ‘Hollywood’, he’s not fighting a shitty past, nor the ghost of the mean streets he arrived from, but a history of privilege.
From a technical stand-point, action sequences are well crafted, with ‘one take’ boxing sequences adding an authenticity to proceedings not always seen in other fight flicks. And it wouldn’t be Rocky without a training montage, right? The infamous Balboa training regime – the chicken’s and the early morning street runs – are given a new lease of 21st century life, as Adonis sprints through Philadelphia’s suburbs like he was in the middle of a Beats commercial.
However good Michael B. Jordan is as the wannabe champ, however, there’s a heavy reliance on Stallone to raise Creed up from the murky waters of mediocrity. 40 years on and Rocky, older, wiser and increasingly better with his words, is still a scene-stealer, bringing with him an unconventional presence which, in the strangest of ways, is thoroughly watchable. The retired boxer inundates us mercilessly with meaningful snippets of advice – meant to inform, advise and inspire – which could easily fall flat, but feel real and authentic, and, at times, are rather touching in an overtly sentimental kind of way.
Coogler’s surprise hit is enjoyable boxing fodder that sits comfortably with the franchises earlier, well-loved, efforts. It’s a shock to most that it’s worked so well and Sly, already a Golden Globe winner for his efforts, looks set to cause a rumble at the 2016 Oscars – and there’s few who’d deny him that.