Few films epitomise the American dream more than the Oscar-winning Rocky franchise. The archetypal story of the hard-working underdog is so deeply cemented in our cultural and cinematic heritage that just hearing the opening bars of the famous theme can cause even the most unathletic among us to begin bounding enthusiastically up nearby steps. Rocky became an icon, and the Rocky films became a celebration of the Protestant work ethic upon which America was founded: have faith, toil relentlessly, and you will justly rewarded.
Forty years on from the original film and a new stratum of the Rocky mythos emerges in Creed. Written and directed by Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), the story follows the rise of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) whose father, Apollo Creed, was world champion before being beaten by Rocky Balboa. Adonis has plenty of physical potential, but no formal training, and knowing that his father became steadfast friends with Rocky, Adonis seeks out the long-retired Balboa to help him.
Littered with visual and structural allusions to the 1976 Rocky, the film has no qualms about staying tight to its source material. Adonis runs through the streets in a familiar grey tracksuit, drills relentlessly in the gym, and chases chickens to improve his footwork just like Rocky did all those years ago. While Balboa steps into the role of the grizzled mentor, barking gravelly encouragement just like Mickey did all those years ago. Oh, and there goes Adonis, getting romantically entangled while he should be training, just like Rocky did, all those years ago. It plays out like a topsy-turvy trip down memory lane, complete with suitably epic montage sequences.
Creed manages to be familiar, but not staid thanks to some persuasive performances. Michael B. Jordan is fresh and enigmatic in the lead role, managing to capture both the physical prowess and psychological naiveté of an up and coming contender. Stallone suits the world-weary supporting role, and the two gel together nicely. When Rocky has Adonis come stay in his apartment as training intensifies, the pair enter in a kind of familial bond – with Rocky becoming the long sought after father-figure for Adonis, and Adonis fulfilling the role of an ideal son for Rocky. Adonis’ love interest, Bianca (Tessa Thompson) serves to add another level of depth – allowing us to see another side to Jordan’s range, while also providing a plot-line that adds some tension between Rocky and Adonis. Creed manages to mirror so much of what made Rocky successful, as Coogler essentially retells the Rocky story for a new generation, and opening weekends in the US (where it was released some weeks earlier) suggest that there is still a large appetite for an underdog story. But in retelling the story, Coogler also preserved the original American myth – work hard, and you can get what you want, which is where things fall short. Because there is also a distinct feeling that the cultural milieu has shifted since the 70s, and something about the simplicity of the story-arc and central philosophy that Creed adopted rings out of kilter with the kind of stories we encounter in cinemas today. Next to Southpaw, or The Wrestler, Creed’s story seems a little facile.
Not that there is anything wrong with an old fashioned good versus evil tale, but Creed doesn’t even manage to do that. In trying to craft a more modern and realistic retelling of Rocky, Coogler loses the dynamic between Rocky and Apollo, as the lines between good and bad become necessarily blurred. Enjoyable, albeit hollow, Creed is a powerful start to the new generation of the boxing franchise.