One area where mainstream entertainment really has raised its game in recent years is in spinning fan fiction - previously scratched out in the Internet's nerdier corners - into box-office gold. TV's Fargo has done its best work around those markers that the Coen brothers set down in the snow almost twenty years ago; among a rash of decidedly nostalgic 2015 blockbusters (Jurassic World, SPECTRE), Star Wars: The Force Awakens is arguably just a megabucks projection of what a fanboy like J.J. Abrams would have posted on message boards or forums during his formative years. Now it's the turn of Ryan Coogler's Creed to enter the ring: an attempt to rejuvenate and relaunch the Rocky series by wondering what would happen if Apollo Creed's offspring had set out to follow in his father's dancing footsteps.
The film's triumph - one that has had U.S. critics and audiences on their feet applauding - is that it rediscovers that appealing cocktail of sincerity and street smarts that powered 1976's first Rocky, applying a kerb-level authenticity to its speculative set-up, and thereby translating it into something that might pass for stirring reality. Take the unusually detailed depiction of Adonis "Don" Creed (Michael B. Jordan)'s dual life: unstirring white-collar drudgery by day, Tijuana bar brawls by night. Perhaps we might still detect a line or two of contrivance, sentimentality or wish fulfilment in Don's choice of trainer upon quitting the day job: yes, that'll be Sly Stallone's Rocky himself, found newly widowed and greying at the Philly restaurant we left him in at the end of 2007's not bad comeback assignment Rocky Balboa.
Though Stallone's presence is as crucial to Creed's emotional appeal as Harrison Ford's was to The Force Awakens - livening up a 5:45am training run with irresistible dad dancing, coming to wrestle with his advanced years - in the reorganisation of this franchise around Don Creed we witness a shift of emphasis, from Italian-American to African-American life, that feels tectonic. Yet there's something interesting going on even within that shift: Don isn't the junkyard dog Rocky was - someone who needs to fight as a means of escape - but the well-to-do scion of a sporting dynasty who has options before him, not least denying his father's name in order to stand and fight alone. If the film takes such care with the Rocky legacy, it's in part because it is itself wrestling - on this narrative level - with the responsibilities of assuming a name. (Don't underestimate the extratextual significance of having a young black actor called Michael Jordan wrestling with such an issue.)
Coogler, who previously collaborated with his star on 2013's punchy true-life reenactment Fruitvale Station, lets us know where he's coming from early on with the casting of Phylicia Rashad - the mum from the once-cosy Cosby Show - as Ma Creed, and goes on to pursue a very different kind of drama from his debut. That film applied a realist eye to characters on a collision course; here, it's to people coming together for the better. At 133 minutes, Creed winds up with the longest running time of any Rocky movie, but it allows the performers to feel their way around the characters (and one another), and for the camera to do the same for a particular gym, street corner or neighbourhood. You can feel Coogler wobbling a little around Creed's eventual opponent, a Liverpool lad (real-life cruiserweight Tony Bellew), who once - we learn - "ran around Toxteth with a gun"; the film's UK scenes suggest some crossover with those indifferently performed British crime movies of the millennium.
Yet it's amazing that a 2016 film should find new things to do with its fight scenes: here, meticulously choreographed encounters, often shot in extended or single takes to punch up the physicality and endurance of the performers. (The finale, too, forsakes Vegas or Madison Square for a new arena that may just tickle Brit sports fans.) At every turn, Coogler succeeds in taking the edge off his bigger narrative contrivances, if not hiding them completely; there never seems to be any sleight-of-hand going on. Yes, this remains an arc the movies have shuffled through many times before - the underdog who comes through initial training montages and a midfilm bodyblow to land himself a shot at the title. (Ludwig Goransson's score keeps threatening into something mightily familiar.) Yet it's one that will continue to have some impact so long as our collective urge for self-improvement remains strong: the tighter Jordan gets, the more inspired viewers should be to renew their gym membership. For his part, Coogler plants his feet in the right place and finds his own effective rhythm; by the point where he starts winding up to land a punch, Creed has accumulated power enough to scatter one's popcorn, and possibly even knock you back in your seat.
(MovieMail, January 2015)
Creed screens on ITV tonight at 9.30pm.