For every cliched underdog sports movie that exists, you only have Rocky to blame. Sylvester Stallone’s immortal breakthrough role may have not originated sports movie cliches, but did popularise them in the format filmmakers copy verbatim to this day. Earlier this year, when watching Southpaw, I became annoyed at how this narrative formula has become so well-trodden, filmmakers now barely bother to do anything new with it- the twist there was that a rags to riches underdog was a millionaire riches-to-riches underdog. Creed doesn’t exactly reinvent the sports movie, so much as it merely breathes new life into old cliches- every member of the audience knows the direction the story is going in, but it feels entertaining and captivating nonetheless.
Like Gyllenhaal’s character in Southpaw, Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) lives a comfortable upper class lifestyle, with none of the working class struggle that Rocky Balboa ever had to face. It is in this idea that Creed introduces a new form of struggle- the idea of the son of a celebrated sportsman trying to make a name for himself, divorced of the inherent nepotism in the boxing world that comes hand in hand with being one of the most celebrated boxers of all time. He is introduced in the present day working an office job during weekdays and fighting as a hobby over the weekends- he has a romantic idea of boxing that requires him to move to the working class streets of Philadelphia, even though he has a salary far above living there. To a British viewer, this initially makes him appear like a class tourist, a rich kid who has romanticised the communal spirit of poverty without thinking realistically about the struggle to get out of it.
He is berated by his climactic opponent for being born with a “silver spoon in his mouth”- yet as much as this appears to be fighting talk, it makes sense to me as a working class viewer. No matter how much he tried to hide his true identity, once it was revealed he no longer had to put in the same amount of work to get to his position; the working classes struggle, the middle and upper classes sail by effortlessly. That it can make a cynical working class guy like me empathise and root for the upper class son of a famous athlete is an achievement in itself.
The fact that the climactic battle takes place in Liverpool (where we are incorrectly told that the 39,000 capacity Goodison Park stadium has 100,000 people attending on fight night) merely adds to this recurring theme of social class; thrown into a country characterised by the diversity of its class system only highlights how inconsequential Johnson’s struggles are. For a franchise whose sequels saw the villains get ever more cartoonish, having a Scouser as a villain is at least a return to normality, even if many of the supporting Liverpudlian characters have accents ranging from Irish to South African.
Director Ryan Coogler, in only his second film (after Sundance prize winner Fruitvale Station, also starring B. Jordan) has shown an affinity for breathing life and soul into working class neighbourhoods other filmmakers would portray as the epitome of poverty. Even with the sadness and desperation of the narrative, the streets of Philadelphia feel alive and triumphant; when we return to the steps in front of the Museum of Art, where Rocky’s training montage closed 39 years earlier, it is cinema to make you pump your fist in the air in sheer joy.
But the film is owned completely by Stallone. Forever parodied for saying he’ll never return to the Rocky or Rambo franchises, then heading back to them anyway, here he delivers his first performance in decades that can not only be described as good, but quietly phenomenal. It is strange to write that he carries all the emotional heft in the movie, with many sequences likely to leave audience members on the verge of tears due to his understated performance- his visit to the graves of Adrianne and Paulie is quietly moving. Unlike most sports movies, where emotions are loudly telegraphed, Creed is emotionally enrapturing due to downplaying these sequences. In a film so in love with the streets of Philadelphia, it doesn’t want to make you teary-eyed about characters who have long since passed. Instead, it wants to immortalise them as living breathing entities in the city just like the Rocky statue tourists all flock to take photos with.
Creed doesn’t reinvent the sports movie, but it does breathe new life into tired cliches; whether Adonis will become a cultural laughing stock like Balboa over the course of the sequels, only time will tell. Right now, all I can say is that this is a triumphant return to the ring.