It’s not all that oddly apropos that in the winter of 2015, nearly 40 years after they both began, new films in both series will be released just three weeks apart from each other. And, the comparisons don’t stop there. Both new films will be overseen by someone other than the series creator for the first time, JJ Abrams and Ryan Coogler taking over for George Lucas and Sylvester Stallone, respectively. Both Abrams and Coogler are massive fanboys of their source material, and both films will introduce new characters to mix with the older, iconic characters from the original films.
The new film in the Rocky series is called Creed, and it’s written and directed by Fruitvale Station’s Ryan Coogler. It’s a spectacular piece of mainstream film, easily the best Rocky film since the first one in 1976. It’s rousing in its boxing sequences (a fight staged in one unedited take is a masterpiece of fight choreography) and emotionally engaging without ever sliding over into sentimentalist glop.
You probably already know the setup. Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. Trying to prove himself as a fighter, he travels from Los Angeles to Philadelphia in order to be trained by the legendary Rocky Balboa. Coogler clearly loves this stuff, and the film is almost overloaded with parallels and nods to the first Rocky film. Both Rocky and Adonis are granted title fight opportunities against monster opponents that have never even been knocked down that they are vastly under-qualified for, and both fighters are selected for their shots based solely on their names. The now immortal Philadelphia Museum of Art steps make an appearance as does a certain piece of red, white, and blue ring attire (when the trunks show up, try not to bawl). Even Wood Harris shows up.
Composer Ludwig Göransson has written a viscerally effective musical score that beautifully incorporates Bill Conti’s original work and makes the fights even more electrifying. The “Gonna Fly Now” trumpet fanfare is deployed with amazing surgical precision at exactly the right moment; when it hits, audiences will come out of their seats. We hear a lot of filmmakers today talking about the cinematic experience losing its luster, that the audience only wants to go to the movies now to see gigantic spectacle. But, there’s still something to be said about seeing a movie like Creed with a crowd that the home experience will never be able to touch. It’s a smaller film, but it was every bit the rip-roaring collective experience as something like The Avengers.
Stallone is terrific, too. Freed up from any behind-the-camera responsibilities (Coogler pitched the idea to Stallone, and Stallone gave his blessing.), there’s a new depth to Rocky the character now. Minus the ridiculous fight at the end, I quite liked Rocky Balboa, and the new film continues to examine Rocky as a man entering his twilight yeas alone. There’s a tremendous scene where Rocky laments having been left alone by his son, his wife, and his brother-in-law. Adonis, who never knew his own father, gives Rocky something new to fight for and someone new to care about.
As I was watching this incredibly satisfying movie, I thought to myself, “Wow, I really hope The Force Awakens is this good. I hope Abrams has done as well with his series’ seventh film as Coogler has.” I know there are prequel apologists out there, but haven’t we pretty much collectively decided they’re terrible? I know Star Wars fandom will be elated if The Force Awakens simply doesn’t suck. They’ll enjoy it because it’s Star Wars and it’s new. I can’t imagine the pandemonium that will ensue if Episode VII works like gangbusters the way Creed does.
I think these are movies are being tackled by filmmakers who have a genuine love for the source material they’ve been given. They both seem to get what makes their respective franchises tick, in some ways more than the original creators did. Forty years in, people still love these stories and these characters.
Creed is pretty spectacular. I’ll be the first in line to see the inevitable Creed II.
In less than three weeks, we’ll get a look at Star Wars.
Mr. Abrams, you are on notice. Mr. Coogler has thrown down the gauntlet, and he’s done it impressively.