Sunday, 21 February 2016

"One step at a time. One punch at a time. One round at a time."

Sometimes the best punches are the ones you don't see coming. Following the box office failure of the underrated Rocky Balboa (2006), the Rocky series was on the canvas, the count nearing ten. Creed not only gets the series – and Sly Stallone – back on its feet, but completely reinvigorates it.

The smelling salts have been delivered by Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, the directing and acting duo who made their mark with the excellent Fruitvale Station (2103). That their second act should be to revamp a franchise that started before they were even born is surprising, but certainly welcome. And if, at times, Creed follows the tracks of the first Rocky a little too reverently, it is no mere retread.

Much of that stems from Coogler's direction, flashy when it needs to be – along with cinematographer Maryse Alberti, he shoots one fight sequence in a single unbroken take – and impressively controlled, conjuring up a sense of time and place that feels as authentic and informed by Coogler's experiences as Rocky (1976) was by Stallone's. Race is addressed, of course, but it is never the film's overriding preoccupation – instead, the focus is on the problems that come living with a legacy, and trying to escape from a shadow that seems endless.

As the son of Apollo Creed, the effortlessly charismatic Jordan nails his father's flamboyance, but also gives Donny a brittleness beneath the bravado. He is a young man caught between the desire to turn away from that surname, and the need to know a father who died before he was born. Which is why he reaches out to Apollo's old friend and former rival, Rocky Balboa, for guidance. There is a reason why this film isn't called Rocky VII, but fans of the Italian Stallion certainly won't feel shortchanged by Balboa's role. From the moment Stallone shuffles on screen, weighed down by the baggage of six movies past including the loss of everyone he ever loved, he discovers notes he has never played as an actor.

It is a generous turn as both actor and character, a literally supporting role. Rocky gathers a team to surround his new fighter and takes more delight in Donny's achievements than he ever did in his own. As he is slowly revitalised by Donny's presence, Stallone recaptures Rocky's nobility and sense of decency, allied to a raw and heartbreaking pain. A career of action fodder has often obscured the fact that Stallone can actually act, and here he gives arguably his best performance. A punch nobody could have seen coming.

Coogler has crafted a film that doesn't adhere to the usual fanfare required for a Hollywood ending. Instead, it is the relationship between Rocky and Adonis that we really invest in, rather than who wins or loses. Harking back to the franchise's glory days.

The best Rocky film since the original, Creed honours the Stallone legacy while setting the series in a different direction. Surprisingly effective, punchy and powerful, Creed is a knockout.

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