(Ryan Coogler, 2015)
The confidence and assurance Coogler demonstrates in the leap from his debut, Fruitvale Station, a small-scale independent film, to Creed, a big studio boxing drama and a reboot-sequel to the Rocky series, is truly startling. And not only is he confident; he is successful - this is a superb piece of studio film-making, made with wit and style, engrossing, exciting and affecting throughout.
The story follows Adonis "Donny" Thompson (Michael B Jordan, showing the movie star chops needed to carry a whole film on his shoulders), illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, as he gives up his white collar world in Los Angeles and travels to Philadelphia, where he convinces his father's old friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to help train him. Donny must battle his old demons - of course, this is a boxing movie - while Rocky deals with his. Along the way, too, there are a couple of epic boxing matches.
The only real issue Creed has is pacing; at just over two hours it is a little overlong, and it feels as if the whole movie restarts after Donny's first real fight, when Rocky confronts his own problems. Aside from that, it is a beautifully crafted example of the boxing genre. Donny is an interesting character, fighting because he feels he needs to, and his relationship with Rocky is touching - mutual surrogacy which is finally acknowledged, and needed by both men. He also has a sweet romance with Biancha (Tessa Thompson), a singer whose progressive hearing loss gives her character a never-overplayed thematic resonance for Donny, with his issues with making his mark while he has time, and Rocky's obsession with the past and future.
While cramming in two lead storylines - one for Donny and one for Rocky - creates some of those pacing issues, it also allows Stallone to shade this portrayal of his oldest character with some lovely notes of melancholy and regret. This is probably his best acting work, and he retains that old movie star presence, now deepened by age and sadness, which gives this film a nice depth of flavour.
But it stands and falls as a boxing movie, and what is so exceptional is the way it embraces each and every boxing movie cliche (most of them pumped up by Stallone in the Rocky series) and yet transcends them. There are training montages, of course. Donny screws up and comes perilously close to losing everyone he loves. There is a run through the streets of Philadelphia.
But Coogler is an exciting talent, and he knows the power of a moving camera and comes up with some interesting angles on familiar material. He shoots Donny's first big fight in one extended shot, lending it the elegance and power of a great dance sequence in a musical. Whenever a possible opponent for Donny appears on-screen, his career stats appear beside him, like something from a computer game. That Philadelphia run is mainly in slo-mo, with motorbikes racing around Donny as he sprints. Donny and Biancha first connect in an upside-down shot, lying on her floor, listening to her music. The way the dialogue drops away as the referee addresses Rocky and Donny in the dressing room, and all we can hear is the crowd above.
Donny's sudden and panicked need to go use the toilet before his first fight is typical of this film - slight twists on familiar material, freshening it up. The climactic bout is shot in a more modern style, lot of movement and impact cuts, but it is done about as well as it can be done, and it follows the emotional arc familiar from this series to exhilarating effect.
All of this and the clear-eyed way it regards issues of ageing and legacy make this an unusually intelligent studio franchise film, and one that is almost entirely successful.