Running Up Those Steps
'You're the first person who's called it Rocky VII,' said the guy at the sweetshop, looking amused. (The larger city centre Odeon has undergone yet another refurb to abolish its actual ticket desk entirely, which only confirms the subliminal message the place gives off: namely, that it's a place which is mainly in the business of selling drinks and snacks of various kinds, with the showing of the odd film an occasional sideline.) Well, look, it's about characters from the Rocky series, it has 'The Rocky Legacy' prominently on the poster, and – fercryinoutloud – it even features a very prominent appearance from Sylvester Stallone himself as Rocky Balboa. Calling the damn thing Rocky VII strikes me as entirely reasonable.
However, the name on the title card is Creed. The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, and you might initially be a bit wary of the whole enterprise, given the current tendency for every once-profitable franchise to be disinterred and returned to theatres via some kind of cinematic necromancy. Frankly, I thought they were pushing it with the release of Rocky Balboa (aka, you guessed it, Rocky VI), nearly ten years ago. At the time a friend asked me what I thought that movie was going to be like, quality-wise. 'Depends on whether or not he gets beaten to death,' I said, because you can only suspend disbelief so far, and a movie about a pushing-60 restauranteur taking on the world heavyweight boxing champion and lasting more than 30 seconds is already making unreasonable demands of the audience, I would say.
But back to Creed, which concerns the illegitimate posthumous progeny of Rocky's opponent/rival/friend Apollo Creed from the first four movies, played by Carl Weathers (not appearing here, for obvious reasons). Said child's name is Adonis, or Donnie, and the lad has something of a rough childhood – having your father beaten to death by Dolph Lundgren in a crude piece of Reaganite propaganda can have that effect on you, I suppose.
Anyway, having been adopted by Mrs Huxtable from The Cosby Show, Donnie grows up to be Michael B Jordan, who must be terribly relieved he already had this movie in the pipeline following his participation in the catastrophic Fantastic Four adaptation last year. Donnie decides to pack in his job and have a go at being a boxer like his dad was, but no-one in his native Los Angeles will train him. What else has an aspiring pugilist to do but head off to Philadelphia and persuade his father's great rival to be his trainer…?
Twist my arm and I will admit that I have perhaps been a bit glib and flippant about this movie so far, perhaps even more than usual, and that this is largely because of its connection with the six (extremely variable) previous Rocky films. But to suggest that Creed should be treated as a standalone film, solely on its own merits, strikes me as being a mite disingenuous: the film trades heavily on the audience's familiarity with the original characters and their stories, and it's the contrast between the day-to-day naturalism of Donnie's life and the almost mythic backstory of the film that gives it much of its traction.
On a more technical level, you could certainly argue that the early section of the film is very contrived – just why does Donnie decide to pack in a very good job in favour of getting beaten half to death on a regular basis? Just why is it that no-one will train someone with his obvious talent? The film doesn't quite work hard enough to explain these things, preferring to just get on with it. You could, I suppose, also have a go at some parts of the film for their excessive sentimentality, but then if you're going to criticise a Rocky film for being sentimental you clearly haven't quite worked out the rules of engagement here.
The fact is that, once you accept it's going to be sentimental in places and the story is going to be an archetypal journey featuring no real surprises, Creed is actually an extremely effective film. The sillier excesses of past films in the series are discreetly passed over (the exact circumstances of Apollo Creed's death are passed over, we just hear that he died in the ring), and this is a sensible, serious drama about a young man following his dream, pursuing a largely convincing romance (Tessa Thompson plays his love interest), and forging a quasi-paternal relationship. That this prompts Rocky himself to reconnect with the world is handled pleasingly, and Stallone's performance is extremely creditable, although the script does seem tailored to his strengths.
Of course, every Rocky film has to conclude with a bruising encounter in the ring, and Creed is no exception, as Donnie, Rocky, and their team jet off to Liverpool to take on the world champion. (I suppose you could write a thesis on how the different Rocky movies reflect changes in real-world boxing – Apollo Creed in the first film was a charismatic showman, clearly based on Ali, while the main opponent here is an unpleasant, heavily-tattooed thug.) The film does just enough to make it plausible that a tyro fighter like Donnie would be taking on such a prominent figure.
And the actual fight sequences in this film are excellent – Coogler opts to depict an early fight via what appears to be a single unbroken take, but the climactic battle is a bit more traditional in every sense, and would be very much at home in any of the other films (for a long time I was convinced we weren't going to get to hear the famous Rocky fanfare at all, but it shows up at a key moment here, with the kind of impact you'd expect). I must confess by this point the film had completely won me over and I was really caught up in the story, which, if nothing else, shows that this is a very good film that does everything it sets out to.
Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it. This film has less of a valedictory feel to it than Rocky Balboa, but even so I wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be the final round for this particular franchise (an extraordinarily unwise prediction, given the state of modern cinema, I know). If so, it is finishing on a definite high, anyway.