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After Sylvester Stallone gave what everyone thought was the final chapter to his beloved Rocky character in 2006, with the stirring Rocky Balboa, he returned to the franchise with a surprisingly emotional story and a new name to watch in the series, Creed. Played by Michael B. Jordan, the titular boxer, Adonis Creed is the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who has spent his life in and out of trouble, trying to shake the name and establish himself on his own terms.
Written and directed by Ryan Coogler, who directed Jordan to high acclaim in the biographical drama Fruitvale Station (2013), the next chapter in the Rocky films sees Adonis seek out the long retired Rocky to help train him to be a ranked fighter, with both having to overcome some demons and hurdles along the way. Hugely successful and critically-praised, it marked the start of a new generation in taking over the Rocky legacy while giving its decades-long star a dignified place in the reboot.
That said, Coogler’s film is, as expected, a rousing, inspiring story, filled with great character-driven moments and action. While the fate of Rocky and Adonis take center stage, Coogler subtly weaves a sublimely-directed film that breathes new life into the well-tread tale. So good is he at this, and so numb are we to the “fight formula” in these kinds of movies, we tend to gloss over the punches and bouts as perfunctory, especially with many in the later films of the Rocky series staging them as obvious underdog trite.
Not so with Creed. At one point, Adonis has moved to Philadelphia to track down Rocky, who eventually agrees to give the young fighter a chance, especially after seeing the fire behind the man’s eyes. They start small and Adonis earns the nickname Hollywood ‘Donnie’ Johnson and finally gets his first professional match, one against local, but heavily-favored slugger, Leo ‘The Lion’ Sporino (Gabe Rosado). Leo’s manager tells Rocky he knows who Adonis is and wants to promote the event as a Creed fight, but both Rocky and Adonis refuse, wanting to keep that name out of the ring.
A big draw, the fight starts and it’s set up well to be the first major hurdle. We watch with a knowing eye, expecting the predictable outcome. But something amazing happens over the next four-and-a-half minutes and not just for what we see, but for what we hear. Time to FREEZE THAT FRAME.
First and foremost is the one take. If you didn’t notice while watching Creed, this entire fight is an astonishing continuous shot, one that has gained a lot of credit for its expert choreography and accuracy. In the ring with actor Johnson and real boxer Rosado is Steadicam operator Ben Semanoff under the direction of cinematographer Maryse Alberti, herself a 25-year veteran and no stranger to movies in the ring, having shot the acclaimed The Wrestler. She and Coogler strived for realism in the fights and the idea that in the boxing ring, despite the thousands watching and the trainers in the corners, it’s a tight contest of one-on-one and to capture that was to keep it close and a little desperate.
Truthfully, it’s a shockingly effective sequence that in an age of digital manipulation is free of it, a single take that took 13 tries to get right (though Coogler states it is the eleventh that made the final cut). It was also the first day with Sylvester Stallone on set, so, no pressure. What makes the bout so effective is the deep immersion. The camera is fluid, smoothly gliding in and around the fighters and to the corners and back again. When you realize what is happening, the camera becomes a character all its own and the fight takes on a balletic flow that gives the full scene far more impact. It’s gloriously compelling and perhaps interesting to note that the Steadicam was an integral part of the first Rocky way back in 1976, getting only its third credit after its invention the same year.
During all of this, Coogler states (in an interview with the New York Times) that the audio is also recored live during the one shot so that the crowd noise is real but so too is the dialogue spoken by the trainers, and it is here where we get a little something special that could easily be lost the first time (or more) watching the fight, being distracted by the sheer wonder of the filmmaking process.
After the first round ends, Adonis heads to his corner, a cut open above his left eye (an effect actually applied by make-up artists while the Steadicam was tracking the other fighter) and Rocky comes into the ring to offer some advice and support to his fighter. Now before moving on, we have to backtrack a bit, in fact all the way to the end of Rocky III (1982) when that film ends. Rocky and Apollo Creed are engaged in a private rematch, and it ends with a still image, seemingly with no winner as both are about to connect punches.
Cut to the present and there’s a scene in Creed where Adonis comes to Rocky’s restaurant (called Adrian’s) and comments on the fabled fight, to which Rocky suggests that Apollo won, though at this point it seems he might have been saying it out of respect. But now, in the ring, with the cacophony of the noise and the distraction of the spectacular camera work, Rocky seems only to be encouraging Donnie giving him some direction about keeping his left under the radar and come up with a hook and when he sees an opening put it right on the other guy’s chin, it will drop him. It’s all boxing jargon that we hardly pay attention to.
The camera then swings away from Rocky and follows the ref over to The Lion’s corner, but we can still hear Rocky as his voice fades away. What he says is: “Your old man did that to me. It worked.” And with that, Balboa makes it clear. Now to be sure, Rocky had two sanctioned fights with Apollo Creed, though it’s pretty certain he is referring to the private rematch, in which case, it’s a double confirmation that Apollo won the long-debated fight, but much more, it’s now a winning strategy passed circuitously from father to son. It’s a brilliant bit of dialogue that easily gets lost in the thrills of the visuals, but it’s a very cool line that gives extra weight to the legacy of Apollo himself.
The one shot of Adonis versus The Lion is a remarkable bit of filmmaking that hides in a larger film of many great moments, but Coogler understands the fight’s place in the story and uses it as a tool to prop it up rather than make it stand out. Watch it again and listen closely.