Stallone Month: Creed

Here it is — the end of Stallone Month. Sly isn’t in the lead role in this last film, but there isn’t a better set of bookends for this month than Rocky and Creed.

Creed, from 2015, is a spinoff of the successful Rocky series. In a surprising change, Sly did not pen the screenplay for this film. After having seen all the Rocky films, it’s clear that not only is Rocky Sly’s opus, it’s also his most personal character. The lovable meathead aspects of Rocky are pure invention, but all the motivational stuff — the pronouncements about hard work and not expecting any handouts — that’s all Sly. Rocky was the vehicle Sly used to share his worldview.

This film was written by Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington, and directed by Coogler. It doesn’t tell the story of Apollo Creed, villain and then respected opponent of the Rocky films. Rather, Creed tells the story of Adonis Creed, Apollo’s illegitimate son, played by Michael B. Jordan.

Adonis didn’t have an easy start to his life. His mother gave birth to him after Apollo was killed in the ring. He ended up in foster care and the juvenile system, where he was found and taken in by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Now Adonis’s frustrations are twofold. He’s still carrying all the anger from his early childhood, and now he’s catching grief from other people because he lives in a mansion and has a famous daddy. The poor guy can’t catch a break.

He takes out his frustrations on opponents in a Tijuana boxing ring, but he has dreams of someday becoming a real professional fighter. To that end, he abandons his life out on the west coast and moves to Philadelphia to try and convince Rocky Balboa (Sly, of course) to be his trainer.

Creed is a spinoff, but it also acts as a sequel to Rocky Balboa. We see Rocky’s life much as that film left it, only with another grave for Rocky to visit (so long, Paulie), and no sign of that film’s supporting cast, either. Rocky agrees to train Adonis, because there wouldn’t be a film without that, and Adonis begins his journey to boxing glory. It’s not as easy as I make it seem for Adonis, but that’s the general plot. Along the way there is adversity, a love interest that could have been excised from the film completely, three or four training montages, and two very well filmed boxing scenes.

Adonis’s first opponent is Leo Sporino, played by middleweight boxer Gabriel Rosado. Leo is managed by his father, Pete, played by Ritchie Coster (who once nabbed a Law & Order role from a friend of mine, but that’s another story). The fight is a single take lasting the entire two rounds of the fight. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti kept the camera in the ring, close up to the fighters, circling around them and shifting focus from one fighter to the other as needed. The fight choreography is better than any that was seen in a Rocky film. On a second viewing, it’s clear that there is no improvisation in the moves. It’s a little slower than real boxing, and too clearly a dance between the two actors, but it looks great. For her efforts, Alberti was snubbed by every major film award, receiving not a single nomination for her work. Unbelievable.

Adonis’s next pro fight, and the film’s climax, is against Ricky Conlan, played by Tony Bellew, who, as of this writing, is a contender to take on pound for pound #1 fighter in the world Andre Ward, who also has a brief appearance in the film. Bellew was cast well. It’s a good rule to never expect much out of performers who are not professional actors, yet Bellew was infectious. He was no Apollo Creed, but he had just the right amount of boastfulness and intimidation for the role. He also looks like he hits a ton, which turns out to be important in a boxing movie. Gone are the days of Sonny Corleone phantom punches and wide open hooks. We have some realistic boxing in this movie.

It’s not all about the boxing, though. Creed is about a man finding himself. He does so through violence, sure, but he isn’t a criminal. Adonis is tortured in ways that aren’t easily understood or empathized with without experiencing them firsthand. To come up from so low, and then to take on a legacy like Apollo Creed’s, is not an easy thing to do. Besides the demands on Adonis, there were also high demands on Michael B. Jordan. He has come a long way since his turn as Wallace on The Wire. He was a still a child during that show, and there was no indication at all that he would continue working on the craft of acting. Jordan is beginning to excel as an actor, and this role was important for him. He had to act alongside one of the most beloved characters and biggest stars in film history, and not get overwhelmed or overshadowed. He partners well with Sly, and by the end of the film it was like the two had always known each other. That’s the direction the story went, and how well the two worked together.

Creed is a wonderful follow-up to Rocky. Coogler and Covington saw an opportunity for more stories in the Rocky universe, and came up with a killer. It’s not a perfect film, as witnessed by the throwaway romance and needless appearance by cancer (really, cancer should have its own IMDb page), but still very, very good.

So that’s it. The end of Stallone Month. This was a harder month to put together than Schwarzenegger Month or any of the October Horrorshows. The reason for that is simple. Sly has been in some mediocre flicks. He has been in some legendary films, but in watching 31 of these films, the poor depths of his filmography become apparent. Still, what a career. Sylvester Stallone is not just an actor. He is a writer and a director, as well. He is not great at any of it. But when taken as a whole, combined with his tenacity, it did result in moments of greatness. There are so many films featured this month that I will be glad to never see again. Alternatively, those films that do succeed have left a lasting impression not just because they’re good, but because there is an overarching narrative of Sly’s journey as a filmmaker. Like his career, then, this has been an up and down month. If I do something like this again, I’ll have to make sure whomever I choose doesn’t have a stinker like Driven in their oeuvre.