Over the weekend, I watched the 2015 hit Creed. This is not surprising. Since I saw the first Rocky in early 1977, I’ve been a fan of it. That first film remains a great cinematic accomplishment. Although utterly genre, John Avildsen’s direction makes the film seem almost cinéma vérité. It was the first film to make major use of the steadicam — but primarily for financial reasons. Thus, it adds to the film rather than distracting as it did in many films to follow, most notably Goodfellas. The acting was exceptional, and the script establish Sylvester Stallone as one of the best genre writers in Hollywood.
I was almost as happy with Rocky II. Although Stallone directed it, he did his best to imitate Avildsen. I remember going to see Rocky III on opening day and being crushed. It was clear at that point that any art in the Rocky franchise was gone and that it was now commodity. Rocky IV was an offense of epic proportions. Even without getting into the politics of it, the casting of Dolph Lundgren was rediculous. Rocky V is an odd film. It is Stallone’s weakest script, but it manages to succeed more than it deserves with the return of Avildsen as director. Finally, Rocky Balboa managed to charm, but the boxing was ancillary and even more unbelievable than usual.
Creed Is a Reboot
Creed is distinct in many ways. Primarily, it is a reboot — essentially a remake of the first film. It is the only one in the Rocky universe in which the title character does no boxing. Unlike all the other films that you could say were Stallone’s, this one is writer-director Ryan Coogler’s. (It was co-written with Aaron Covington.) And there is much to like about him. I think he has a fine career ahead of him. But Creed is hardly a great film, even though only the original Rocky is clearly superior.
The biggest problem with the film is that it tries to do far too much in what is, after all, a simple genre picture. The film is based on the same “give a nobody the chance of a lifetime” plot that the original was based on. I have no problem with that. But I’m not sure how a writer could create a story based on that kernel and then expect us to take seriously the chemotherapy treatments of the trainer. But more than that, this is a film that is cluttered with too many subplots and a lead character that doesn’t have much in the way of a personality.
Creed Washes Racist Tint of Original
Still, I’m very glad the film was made, because it makes up from what I always saw as a problem with the first film: its implicit racism. By this, I’m not talking about the film itself. Rather, I’m talking about what I discussed in Zulu and the Racism We Bring to It. I simply don’t think that Rocky would have been a hit had the races of the fighters been swapped. That’s just a fact of American life. Maybe its more accurate to say that the problem is ethnocentrism: whites want to see a white man win — especially in the mid-1970s — when whites in the US were still in their migration from the cities to the suburbs to escape the “horrors” of busing.
Creed does manage to reverse the races of the characters. And it does it effectively and affectingly. Just the same, Tony Bellew as the “bad” British boxer Ricky Conlan isn’t quite the threat that Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) was. Creed was a stand-in for the ultimate white terror: an intelligent and powerful black man. In fact, that’s one of the high points of the original movie where Creed is working on his various business dealings while we watch Rocky punching raw frozen beef on the television.
Let Creed Be the Franchise’s End
I find it impossible not to see Creed in political terms — and very positives ones at that. The first was a huge hit, and I just don’t think Creed could have been a hit four decades ago. And it makes a fine bookend to the Rocky franchise. Unfortunately, a sequel was in development and may become a film. I doubt that Coogler would be much involved, given he is finishing Black Panther and seems generally of a mind to make films of some substance.
My hope is that Creed is the end of the franchise. It is the way to go out. What would a sequel offer us anyway? It would almost certainly be a combination of Rocky II and Rocky III. Adonis Johnson (Michael B Jordan) would marry Bianca (Tessa Thompson). And Rocky would die — but probably much later in the film than Mickey (Burgess Meredith) did in Rocky III. And Creed would become the champion. I just can’t see it being anything but filmmaking by the numbers.
Creed would be the best swan song for this very uneven franchise. I dearly hope that it is.