With the first film considered a classic, and five sequels with varying degrees of quality that followed, there weren’t any demands to continue the Rocky films. But, shockingly, Hollywood thought on its own, and the Rocky movies live on. But, shockingly, Hollywood thought on its own, and all naysayers were shut down for once.
When the news first broke that Ryan Coogler is directing a movie about a descendant of Apollo Creed with Michael B. Jordan in the lead role shortly after the two put out the critically-acclaimed drama Fruitvale Station, there probably wasn’t a single complaint. That emotionally-charged and heart-shattering directorial and screenwriting debut is enough to prove Coogler’s abilities to handle a big Hollywood picture, especially a Rockyfilm.
1976’s Rocky is the quintessential sports film. When we first meet Sylvester Stallone’s titular character, we understand in the first five minutes that he’s not that bright and doesn’t have much motivation to go further in his life as a low-paid boxer and an enforcer for a loan shark. But that big ol’ teddy bear is so sweet and pure that you can’t help but love him; cheering with every win, and feeling depressed with every loss.
Boxing means nothing to me, but every time I watch the fight between Rocky and Creed, my heart is pounding and I tense up. Despite knowing the outcome, I’m so emotionally invested in this man that I’m having a heart attack long before the fifteenth round.
That feeling is unparalleled, not just in the Rocky sequels, but in 99% of the movies that exist. Feeling any bit of intensity even the first time is a rarity nowadays. That being said, I was a millisecond away from picking up my seat and throwing it across the theater because I could barely contain myself during Creed’s gripping climax.
Coogler with his second script and Aaron Covington in his screenwriting debut crafted a character that is every bit the essence of Rocky Balboa. Adonis Creed (Jordan) is not just “guy with rough childhood accomplishes things.” He’s got plenty of money and brains to boot – enough to get him a promotion at his office job. But he drops that and sets off to Philadelphia to get Rocky (Stallone) to train him to fight.
In Philly, we witness Adonis smacking around punching bags and chatting it up with the cute girl next door (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People). Rocky relates to him, knowing Adonis desperately wants to fill the many holes in his life – no father figure, no goals, and an empty heart. That’s what made Rocky such a compelling narrative, and that’s where Creed excels as well.
Michael B. Jordan takes every punch that hits him, and dishes it right back. The heft in Jordan’s work here makes it look easy, similar to Stallone’s performance in the original film. Where Stallone brought a childlike innocence to Rocky, Jordan brings sincerity to Adonis. It may make the character feel a little straight-forward and admittedly generic at times, but that sincerity made the emotion hit that much harder.
Coogler is the expert at that. The man refuses to let up on his characters, never taking the camera off of them (sometimes literally, the one-shots in this movie will make any movie aficionado drool). When Rocky goes through his struggles, the attention remains on Adonis. Stallone is always on the screen (and always welcome since the 69-year-old actor still excels as the lovable character), but Coogler kept a very streamlined approach, keeping the attention on Jordan, and refusing to let him share the spotlight.
That way the story never lost track of where it was going. So, when the bell dings to signal the start of the first round at the film’s finale, you’re beyond ready to go. You’ll want to jump into the screen and take care of the opponent yourself. The energy explodes off the screen, and the enthusiasm I felt as a kid watching Rocky for the first time came roaring back.