Sometimes, not often, a film comes along where everyone just does their god damn job. The writing is tight, the acting is on point, the score is excellent, the cinematography and editing are engaging without being obtrusive, and the direction of all these elements is executed with a seemingly effortless grace. This is the heart of effective moviemaking that spawned classics of the 70’s and 80’s that are still remembered and beloved today, and perhaps no film embodies that working spirit more than Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, a studio gamble on a then-unknown writer/actor/director that paid off in an Academy Award winning hit that spawned one of the most iconic franchises of American cinema. The franchise has seen its ups and downs, particularly toward the end of its lifespan, but because we live in the age of nostalgia, there is no way this series was going to stay dormant. And, thankfully, Creed embodies the effort and spirit of the original film, yet still retains an identity and integrity of its own.
Newcomers need not worry about studying up on previous Rocky films, as Creed functions entirely as its own narrative while still winking acknowledgment to longtime fans of the series. Our protagonist is Adonis Johnson, the extramarital child of legendary boxer Apollo Creed, who died in the ring before Adonis was born. Adonis bounced around foster care after the death of his mother, but was taken in by Apollo’s widow. Growing up with an expectation of a calm, corporate career, Adonis finds that he cannot suppress his urge to enter the ring, but wishes to earn a reputation distinct from that of his father. So he moves to Philadelphia, where he enlists the help of Rocky Balboa to train him into being his successor. Adonis’s character arc, while entirely functional in its own right, works as a fitting metaphor for the success of the film as a continuation of the Rocky franchise while still acting as a solid story on its own, and the story gains an extra layer of meta-depth because of it.
However, what really sells the film is the combination of those key elements of film-making that I mentioned back in that first paragraph. The character performances are fantastic, with Michael B. Jordan absolutely killing it as a troubled youth who struggles with issues of identity and an angst that he has never learned to cope with, and Stallone returning as an older, jaded Rocky that seems like a very natural take on the aged character. The dialogue is alternatingly witty and heart-wrenching, injecting the film with comic relief at key moments while still telling a serious story that tackles difficult emotional issues, both for Adonis and Rocky. The score is similarly fitting with triumphantly nostalgic swells of the Rocky theme and more somber tones as necessary. The camerawork is fantastic, particularly in the boxing scenes, one of which is an extended take with hidden cuts that creates the masterful illusion of an uninterrupted match.
I could pick this film apart and tell you exactly why each of its elements work, but that would be a disservice to the efforts of director/co-writer Ryan Coogler to make those elements seem effortless to the casual viewer. His direction is spot-on, and it’s likely because his efforts that all the right people showed up to work and did their god damn jobs. This will probably go down as one of the best films of the year, and let me tell you, that was not a sentence I was expecting to write before the lights dimmed in the theater. This will be the film to go see this Thanksgiving. Don’t miss it.