Going back to the amateur or student films of great directors can be quite fun. Sometimes those early works can be easily connected to the movies that made them famous, and sometimes it’s hard to spot the continuity at all. James Cameron’s 1978 short Xenogenesis, about a deep-space expedition that goes awry, is clearly a warm-up for Aliens, right down to the climactic battle between a monster and a woman operating a massive cargo loader. Both David Cronenberg’s low-fi/sci-fi From the Drain, shot at the University of Toronto, and David Lynch’s abstract animation Six Men Getting Sick point toward their respective creator’s visionary futures. At the other end of the spectrum, it’s hard to reconcile 1966’s Herbie, which gently juxtaposes reflected city lights and the jazz stylings of Herbie Hancock, with the film its codirector made 11 years later. By the time Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope was released, George Lucas had gotten everything experimental out of his system.
It’s possible to watch the first short by Lucas’s fellow USC grad, Ryan Coogler, online as well, and it’s very much worth it: It’s ground zero for a director whose combination of smart storytelling instincts, technical skill, and sociopolitical savvy has proved formidable in a short period of time. “I admire filmmakers who let the type of story dictate the cinematic style, dictate the mise-en-scène, dictate how they approach, how they capture, how they work,” the now-31-year-old Oakland native told The Dissolve in 2013, and that searching, intuitive sensibility, distinct from both the loose, aimless vibe of mumblecore or the suffocating formalism of micromanager-auteurs, is palpable in 2009’s Locks.
The title is a double entendre: Within the first two minutes of Coogler’s student debut, the camera has gone in close on the protagonist’s dreadlocked hair and a pair of handcuffs being slapped on a similarly coiffed young man he passes on the street after leaving his house. As he gets closer to the cops, the main character discreetly shoves his hair underneath a hoodie. It’s a melancholy gesture of self-preservation through cultural erasure that anticipates an inevitable yet quietly devastating detour to a barbershop—although a beautifully staged final-scene twist deftly relocates the piece’s theme from the political to the personal.
Locks was shot while Coogler was developing his debut feature, Fruitvale Station, a film about the shooting death of Bay Area resident Oscar Grant by transit police on a BART platform. “I couldn’t help seeing myself right there,” Coogler said in an interview with The Nation. “Seeing that situation. Seeing his friends—they look like my friends. We wear the same clothes, the same complexion. So in seeing that I thought, what if that was me?”
The sense of impending danger that permeates Locks also runs through Fruitvale Station, which Coogler scripted after combing through court testimony and spending time with Grant’s family. Structured as a day-in-the-life drama that shows its subject (played by Michael B. Jordan) preparing for the New Year’s Eve outing that we know will mark the end of his life, the film is grounded in an unshowy naturalism punctuated by blunt, tragic symbolism: a scene where Oscar chases after the driver of a car that’s run over a dog foreshadows his own fate as a victim of senseless, blindsiding violence.
Shooting on 16mm and integrating documentary footage into the editing, Coogler gives Fruitvale Station a feeling of realism that’s further consolidated by Jordan’s amazing performance. Already familiar to audiences as the adolescent drug dealer Wallace on The Wire (an impressively unsentimental character who figures in what might be the series’ bleakest moment), Jordan disappears into role. It’s not so much that he’s self-effacing as that he transfers his own charisma to Oscar, whose large, contradictory personality—by turns tender, volatile, stubborn, and magnetic—is the film’s true subject. There is a horrific recreation of the shooting toward the end of Fruitvale Station (an event infamously captured on video by witnesses), but the film’s authenticity derives primarily from its star’s inside-out acting—an openness that’s exciting even in quiet moments.
A surprise winner of two prizes at Sundance and a significant box-office hit relative to its small budget, Fruitvale Station set Coogler up nicely to attempt a more mainstream project. What that meant was pitching Sylvester Stallone and convincing him to let Coogler be the first person other than Sly himself to direct a film in the Rocky franchise in nearly 40 years. Not only was the timing right, but Coogler had a great idea to go along with his commercial ambitions. The premise of Creed (which Coogler wrote with Aaron Covington) is ingenious, looping back around to pair Stallone’s long-retired prizefighter with the son of his first and greatest opponent, who’s trying to carve out his own legacy in the ring.
“Time takes everybody out—it’s undefeated.” Rocky’s explanation to Jordan’s Donnie of how he beat Apollo when the older man was the superior fighter is poetic, and sets the tone for a movie that admits a certain amount of melancholy (just like the first Rocky with its downbeat, working-class milieu and embedded, born-loser pathos). Creed’s half-heavy, half-exhilarating tone is wonderfully original, while its deep themes of paternity and masculinity were partially inspired by the battles that the director’s father was fighting with an illness. It’s a personal angle that Coogler was able to integrate with the outlandish plotting of the Rocky franchise, and this delicate balance is the film’s triumph.
The fact Creed is as emotionally engaging as it is despite being set in the same universe as larger-than-life figures like Thunderlips, Clubber Lang, and Paulie’s robot butler is a testament to Coogler’s ability to mix a healthy respect for the franchise—and Stallone’s literal and symbolic ownership of it—with his own style. There’s a brilliant moment early in the film when Donnie (his given name, Adonis, has some of his dad’s old Olympian flair) watches a YouTube video of the first Creed-Balboa match and shadow-boxes against the grainy, rear-projected image. That he puts himself in the Italian Stallion’s place suggests he’s got unresolved feelings of aggression toward his father; the image also stands in for the film’s attempt to tangle with Rocky’s macho mythology.
It is a flawless victory. On its own terms, Creed is pretty much perfect. Calling it the most enjoyable Hollywood product of the past 10 years sounds about right, except that it’s less packaged than that. It’s not just that the sinuous, long-take boxing sequences (shot by Maryse Alberti, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography) surpass and shame the quick-cut, montage approach of the film’s predecessors, or that the romance between Donnie and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca is as sweetly realized as (and also much sexier than) Rocky’s courtship of Adrian, or even the way that Stallone’s acting harnesses and then transcends nostalgia around his most famous role. These qualities—and Jordan’s terrific, physically adroit lead performance—are secondary to the way that Creed honors Coogler’s film-school credo of letting the story dictate the style. Because he’s making a Rocky movie, he works in big, broad strokes—unashamedly leaning into the series’s crowd-pleasing mandate. But he doesn’t sacrifice specificity in the bargain: every detail, from the cheesesteaks Bianca and Donnie eat on their first date to the presence of Philly’s own Meek Mill on the soundtrack, evinces an intelligent, non-condescending approach to material that could have just as easily been played for ironic, postmodern effect.
The news that Creed 2 is going ahead without Coogler—and with a screenplay by Stallone that supposedly involves the return of Ivan Drago—can only be taken with a shrug. We’ll have to see the movie, of course, but it’s hard to imagine it having the same gravitas (even if it’s always nice to see Dolph Lundgren). Meanwhile, the projected critical and commercial success of Black Panther, already at 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and earning approbation as the “best Marvel movie ever” (for whatever that’s worth), should push its director even further toward the front rank of young American filmmakers. In a moment when critically heralded indie directors supposedly “graduate” to big-ticket projects, often sacrificing their personality or integrity in the process, Coogler’s smart, accessible sensibility doesn’t seem likely to be subsumed by any sort of studio machine. If anything, he might just be the kind of skilled, principled populist that comes along too rarely in American cinema—a throwback with a very bright future.