In my review of Ryan Coogler’s well-received ‘Fruitvale Station’, I concluded with the following suggestion for the fledgling filmmaker: “The neophyte director has bit off more than he can chew, attempting to dissect a topic infused with racial animus. Next time he would be much better served churning out a less controversial, commercial product.” And somehow Mr. Coogler did just that by collaborating with sound designer and fellow screenwriter, Aaron Covington, crafting Creed, a mainstream tribute to and seventh installment in the Sly Stallone Rocky Balboa franchise.
Ironically, the weakest part of Creed is its main character, Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Rocky Balboa’s opponent in the first episode. As Coogler and Covington fashion it, Apollo dies before Adonis is born—the young boy passes through the foster care system until he’s rescued by Apollo’s widow (played by a rather stiff Phyilicia Rashad) who decides to adopt him. Despite being raised in the lap of luxury, Adonis quits his job in finance, and runs off to Mexico where he wins a series of club fights against lesser opponents.
Unlike Rocky who must pull himself up by his own bootstraps, Adonis never has to really about financial security. It’s not clear whether Adonis still has gobs of money in his checking account when he decides to move to a not so well off neighborhood in Philadelphia but for some reason it’s all about proving to himself that he can live up to the family legacy.
Nonetheless, Adonis’ lack of a rags to riches story turns out to be a non-fatal impediment to caring for the character. Our interest in Adonis however, is seriously undermined by his one-dimensional character flaw: self-hatred. The film’s opening scenes establishes that when we see how Adonis the youth has a serious anger management problem. As an adult, we must endure Adonis’ continuing chip-on-my-shoulder routine. Can we really care for such a cliché of a character despite his eventual reformation at the hands of a good woman and success in the ring? I think not. Don’t blame leading man Michael B. Jordan for injecting little pizazz into the film’s protagonist. It’s strictly a failure on the part of the films’ scenarists who are unable to transfer the charms of a Rocky Balboa to their modern-day counterpart.
Despite dropping the ball somewhat in the screen writing department, Coogler still proves himself to be a talented director. Fans of the previous Rocky installments will love how he directs Sylvester Stallone, who plays Rocky, as the retired boxer who agrees to manage Adonis, first out of obligation to Apollo, but later out of respect for the talents of the up-and-coming son. The only sour note is when Rocky finds out he has cancer and agrees to chemotherapy despite all the bad memories of what happened to his beloved Adrian (doctors and their deadly chemotherapy remain sacred cows in Coogler’s Weltanschauung).
Coogler shines best in the technical aspects of filmmaking. The fight scenes in Creed are expertly choreographed and real-life boxer Tony Bellew steals the show as the malevolent Liverpudlian prizefighter Ricky Conlan, who fights Adonis to a split-decision win in the climactic scene.
Tessa Thompson, who was so dynamic in Dear White People, has a lot less to do here as Adonis’ love interest, Bianca, playing a singer/songwriter who is slowly losing her hearing. The dark moment of Act 2 involves more of Adonis’ ubiquitous anger management problem–he gets into a fight with a musician who has top billing at the club where Bianca is making her debut. Of course all’s well that ends well when the cooing couple make up and Adonis goes on to acquit himself nicely in the ring.
With Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler created a “calling card” for bigger and better things. Now with Creed, he has proven himself as a “mainstream” director and is sure to get more work in Hollywood. I am impressed by Mr. Coogler’s technical talents; as a writer he should avoid the tendency toward melodrama and embrace an all-encompassing verisimilitude.