You’d be forgiven for lacking much in the way of anticipation towards the seventh film in a nearly forty year-old franchise. Sure, the early entries back in the ’70s and ’80s remain immensely entertaining and memorable, but the same can’t quite be said for the more recent films. They have their moments of course, but it’s difficult to expect audiences to be all that excited about stepping into the ring one more time.
And that would be a mistake, as Creed is not only a re-invigoration of a tired franchise but also the best Rocky film since the original.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) faced his fair share of troubles as a young kid prone to brawling with anyone who looked at him sideways, but he got something of a second chance when Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), widow of boxing legend Apollo Creed, appeared in his life. The boy was the child of one of Apollo’s affairs and bounced around the foster system, but she takes him in knowing that each of them are connected through Apollo. The present day finds Adonis with a stable job in Los Angeles and a secret hobby of undefeated boxing matches south of the border, but knowing the ring is where his heart is he quits his job and heads to Philadelphia with a plan.
He wants his father’s best friend and greatest opponent, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train and mentor him towards becoming a champion boxer. The Italian Stallion isn’t too keen on the idea at first, but he quickly warms to the young man’s energy and persistence. The future may be Adonis’ goal, but it’s his past that continually threatens to derail that dream as he struggles to find his own voice – his own purpose – both in and out of the ring.
Creed is a rarity in many ways. Not only is it a sequel that continues the over-riding story even as it creates new blood of its own, but it’s also a film that far surpasses the true sequels that preceded it. Adonis’ story is his own, and as immediately similar as it appears to Rocky’s his challenges and path to victory are unique to his character.
Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) finds a freshness beneath trappings that in many ways have grown stale. Stallone’s Rocky has seen a character arc encompassing nearly an entire life, and the franchise’s last film, Rocky Balboa, brought him to a satisfying ending. Bringing him back to the screen could easily have been seen as unnecessary pandering to give this new film a hook, but instead it – and Stallone – work beautifully to use the weight of Rocky’s character as both a tie to the past and an inspired blueprint for the future.
The film is unabashed in its reverence and recognition of Rocky, but Adonis’ story has its own beats through his struggle to recognize his father as more than just a boxing legend or an absentee dad. He was a man with strengths and flaws, and Adonis realizes he can be every bit the man Apollo was, for better or worse, without giving up the man who he himself is.
His relationship with Rocky is core here for good reason, but the film also introduces a spunky and fully formed love interest in Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Dear White People). She helps flesh out Adonis’ journey but never feels limited to prop material, and she has her own character whose details (including a budding music career and progressive hearing loss) never threaten to derail the main narrative.
“Derail” would be the operative word too as Coogler keeps his film moving with the momentum of a freight train muscling its way through expected character beats and cliches to come out the other side cleaner and smarter than it entered. Training montages? Check. Inopportune conflicts destined to be resolved neatly? Check. Unlikely circumstances that lead to an unknown boxer getting a shot at the title? Check.
It’s something of a miracle that this 132 minute film works at all, let alone as beautifully as it does. Everyone is deserving of credit, but the holy trinity at play here is Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone.
Coogler finds life in every frame and injects energy into scenes whether they feature fighting or conversations. There’s a beating heart here, and while it’s personified in the two leads the film itself pulsates with vitality and a fresh take on the familiar. Training montages are all you’d hope them to be – chickens! – and the final fight leaves you tense and wholly invested in the outcome, but one of the film’s most accomplished visual feats comes earlier as Adonis takes part in his first professional match. Shot in (what appears to be) one continuous take, the camera moves in and around the action as the two fighters dance and brawl across the canvas. It immerses viewers into the fight and elevates the bout to something we’re experiencing rather than simply watching.
Jordan has done fine work since breaking out on Friday Night Lights and dazzling in Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, and he continues to fulfill that promise here. There’s a ferocity to his physical performance evident in both his intensely sculpted body and unleashed aggression, but Jordan balances that imposing presence with a softness and a fragility revealing the still-uncertain foster child within. Stallone is somewhat familiar with that duality, but here he allows Rocky to be as rundown as we know he would be. Humor is milked from moments showing how age and experience have worn his body down, and Stallone captures it with a natural grace and humility.
Creed is technically a part of the Rocky series, but while it respects what came before with both intelligence and homage it also takes great strides toward being its own creation. Knowledge of those past films is beneficial but far from necessary – although even if you skip the sequels you should definitely make time for Rocky – as Coogler, Jordan, and Stallone have begun something new and special here with Creed.