I love sports movies. Give me a Raging Bull, a Moneyball, or a Jerry Maguire and I’ll perch on the edge of my seat, hands balled up against my mouth as every punch, every clack from a baseball bat sends electric currents sparking down my spine. Their life-affirming message is clear: follow your dreams, come what may. It’s very carpe diem. Needless to say I was greatly looking forward to seeing Creed, the latest instalment in the Rocky franchise that paved the way for Sylvester Stallone’s career as an action hero back in 1976. Rocky is, according to Stallone, “a modern day fable” but it can also be seen as the ultimate underdog story. Hollywood legend has it that its script was rejected over 1500 times before being greenlit and, eventually, securing Best Picture at the Oscars.
Creed treads familiar territory. Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) – love child of heavyweight champion Apollo Creed – quits his office job, moves to Philadelphia and convinces Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to come out of retirement to coach him. As in basically every other boxing movie, there is a workout montage marking gradual improvement, elongated cries of “Let’s get ready to rumble!” and a love interest (Tessa Thompson) to fret over the fighter’s health. It’s pretty formulaic. Or so you’d think.
Creed veers unexpectedly off the beaten track when Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. As tufts of his hair molt onto his hospital bed, he valiantly continues to mentor his protégé, delivering gravelly pep talks and pummeling his stopwatch as Adonis’ sweat moistens the linoleum floor. To see a character – who has exemplified virility on our screens for the past forty years – reduced to vomiting in ringside pails is really quite distressing. Stallone’s seventh reprisal of his cinematic alter ego demands more range this time, eliciting a great deal of pathos, especially when lamenting the distance between Rocky and his son, which resonates in real life due to the passing of Stallone’s own son, Sage. If the Golden Globes are anything to go by, he’s got a good shot at the Oscars next month.
The fist is, as you’d anticipate, an important symbol in the film. When young Adonis is in juvy he unclenches his fist to illustrate that he is letting go of violence now he is being adopted. Later on, Rocky and Adonis share a heart-warming fist bump as they both agree to keep fighting their illness and opponents in the ring respectively. Together they struggle on until Adonis’ final boxing match against Liverpudlian Ricky Conlan. The tension is palpable in the slow motion cuts, which smack with adrenaline. Adonis spits blood into a bucket. Rocky squirts water into his mouth. Doctors dab feverishly at wounds. But director Ryan Coogler saves the best till last. In Creed’s closing sequence, Rocky, with Adonis by his side, cautiously mounts the steps that he used to sprint up all those years ago. That unforgettable theme echoes in our ears as the pair reaches the summit, and we see their silhouettes against the cityscape faintly illuminated by the fading sunlight.