By the 1980's, Sylvester Stallone's character Rocky Balboa had pretty much become to average audiences in America what superheroes, STAR TREK, STAR WARS, and the like are to their fans today. ROCKY 3 and ROCKY 4, in particular, strike an almost literal "good vs. evil" tone - especially ROCKY 4, which stands out for its surprisingly effective Cold War messages and themes despite an arguable 2/3's of the movie playing like the ultimate 1980's rock music video.
Rocky's hero's journey begins early in that film's second act after opponent turned friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) dies while fighting the Soviet Union's artificially enhanced boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). The rest of the movie becomes Rocky's quest to avenge Apollo's death. If anyone were to attempt, say a prototypical fan film based on and continuing the ROCKY franchise, that would seem to be an obvious event upon which to build.
For me, that's the first of several significant achievements made by co-writer and director Ryan Coogler (FRUITVALE STATION) with the movie CREED, which opened just over one week ago. Anyone familiar with what most "fan films" tend to be knows that they tend to be, well... bad. Clearly, CREED is not a fan-film in the technical sense, but it's not hard for me to imagine Coogler's pitch for it sounding an awful lot like one. Given that ROCKY is, was, and will always be Stallone's baby and that Stallone has exerted a lot of control over the series in the last 40 years (Stallone's late son played Rocky's in ROCKY V), it seems tantamount to miraculous that Stallone would even approve of the movie's production, let alone agree to produce and to star as a Rocky Balboa that becomes what the late Burgess Meredith's Mickey is in the first three movies.
CREED opens with little Adonis Johnson brawling in juvenile detention before being visited by Apollo Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Alone with the angry young boy in his cell, she talks about his real father a moment or two before Adonis finally asks, "Who was he?" At that point, we see the film's title and cut to an adult Adonis in the present day as played by Michael B. Jordan. Since getting out of juvenile detention, he has been raised in relative wealth and luxury by Mary Anne Creed and has even been promoted at some Los Angeles financial firm. To the otherwise proud Mary Anne's dismay, Adonis has also quit the job and decided to pursue a boxing career like that of Apollo after having won roughly twelve matches in Mexico. Knowing of Apollo's relationship with Rocky and having the personal wealth and freedom to do so, he packs up and moves to Philadelphia, where he meets a cute girl while convincing a reluctant and very lonely Rocky Balboa to train him to go pro.
Anyone that has seen the first ROCKY knows the broad strokes and can guess a few of the not-so-broad ones. Though it's crude to say it this way, Adonis really is a black Rocky - right down to being an adult with little or no extended family that quits his job to box. He has the same drive and determination, yet his motivation is more internal. If anything, boxing is an occupational step backwards for Adonis. Unless he defies the long odds, there's not much for him to gain and quite a bit to lose, which ranges from what must have been a pretty sweet income at his last job to the respect and admiration of his adopted mother.
Though one assumes that Coogler would want to distinguish Adonis and his background from Rocky's as much as possible, it's admirable to me that Adonis NOT be the stereotypical ghetto kid, which would have been the more obvious creative choice since Rocky in the first film was basically the white Italian equivalent. The narrative and thematic parallels in CREED to the first film are so many and so significant that I'm not sure what I can say except that the movie, itself, is so well made that I either did not notice or genuinely did not care until the movie ended. Now, I care only because that fact makes CREED all the more incredible in my eyes.
We live in an age filled to the brim with sequels, remakes, and reinventions, but no matter how banal or downright bad the sequels and reinventions can often be, remakes can suffer all the more by hewing too close to the original. If you don't believe me, subject yourself to 1998's shot-for-shot remake of PSYCHO by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk). There's something about the way Coogler shot, edited, and even sound-mixed CREED that seems to allow the movie, itself, to rise above its veritable station even if its main character doesn't really have to. Coogler often packs a lot of action and dialogue into what at least seem to be single, long takes and shots. In its own way, it's another throwback to the way movies were made in, say, the 1970's, yet that never really feels obvious - probably because the performances are so good.
It's the same with the music. I can't give you title or artists' names or anything like that, but the music in this movie is incredible - and yes, the score recalls the familiar ROCKY themes on several occasions. Yet, it still feels like it's supporting and telling the story of Adonis rather than just telling the audience that it's time to just accept Michael B. Jordan as a brand new Rocky. He is, but... he isn't. It's hard to explain, but it really works. The songs used are mostly light hip-hop and some cool jazz (Adonis' new girlfriend Bianca is a club singer), but neither this nor other elements ever add up to bludgeon the audience over the head with the fact that we're watching black people play out a familiar story which originally featured whites.
The relative irrelevance of race probably shouldn't be so significant or surprising to me, but it is refreshing. There's an almost paranoia nowadays about things such as franchise films about women and/or blacks, for example, being directed BY a woman or black person. Combined with the recent and far more serious news of protests in Chicago and so much emphasis being placed over the last few years on race tension and serious pockets of inequality in everything from law enforcement to sports, I hope that the relative irrelevance of race in CREED isn't lost on or ignored by today's audiences. After all, if equality is really what we're after, then the status of "non-issue" should be the ultimate goal... right?
In this whole article, I've yet to talk about a single flaw in the film. For the moment, I don't like thinking about it, but if had to pick a flaw, it would be the choice of circumstances in which Rocky is put at the end in order to give him that metaphysical fight outside of the ring that most will probably see coming a mile away. Besides there being characters that keep telling Michael B. Jordan's Adonis that he looks like his father several times when he really doesn't resemble Carl Weathers in the least, I think we've seen Rocky fight enough battles on more than one level that this movie could have let that element go in favor of keeping the focus on Adonis or at least come up with something more clever than... well, you'll see.
Otherwise, I'm not sure if CREED is really Oscar material. I can't even say whether or not my feeling like it should be is because the movie earns it or because I've been one of the millions that have loved the ROCKY movie franchise for so long and am a bit of a sucker for it, especially when it's done this well. I do believe that Ryan Coogler has made a tremendous impression and even bigger career leap with this movie - especially with strong rumors of him taking the reins of Marvel's BLACK PANTHER film - and given what this movie is top-to-bottom, I think... I hope... that movies like this can keep emphasizing real life values without sacrificing quality and credibility and promote what I believe to be TRUE equality by telling stories which prove, for example, that the black lead in a coming of age and/or success story need not start with the person living in slums and ghettos. I'd even venture to say that it's what could be making CREED that much more successful and that much more understandable and fundamentally relevant... to EVERYONE.