Give Ryan Coogler a moving body and he’ll give you a moment worthy of the Rocky series. And since the Fruitvale Station director has moved into that franchise game with his second film—his sequel is about a well-off African-American boxer called Creed—he’s got some iconic motions to work with. Take the steadicam shot of our eponymous underdog boxer, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), jogging through Philadelphia streets: Coogler stations his camera behind his actor, and he lets boys on mopeds and motorbikes rush through the left and right of the frame, blurring by while his centerpiece runs. And when Jordan’s boxer reaches the building where Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is waiting—the camera spinning, the boys on their bikes doing the same—Coogler and his crew drop all the sound out. Adonis is yelling up to his mentor, but we don’t need to hear what he’s saying. We’re just luxuriating in the glory of the motion.
The boys turn their rides up toward 12 o’clock, and you know that we’re not in 1976 anymore. But this is still the famous running scene from Rocky, and it’s hardly the only moment that Coogler dutifully recreates. He manages to resist some of the more obvious moments: Jordan’s boxer doesn’t pound any prime meat, and no statues are erected in his honor. But there are still moments of subservient fan service—why else would the camera pan to a turtle at the climax of a love scene? So when you finish watching this movie, you’re not sure: Either you just saw one of the more sensual and soulful American studio pictures made in some time, or you just saw another cash-in sequel that borrows the working parts from a better movie in lieu of forging its own. Which, of course, means that Creed is both.
His name is Adonis Johnson, because he never met the father that conceived him. (That’d be Apollo Creed, of Rocky’s number one, two, three, and four.) He’s a teen living in a group home when Creed begins, caught in one of Coogler’s rushing panoramas: The camera chases its way down a hallway fit for a state prison, only to find two boys fistfighting in the lunch room that waits at its end. The young Johnson lands himself in solitary, where a Mary Anne Creed comes to visit. She tells the boy that he had a father once. Then she tells him that he can have a home—now. There’s a close-up of Adonis’ fist as it is slowly unclenched. But then there’s a cut that crosses a decade, to the young man (now played by Jordan) fighting in Tijuana. Next is a cut to the following day, where he and his bloody face are back on the clock stateside, working at a financial institution. So his palm does open up, but never permanently. Like Coogler, he craves the physicality.
You can ditch a name, but you can’t erase your daddy’s address. Everyone in Adonis’ native California knows where this boy comes from. So he puts himself in a Philadelphia prison-cell studio apartment, directly adjacent to Uncle Rocky Balboa’s old-timers restaurant. He needs a new trainer. And the old man, bless him, wouldn’t mind a new place to read his newspaper—an old gym is as good a spot as his late wife’s grave. That sets up a clash of cultures, rather than a clash of champions. Rocky devises a workout plan for Adonis, who snaps a picture of it with his phone. The elder asks why he doesn’t need the paper copy. “It’s in the cloud,” the kid responds, and Rocky, missing more than a few beats, looks up: “What cloud?” That’s a funny joke, but it does what Adonis won’t—it trades on our familiarity. Lucky that Coogler’s not content to ride out that fight plan. There’s a reason this isn’t called Rocky VII.
He is, however, beholden to the general outline of the series. So as a successor to Talia Shire’s temporarily mute neighbor Adrian, we have Tessa Thompson’s soon-to-be-deaf Bianca. She’s a performer who lives under Adrian’s apartment and annoys him with her music all night long. And she’s got progressive hearing loss, which means she’s got a good excuse to keep him locked out. (There’s not much developed on that front, but we suppose that’s what sequels are made for.) As in the original Rocky, a hard heart meets a hardhead. But Coogler gives his actors the time needed to claim it as their own. More importantly, he gives them the space. He stages a whole club scene just so that Adonis can watch Bianca perform. Another scene sees him taking her to a specific real-world cheese-steak hangout, just so he can seduce his way into a date to her next gig. Tradition can get boring, but Coogler knows that the antidote is texture.
Adonis and Bianca start sleeping together, next to that turtle. The boxer throws together comically inept raps to go over his girlfriend’s beats while they’re lying in bed. That’s the kind of go-nowhere moment that spreads such a texture. And that’s Coogler’s strongest skill as a filmmaker—the invisible kind: he can instigate chemistry. Even when the Johnson-Balboa relationship turns tragic (as it must), Coogler has time for scenes that expand the margins of their friendship. The center of his movie is this strange relationship between a famous old white widower and the black phenom who shows up restless and insistent that his elder is obligated to suport him. They’re both fire-starting former-street kids, and you watch them grimace and recoil as they see their own reflection in one another—the flashes of performative apathy and false machismo that are required for them to survive within their class, and within their profession. As a sociological self-reckoning, that’s about as dense as Creed gets. But Jordan and Stallone—surely feeding off the surprise union of Coogler and Stallone—find enough unlikely gestures to fill out the night’s card. They grunt and gruff their way through arguments, with Coogler yet again giving them the pauses needed to make those gestures matter. And in those moments, you see the director’s invisible hand at work.
But that hand isn’t aligned with his eye just yet. Coogler shot his first film, Fruitvale Station, with simple blocking and handheld cameras. (He was working in a mode derived from the Belgian Dardenne brothers, who also create allegories of interpersonal faith.) He shoots these loose character moments similarly, which is to say unobtrusively. But the “Rocky Moments” get the bravura physicality and directorial gloss we described up top—he even employs on-screen text for added style, even though he has nothing to accomplish with it. He uses long takes and audacious choreography, often digitally stitching shots together for added effect, and yet all of it strikes you as a concession to modern bombast. These loud shots feels faker than the people fighting within them.
When Adonis fights his big bad guy—“Pretty” Ricky Conlan, who fills the Unstoppable Champion role that Adonis’ father once did—the camera follows him from the back to the front row in a single shot. That’s lifted from Raging Bull, as are many expressionistic details that follow. (Try not to sigh when Coogler lapses into standard-issue life-before-your-eyes editing.) But you notice Tupac’s “Hail Mary” playing under that entrance, and you realize its connection to the woman who first redeemed Adonis. And then you realize Coogler has the nuance to let that connection go unacknowledged. And that’s when you forgive the borrowed shots and overambitious aesthetics. They’re growing pains. This is a transitional sequel, and Coogler is making a transition of his own. Creed isn’t his destination. But like his characters, he’s moving swiftly.
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