Creed ★★★★

Much like last month’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it too the seventh instalment in its own franchise, Creed is a tentpole example of how to balance the power of series expectation and nostalgia value in just the right manner. Its familiarity to the existing formula of the Rocky movies (in particular the original) is, again like Force, an intentional means of using its plot as a platform for a new story; the old, familiar faces returning to carry the title, but passing down the mantel to a younger generation of filmmakers and storytellers to make it their own.

Though the franchise title may have weakened in strength, Creed takes no risks in excusing itself for the same reasons. One of the film’s overriding themes is about the weight and value of expectation that can be placed on the shoulders of those living in the shadow of former glories; Adonis 'Donnie' Creed (Michael B. Jordan) living up to the legacy of his behemoth father, but also the film itself living up to the standards of the original picture – and Creed’s defence against this volley of criticism is evident in the astonishing effort that is its production.

Michael B. Jordan is perfectly cast as the titular hero; not only sharing the likeness and charisma of Apollo actor Carl Weathers, but the fact that he was born long after the franchise had peaked, and grown up not witnessing the glory of its successes is a fitting jumping point for the film aiming to forge its own path. Raised in privilege under the Creed name, his character Adonis' journey is almost a reverse to Rocky’s in that he wants to recreate the underdog sensation of making it on his own without the benefits of brand recognition and association with what has come before. The irony being that without such affiliation, the film would perhaps not work as well as it does, its dipping into the Rocky heritage offering some of the strongest elements of the film.

Rocky (Stallone) himself lumbers into the frame a withered and exhausted everyman, burdened by the tragedies of his past (the last 5 films) that never appear to feel as good as they should. Into his life steps Adonis, a protégé who revitalizes his passion for what he loves in a way that makes him want to return to his well worn roots. Stallone provides the best dramatic performance of his career in a restrained, world-weary manner of acceptance and subdued ego, his visit to the grave of former love Adrian showing a degree of tenderness unseen before by him on film.

Besides these striking parallels to past credits, Creed is a brilliant achievement on its own merits. Fresh eyes have been required with this series for a long time since Avildsen’s original, and Ryan Coogler’s direction brings a bracing change of tempo to the production that allows the story to bloom once more. Much like the inspirational grandeur of Fat City or Body and Soul, Coogler dwells on the beauty and intensity of the sport in ways unexplored by the series, with Maryse Alberti’s striking digital photography bringing the spectacle back to the ring in long, single take stretches that keep as much action in camera as possible – her previous work on Aronofsky’s The Wrestler paying off by delivering more visually than last year’s decent, but underwhelming Southpaw. An early sequence of 'Donnie' silhouetted against the projection of his father in action, positioned in Rocky’s stance, is genuinely inspired.

If there are weaknesses then they lie in some of the flimsier and undercooked characterisations of its supporting cast members, who are surely waiting to be fleshed out more in the expected follow-up. Phylicia Rashad as Apollo’s widow disappears following the opening act before a detached reappearance in the climax. Tessa Thompson as love interest Bianca, while thematically interesting in her own realm of compulsive and destructive interests, has little to do beyond yell support and fill the quota as 'Donnie' is practically summoned to her introductory scene in the film’s beginning. Also, as impressive a specimen and opponent professional boxer Tony Bellew is, his performance as 'Pretty' Ricky Conlan sadly leaves much to be desired.

On a technical level though, Creed is a thrilling experience that makes good on the promise that both Coogler and Jordan demonstrated with Fruitvale Station – with a billowing score by Ludwig Göransson that takes the film the extra mile to a brash and exciting finish. Much like the original, it is a sports movie led by emotion, and the significance of its surrogate-father storyline is something that rests at the heart of this new rendition. It’s a sharp, accessible, brutal and engaging journey in the right direction that feels like the sequel the series deserves.

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