I am, as a general rule, quite allergic to pain. When exposed to physical or emotional suffering some of the symptoms observed in my person include crying; colourful, highly creative swearing; involuntary (and voluntary) punching, kicking, and biting; and, the high-volume soundtrack to the agony I am undergoing: a traffic-stopping scream. The scream freezes cars, trains, and grounds airplanes not because it is scream—people scream all the time without the world noticing—but because of the exquisite high pitch which escapes my mouth, a sound which alerts the listener to the incongruence of what their eyes are seeing—a grown black man—and what their ears are hearing—a shrieking ten-year-old girl. My aversion to pain has led to the personal belief that if something hurts then one needs to stop immediately, read the manual, and then try again. Preferably with someone more experienced. And with a safe word.
My abhorrence to physical discomfiture, then, will come as a surprise to the reader after I tell them I spend a fair amount of my time in the reception rooms of pain, patiently waiting to be called to the counter to receive my pills of displeasure, and knocking them back without throwing the cup of water so much as a sideways glance.
As much as I despise pain, I am a sucker of it. I cycle (if you are not in pain, sweating your courage away with every kilometre, being crisped by a malevolent sun far, far away from your comfortable bed, and coming back home feeling as though your tender parts were massaged by Edward Scissorhands, then you are not really cycling—the pain of the game); I play basketball (elbows digging into lower backs, tough, leathery hands slapping against your forearm or face, and cold, cruel fade-away jumpers relegating your ego to the bench—the pain of losing); I gym (blood, sweat, no pain no gain, blah, blah, blah—insert Tumblr fitness inspiration here); I own and manage a salsa club (which sounds glamorous and rather exciting until the night of a party when only one or two people show up—the pain of embarrassment); and, I am a writer (I write as much as I can, I pitch to magazines and online publications as often as I can, and my work is rejected more often than not—many pains: irrelevance, anonymity, creative strain).
I spend a lot of my time in various states of anaerobic respiration, pushing beyond physical exertion, persevering creatively with no promise of reward in sight, and writing, night and day, regardless of publication or recognition. The kitchen is always serving up lactic acid flavoured muffins and I am always waiting in line with my breakfast, lunch, and supper tray.
When I am not snacking on sweat, salt, tears, and general disappointment I occupy myself with reading or watching other people’s pain.
Call it escapism, or whatever. I enjoy seeing other people suffer in films, I like seeing them bleed on paper. I am entertained by people who come face to cloven hoof with their own demons; I am tickled by husbands, wives, men, women, children, gods, kings, and superheroes who have to confront their shortcomings, undergo a necessary baptism of pain and suffering, and emerge on the other side, reborn, forged anew, resplendent. I derive no sadistic pleasure from these characters’ wretchedness, though, I spectate on their misery only if there is a promise of redemption. Like cycling, exercising, running a losing entrepreneurial business venture, or writing into oblivion I do it all for one thing: resurrection.
That is the important caveat—the comeback; after laughter comes tears, after tears comes the fear—the fear of failure, the fear of disappointment—but after that something must stir amongst the ashes.
I am a fan of titanic struggles of the mind, body, and spirit because I am a firm believer there has to be something more than…this—this temporary hell, whatever it might be at that given moment. That desire for more-than-this-ness is why I enjoy books and films with characters who struggle and, in one way or another, overcome their specific hurdles. It might be cheesy, but I am a sucker for a good comeback story. I fanboy over outnumbered and outgunned underdogs who claw themselves from the edge of defeat and turn a hostile crowd which jeered and wrote them off a few minutes ago into their biggest fan. Hail Marys, buzzer beaters, last card draws, broken bones, bumps, and the eventual hard-won victory—give it to me warm and I will eat all up.
Therefore, with the above thesis about my aversion for pain, my appreciation for its brutal necessity, and my confession of hope and happy endings, it was almost a foregone conclusion that when Creed made its way to local cinemas I would, after reading numerous promising reviews about it, and being genuinely interested in its new direction, queue to watch it.
When it comes to resurrection Creed does not disappoint. It brings Sylvester Stallone back as Rocky Balboa, the cold meat carcass-punching boxer whose archetypal underdog exploits have thus far convinced everyone they can run up flights of stairs and arrive at the top, out of breath, but victorious, to a Survivor Eye Of The Tiger guitar riff. In this seventh Rocky film, the price of resurrection, for Stallone, for the aging Balboa, is heavy: in order to come back to life he is stripped of his invincibility. He is wrinkled, slow, an old horse put out to pasture, spared from the knackers because he is Philadelphia’s champ.
Seeing an old, over-the-hill Rocky is quite an emotional experience—nostalgia calls back images of a younger Stallone as a shiny and ripped Rambo, a dense but courageous Rocky. Stallone’s Rambo and Rocky characters stand as pop cultural throwbacks to the 80s and 90s machismo which glossed every Hollywood action film, when the sweaty trinity of Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone symbolised and hallowed everything that was cool and manly.
In Creed, however, even the champ is brought to the mat by the only undefeated fighter in the ring, time. Rocky’s fists have been slowed, his speech is laborious at times, and his memory is awash with fantasies and thoughts of bygone victories—the legend who does not die at the apotheosis of their power is destined to live with bittersweet memories. The aging, however, brings out a new Rocky, a new fighter, who slings not with his plucky fists but with his gentle kindnesses. Each word is autobiographical, each sentence of encouragement is a footnote cross-referencing the guts and glory scenarios of earlier Rocky films. Surprisingly, Stallone is able to portray this new Rocky with curiously touching emotional gravitas—there are scenes which linger on Rocky’s frailness, which hint at his younger Herculean feats. Quiet and understated, these scenes are probably what will stick with the viewer long after the credits roll.
With the Rocky films being out of touch with the current generation, the difficult phoenix role is given to Michael B. Jordan, he of the perfect torso, manicured haircut, and frowning eyebrows, and enviable sport wardrobe. Playing Apollo Creed’s son, Adonis, Jordan’s casting is a creative and political one-two for the film: black is the new black, and Jordan comes with a young millennial fan base of tweeting, swooning, money-spending fans, bringing with him potential longevity for one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises.
Jordan is fiery as Adonis as Stallone is burned out as Balboa. From earlier billing they appeard to be an unlikely pair, especially with Jordan being wasted in the recent Fantastic Four reboot. However, by making the film more than just about slugging opponents and burning carbs, the director, Ryan Coogler, who worked with Jordan on the critically-acclaimed Fruitvale Station, manages to bring these two Hollywood forces—the old and the new—together to form one of the best cinematic pairings on current film screens: Rocky training Adonis, full of quote-worthy wisdom; Adonis, standing in his absent father’s legacy, fighting to create his own legacy, afraid of his own name and heritage; Adonis and Rocky, trading jokes and insults, each showing the weaknesses and strengths of their respective generations; Rocky and Adonis in the gym, one sweating and training for an uncertain future, the other panting and wheezing, winsome about a decorated past; Rocky by ropes, Adonis on them, one reeling from life’s numerous punches, the other taking jabs and cuts to the face and to the aforementioned perfect torso. The pairing works, and it works well.
By casting Jordan as the lead in this installment the franchise seems determined to strike out and explore new creative directions. While the old Rocky was emblematic of white, male, working class ambitions, and the stars and stripes dream which forms the cultural and geographic DNA of the United States, Jordan comes with a different set of challenges: he is black—I struggle to imagine a sequel in which race will not be a pivotal issue—and thus comes with black things like his persona, his lingo, his outlook, his struggles; and his character comes from a traumatic background—which is given more than lip service at various instances in the film. Mostly, though, Jordan’s casting permitted the Rocky series to tap into new cultural tropes which, if you pay attention to various scenes in the film, help to make it feel more modern, more relevant, and, unavoidably, more black. Not a challenging and exclusionary blackness, but a friendly, welcoming blackness. Rocky and Adonis train with white and black handlers; Adonis fights against white and black fighters; and the quintessential triumphant running scene is re-imagined with distinctly black touches which make it one of the most stirring embraces of black culture.
Rocky and Adonis’s comfort with each other provides some emotional moments which, thankfully, Coogler does not overdo. The simultaneous display of physical machismo is counterbalanced by the duo’s emotional ineptness at several intersections in the films, setting a welcome standard for forthcoming bro films. The cheese factor is not to be underestimated either. Adonis, untrained, unprepared, and in search of an identity comes up against fighters who are undefeated, better prepared, and confident in their personae. They hit things so they can stay hit whereas Adonis hits to find out if he can hit. So the classic underdog story, replete with get-knocked-down-get-back-up again adages.
But not underdog in its portrayal.
The camera work in Creed is immersive, adventurous, a visual treat—the frame-craft is exceptional and some of the scenes in the film are so bold, so visceral, and so…cool…one wishes they had a pause and rewind button at the cinema to watch and re-watch Adonis’s training scenes, the punches trading up and down on the pain exchange, the slow-motion spilling of blood, knocking out of mouth guards, and the inspiring—like, really inspiring—running and shadowboxing scenes. The production design, although simple, is beguiling and draws the viewer into Philadelphia’s rusty, sweat-soaked gyms, seedy, underground boxing rings, and glitzy showcase arenas without dropping a stitch.
The most memorable aspect of Creed, however, is in the sound: the film not only looks good, it also sounds good. The music is alive. It raises testosterone levels when blood hits the mat; it tickles the hairs on the back of your neck when defeat is imminent; it raises a tribal urge to engage in something violent; and it makes the viewer want to cheer for every win. One almost runs out of the cinema just to maintain the endorphin high the film’s score and soundtrack educes. It is tender and caressing when Rocky is nostalgic, and romantic when Adonis is navigating his uneasy but supportive relationship with the film’s alluring love interest, Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson. Hip-hop and experimental R&B tunes from mainstream artists such as Future, Childish Gambino, Meek Mill, Nas, The Roots, Jhené Aiko, and John Legend, firmly pull the franchise out of aural antiquity and place it in the present where rap culture, sounds, and images have permitted storytellers to share stories in new and accessible ways. The sound work, truly, is worthy of an award or two. Whether skipping double-unders, plunging down tunnels en route to hand out and receive beatings, or subtly alerting the audience to a character’s frailty it is, at all times, active and aurally exciting. The entire soundtrack can be tossed onto an iPod and become a gym playlist unto itself. It is hard, it tastes like…like lactic acid flavoured muffins. And it is lovely.
Thematically, Creed, like all good boxing films really is not about boxing—the punching is just incidental. The characters’ real fights are with themselves, with their age, with medicine, with absent fathers, with group homes, with blackness, with uncertain futures, and with the fear of failure. They deal with pain. Pain of losing loved ones, growing pains, growing old pains, betrayal pains, and, because it is a boxing film, bruising, bone-crushing, lung-busting, vomit-inducing pain. Exquisite pain. Legendary pain. Pain I would pay to watch again.
Unlike the other much touted boxing film of the year, Southpaw, which failed to entertain despite its star-studded cast, Creed, has focused narrative goals which systematically achieves using its small but carefully selected cast. Southpaw’s story was shoddily written, Creed’s is simple and direct; Antoine Fuqua, despite his past illustrious and punchy work, relies on heavy clichés to create characters and drama in Southpaw, while Coogler, a younger and inexperienced contemporary puts fresh lenses on everything and lets the dramas and characters sort themselves out. Even Creed’s slowest scenes are more poignant and carefully thought out than Southpaw’s aggressive and bloody fight scenes. Ultimately, Coogler’s Creed is, once again, a case in point for the fact that sports films, in order to work, should actually have stories and complex characters, and not succumb to becoming bash and bruise-fests, held together by truculent soundtracks, weak writing, and poor camera work.
Resurrection is a hard thing to accomplish, and in a film season full of comeback acts—Spectre, Star Wars: The Force Awakens—Creed, quite emphatically, pulls a much-loved franchise from pop culture obscurity and brings it into modern day relevance. Rocky Balboa and Adonis Creed, an old Batman and a new Robin, a new franchise, a new direction, and the eternal promise that the only way out is through, and that pain, however temporary, whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, creative, or otherwise is just fear leaving the body.
Phoenix, ashes, phoenix, ashes, phoenix, and lactic acid flavoured muffins.
DURATION: 1 hour 18 minutes (18 tracks)
MOOD: Sweat, anaerobic respiration is a way of life, pain is fear leaving the body.
NOTABLE ARTISTS: Jamie N Commons (The Preacher EP; Rumble & Sway); Linkin Park (Hybrid Theory; A Thousand Suns); Eminem (Marshall Mathers LP; The Eminem Show); Marylin Manson (Portrait Of An American Family; The Pale Emperor).
Ryan Cooler (Fruitvale Station)
Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle; Fruitvale Station)
Sylvester Stallone (Rocky series; Rambo series)
Tessa Thompson (Dear White People; Selma)
Phylicia Rashad (A Raisin In the Sun; The Visit)
Run time: 2 hours 12 mins.
Creed poster courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes.