There’s a Simpsons gag* where Bart has to solve a puzzle using Roman numerals and he uses the only modern-day frame of reference he has: Rocky movie titles. The punchline, “Rocky VII: Adrian’s Revenge!” was funny because at the time there were only four Rocky movies and no one could imagine that stretching to seven someday. Creed is the seventh movie featuring the character made famous by Sylvester Stallone (and the only film in the franchise not written by Stallone), but we’re a million miles from the superheroics of Rocky IV and even the old-fighter-makes-a-comeback trope of Rocky Balboa. 2015 Rocky isn’t a bum, but he’s come full circle to the good-natured loner we were introduced to in 1976. Without Adrian, without his son, without even Paulie, Rocky is content to live a quiet life before Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) (the son of fighter Apollo Creed) shows up looking for guidance.
More Than Just Punching
Creed is a movie about identity more than anything else. Sure there’s a love story, call-backs to past Rocky movies and shout-outs to the professional fighting world, but ultimately it’s the journey of a man looking for himself. Johnson, adopted at a young age by Creed’s widow (Phyllicia Rashad) has spent his life fighting. From juvenile detention centers to school to underground Mexican fight clubs, Johnson battles everyone. Meanwhile he’s at war with his legacy as Creed’s son, his subsequent fatherlessness, his privilege, but most of all his “illegitimate” existence. At one point he tells Rocky he’s fighting “to prove I’m not a mistake,” and he proves it at every turn. Johnson is a character with agency and we see him up close as he takes each intentional step to becoming a Creed.
As good as the actors are in this film (and Jordan and Stallone’s chemistry is absolutely convincing), the real star is director Ryan Coogler (who also wrote Creed). There are some long take shots that will make your brain high-five your eyes, but the fight scenes are where Coogler’s vision really shines. Rather than the classic 2-shot of most fight sequences, Coogler drops his camera between Johnson and his opponents. Some people have compared the first-person perspective to a video game, and the camera swoops and long takes certainly owe something to that medium, but the evolution of technology is as much to blame: the language of cinematography is expanding. Shots that were technically impossible twenty years ago are within the reach of even young directors like Coogler. It doesn’t hurt that his cinematographer was French verite shooter Maryse Alberti. If you’re looking for an education in technique or just to experience a beautifully shot 2 hours, I recommend Creed without hesitation.
Rocky Is My Co-Pilot
Rocky is full of folksy advice for Johnson but one of the stand-out lines is delivered during Creed’s final showdown with British phenom Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew). “It’s you against you out there,” Rocky tells a bloodied Johnson, “he’s just an obstacle.” Creed is not a redemption story: Johnson is doing very well before he comes knocking on Rocky’s door. But it’s that eternal question: who am I? that plagues our hero throughout the film. Johnson’s journey leads him across the country, through a romantic relationship, a mentoring relationship and a family relationship, but it’s his relationship with himself that needs to be solved. There’s no explicitly Christian content here (for that why not give Carman’s 2001 boxing film The Champion a try**?), but the existential theme of defining ourselves is writ large on every frame. Go see this movie over Christmas break (after you see that other seventh movie, of course) and grapple with the obstacles keeping you from understanding who you really are.
*”Lemon of Troy,” one of the top 10 greatest Simpsons episodes ever.
**On second thought, don’t.