If ‘Creed’ isn’t the best sports movie ever, it’s within striking distance

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 10.29.55 PMIt’s impossible to say this with any kind of impartiality, because it’s literally the most recent movie I’ve seen in my life at this moment, but Creed is almost surely the best sports movie ever.

Even throwing the “sports movie” label on this movie reduces it somehow: no, this is a flat-out great movie, art in the way that boxing is art, brutal and raw and wrenching and exhilarating all at once.

The story, should you be unaware, stems from the revelatory-yet-faded Rocky franchise. Rocky was an outstanding, groundbreaking ’70s movie about a bum who got a shot at the big time, and each iteration turned Rocky Balboa closer and closer to a superhero, to the point that in Rocky IV there was nothing recognizably human about either Rocky or his Russian foe Ivan Drago. (I have no memory of anything that happened in Rocky V or Rocky Balboa, though I know that I saw these movies at one point.)

Rocky’s greatest opponent, and greatest ally, was Apollo Creed, played with Ali-esque bravado by a pre-“Happy Gilmore” Carl Weathers. Creed posits that Apollo had an illegitimate kid, born just after he died in the ring at the hands of Drago (sorry, spoilers for Rocky IV). We meet this kid, young orphan Donnie Johnson, in a juvie hall beating the piss out of a larger boy. Then, in one of the movie’s many moments of quiet grace, Apollo’s widow shows up at the detention center to rescue Donnie and whisk him off to the mansion built by his father’s fists.

Fighting is in Donnie’s blood, and he quickly ditches his coat-and-tie job for a chance to learn the art of boxing, a career path that doesn’t sit well with his adoptive mother. He’s so confident that in one fight, he’s pulling the tape off his gloves before the ref has even hit “5” counting out his opponent. But he’s raw, he gets a quick lesson in how hard the world can hit, and so he leaves behind his hometown of Los Angeles.

He goes to Philadelphia to meet the man who once stood toe-to-toe with his father, and then we’re off and running, chasing chickens, sprinting through streets, hunting the dream alongside Donnie, the same dream Rocky hunted on the same streets 40 years before. For old Rocky fans, there are Easter eggs aplenty, culminating with … well, I’m not going to spoil it, but this is a movie that ends on precisely the perfect note.

Rocky hit theaters in December 1976, less than six months before Star Wars, and there’s a symmetry in that; Rocky Balboa, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker must be the longest-running characters to continually appear in cinema. But while the Star Wars leads are cardboard, primary-colors personality types, Rocky–at least the version of Rocky we have here, the version that emerged from the superhero-warfare of Rocky 4 and returned to the streets of Philly–is recognizable as human. The grace notes are all there–the innocent, childlike joking, the quiet determination. Rocky knows that he’s not as smart as most of the people around him, so he gets along by doing what he’s always done … pushing forward, as he says, “one punch at a time, one round at a time, one fight at a time.”

And then, before you know it, you’re old and there are no more fights except the biggest one, the one you know you’re going to lose, and damn, does it help to have loved ones in your corner when that time comes. This is a movie that slays you with six piano notes that recall the people Rocky loved in his earlier movies, a movie that ties the past and present together with a literal bow before Donnie’s climactic fight.

A word about that fight. When’s the last time you cheered in a theater? Nobody cheers when the Avengers defeat Ultron or Bilbo Baggins thwarts a dragon; you may fist-pump, but you don’t cheer. This fight, this movie, people were out-and-out cheering, clapping and hollering at the screen. It’s a rush, seeing human beings strain against others and themselves, and the unblinking camera eye — one fight is one long unbroken shot from the locker room to the decision — brings us right into the ring alongside Donnie. This isn’t man against a green screen, this is man against himself, and the emotional punches hit so much harder as a result.

There are a few swings and misses, mostly from overreach; Donnie undergoes a brief, abrupt, out-of-character burst of rage late in the movie, and one character’s disability screams SYMBOLISM without advancing the plot. And the shock of recognition at seeing an aged Rocky doesn’t really land, given that Sylvester Stallone has remained active in the “Expendables” franchise, albeit playing a character worlds savvier and smarter than Balboa. But you don’t need to win every round to get a unanimous decision.

“Time always wins,” Rocky says early in the movie, “time is undefeated.” True. But there are so many stories we can tell about the people who came before us, and the people we tell them to will tell ours as well. That’s the true message of Creed–learn from your own history, then write your own chapter. Fine message from a movie about people beating the hell out of each other.

Jay

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