Judicious in its employment of verbiage but verbose, if not over-zealous, in its cinematic vocabulary, Ryan Coogler’s Creed is neither sequel, nor remake, but a variation on a theme. The working class hero pounding and clobbering his way into the American Dream has always been the root of the series, but Creed – a film that, if it loses to Rocky, only fails via a narrow split decision – must contend with different combatants. That it proves able to learn from its forebearers and expand upon their successes, and failures, in the process is the film’s greatest majesty. After all, it’s every parent’s dream for their offspring to better them. As Creed plaintively contemplates, it may be the only plausible dream Rocky has left.
Although it splits two protagonists, Creed boasts no working class hero. The Italian Stallion has settled into his middle class hole in the wall, fronting an Italian bistro assembled with an eye for fading dreams and forgotten memories. It’s a respectful icon to the past, but no one in the film tries to pretend his restaurant is the present. The pictures of Rocky that serenade the walls of the eatery don’t breath life into the tellingly vacant, devoid location. They simply add ornamentation, or clutter, to a monument to a faded era that Rocky barely feigns to honor anymore. His restaurant is a prison for him, a way to entrap himself in the past so that his eyes don’t notice that the life he lives is one embroidered by stable frames and hung up on a wall.
That is until Adonis Jackson, or Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), shows up at his doorstep. The son of Rocky’s now-deceased once-stiffest competitor and possibly best friend Apollo Creed, Adonis expended his youthful innocence on cruel, forbidding streets, and – although offered a discharge to domesticity in the form of Apollo’s ex-wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) – he continues to exhale upon the world in a series of scrappy underdog battles in Mexico. Ready for something more – or more of the same, the film tacitly admits – he heads to Philly to connect with his old man’s rival/friend (you know the guy) to learn a few professional tips. Only, Rocky doesn’t seem so professional anymore.
Encrusted in the ghostly pallor of years of cemetery visits to stave off loss, Stallone as Rocky is a revelation in Creed, primarily because history has afforded him the knowledge of his limits. Stallone’s historically stilted lurches toward the realm of charisma are stripped for parts here. The bolts are tightened by a breathlessly wordless screenplay that braves the cavernous cracks in Stallone’s face and the mumbling aimlessness in his eyes with expressive dexterity. The film does the unthinkable to a once-proud star: allows him to rust. Stallone comes away a hero for the experience precisely because of how much he cedes ground to the screen, allowing the film’s namesake to shine and quietly hiding his emotions to reveal a man who doesn’t know how to express himself. It’s a humbling experience, not only because it reveals a more human Rocky, but because it exposes a self-aware Stallone exploiting his historical inability to emote as an actor, here applied in service of a character who has lost so much that his emotions must have been entombed in the ground with everything else he loves.
Still, the star of Creed is the partnership between rising star Michael B. Jordan and writer-director Ryan Coogler, sculpting but not sanding down the roving underdog ferocity they revealed in first collaboration Fruitvale Station two years ago. Jordan fills in rare shoes: a black male afforded both his urgency and his humanity, treated as an agent as well as a victim, and prone to mercurial outbursts of both great rage and greater empathy. Jordan has always known the gift of screen presence, but he has too often been pigeon-holed into cocksure roles of youthful braggadocio. He possesses this quality here – and he knows how to use it – but it is employed in service of a character whose confidence belies and masks personal wounds often hinted at without words to their name. He’s wonderful in the role, and although he hasn’t yet achieved A-list status, it is difficult to see castigation in his future.
For Coogler, Creed is a chance not only to extend his winning streak but to expand his directorial repertoire. The gliding, anecdotal personality of Fruitvale Station – and the quiet lament of urban space and place – is retained, and in doing so Coogler is able to envelop the film in the post-industry haze only loosely hinted at in the original Rocky, itself a slice of popular goodwill released at a time of great popular cynicism and ennui. Yet Coogler also ads a new octave: an expressionist tilt featured not only in the final fight (where the editing germinates into something downright vicious by the end) but in an early scene where Adonis stands in front of a video of his father and Rocky duking it out. Adonis has memorized Rocky’s moves – appearing to fight the memory of a father that was dead before Adonis was born, but who still shackles Adonis to a name he disdains. Coogler doesn’t imitate Rocky, nor does he turn to the harshly monochromatic wheat thresher of Raging Bull’s brilliant editing dynamics; his take is more graceful than brutal, waltzing around the characters. The human form in motion, and not a light-heavyweight belt, is the thesis sentence for Coogler’s eye.
Creed, it must be mentioned, is populist cinema for the modern age, and not some variant of cinematic audience-critique or radical fire-brand. Of course, the audience has changed, and Coogler doesn’t dismiss his own history in a clever, sly scene where Adonis goes the distance of a Philly street while amassing a cadre of African-American bikers in the process. It would be foolish to deny the role of racial backlash in the success of the original Rocky – white audiences confronting new-found racial equality found complacency and even empathy in a story of a white male hero facing a black-skinned onslaught. It isn’t for nothing that four of the five prior Rocky films that center Rocky himself facing a protagonist in the ring place him against a black body, and not a white one (Rocky IV, released in the heyday of rah-rah American anti-Soviet propaganda, was something of a racial high holiday as all Americans could bond together against a constructed common threat, but even then the film’s narrative centered a white male agent (Rocky) avenging the failure of his black male friend).
Where in this racial stew does Creed lie? On one hand, exactly where you expect it to, but there’s also a comfort in familiarity. In many ways Creed is a more successful version of this year’s Straight Outta Compton – another cinematic reminder from Hollywood that black people exist and, apparently, enjoy seeing movies too. Like that film, its narrative is slanted and bent but not fractured convention – an underdog story in the classical Hollywood tradition with a distinctly non-classical protagonist. Creed doesn’t have many choice words for the full-throated individualism inherent to cinema, and American cinema in particular, but it does ask, or demand, that we allow African-Americans a participatory role in this theoretical Dream. Creed is not radical filmmaking; it is traditional filmmaking with a non-traditional protagonist.
So yes, Creed does something that forty years ago would have been unthinkable: recasts the Great White Hero in black skin, and asks that America collectively bond as a unit in support of an African-American male in a mainstream Hollywood motion picture. It hopes not to destroy the tenants of American entertainment but to rectify them by affording black characters and audiences a place in that tradition. Much like Django Unchained, it asks that we take seriously the idea of a black male besting a white male in the American cinema – a meaningful proposition, and one we should not dismiss as pointless or trivial.
Yet, at the same time, Creed is not mutinous cinema, not at a conceptual level nor at a cinematic level. By all means, watch Creed, and enjoy it. But it remains to be seen whether films like Django or Creed will ripple into a concussive conglomerate that is critical of American cinema – the Western and the boxing film are two of the oldest rules in the book, after all – or whether they will merely protect the white rot underneath with a darker coat of post-racial liberal individualist paint. Things can get murky in modern American racial cinema. As murky as the thick morning fog rolling across the tattered crevices of the tenements of Southern Philadelphia. You just never quite know which way the fog will roll, or how the split decision will turn out.