There’s a million reasons why Creed shouldn’t work – chiefly that it’s the 6th sequel/first spinoff of the long-in-the-tooth Rocky series and could be seen as a crass cash-in on a fading franchise.
Sylvester Stallone’s Hollywood fortunes also seem to ebb and flow, rising with recent installments of his Rocky and Rambo series but falling with some lackluster Expendables sequels. So the odds are stacked against Creed but, much like Rocky himself, the movie rises to the occasion when it matters most.
It helps enormously that Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan were chosen as the director and star of Creed, having previously worked together in the same capacity on the excellent and bruising Fruitvale Station. They bring a fresh and vibrant energy to Creed, allowing it to exist in the Rocky universe (with much of the world-building already in place) while telling a tale that is uniquely its own.
The core conceit stretches believability but works like gangbusters in the context of the movie – Rocky’s adversary-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, seen in old footage here) fathered a child outside of his marriage before his death in the ring against Ivan Drago in the 80s. That child grew up rough in foster homes before he was taken in by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne and, despite having never met his father, showed a great affinity and skill at boxing.
Now a young man, Apollo’s son Adonis Creed (the Rocky movies really do have a way with names) spends his nights boxing in Tijuana and his days trying to find a proper trainer in L.A. Proud and headstrong, he refuses to use his father’s name for gain and goes by Donnie Johnson, struggling to make headway in the fight world. It’s only when he quits his day job and heads to Philadelphia to track down the famed former boxer Rocky that he begins to make progress.
Creed takes its time getting to this point and in fact takes its time throughout, being essentially an origin story for how Donnie Johnson becomes Adonis Creed. Instead of superheroics though it’s much more human and grounded, charting a young man’s journey towards acceptance of his past in order to move towards a bright future.
Michael B. Jordan is perfectly cast as Donnie. Having showed promise in The Wire, Chronicle and of course Fruitvale Station, Creed is his breakout role that’s been a long time coming. He captures Donnie’s conflicted past that includes both hardship and privilege, making the audience care about a character who quit a job in the financial sector to go punch people for a living. Adonis Creed is a prideful character but is full of heart in the same way that Rocky is.
Returning to the role that made him a star, Stallone has rarely been better than he is here. He’s done dumpy, defeated characters a few times before (notably gaining weight for 1997’s Cop Land), but in Creed it’s affecting because it’s the formerly virile Rocky Balboa that’s become a shuffling old man, beaten down by time and life’s hard losses. Rocky movies have always shown the physical hardships of boxing (albeit occasionally unrealistically) and had a focus on strength of body and will, and that theme carries through to Creed, with Donnie as a young man on the rise and Rocky as an old man passing him on the way down.
And as Donnie has to step out of his father’s shadow and prove his worth, Rocky faces his own fight that may be his last. It’s a thrilling parallel and Stallone plays it to the hilt, given mostly great dialogue from a script co-written by Coogler. There are two scenes in particular that should deservedly net him some awards considerations.
It can be melodramatic but is also totally sincere, which may turn off more jaded audiences. This is the type of movie where characters shout in joy or wail in defeat, and the emotions are pitched at a high level. For some that may be too much, but I think it suits the story and allows Creed to earn its huge, triumphant moments.
Sometimes the conflicts are introduced in one scene and then seemingly resolved in the next but it doesn’t detract from the movie as a whole. Coogler directs stylishly, allowing moments to build slowly and never being overly showing or flashy. The camera is always well-placed and gives the film a gritty look while still being clear and precise. There are some bravura sequences, including Donnie’s first big fight that takes place seemingly all in one single take. It doesn’t feel ostentatious and fits the tone of Creed, making for a massively intense battle between warriors.
The true showpiece though is the lengthy final battle in Liverpool, where Donnie faces off against “Pretty” Ricky Conlon in a fight that – despite the requisite training montages that have got us to that point – he’s still a huge underdog in. And that’s of a piece with the other Rocky movies as well, as the movie heaps mountains of adversity upon Donnie before he can do battle in the ring. There’s a well-wrought but tumultuous relationship with local musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a strained fallout with his adopted mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), and most centrally Donnie’s goal to pull Rocky back into boxing by getting “Unc” (as Donnie calls him) to train him.
It’s that odd-couple/paternal relationship that’s at the heart of Creed, as Donnie introduces Rocky to smartphones and “the cloud” while Rocky schools the young man in the fundamentals of the sweet science of boxing. To see Stallone shuffling along as Rocky is a treat in and of itself, and it’s nicely offset by Michael B. Jordan’s verve and youth. In a movie where fathers are absent and sons grow up and move away, these two men choose their own family – an important distinction.
There are numerous callbacks to previous films’ events but they’re carefully woven into the story and the recurring elements are used judiciously and are different enough not to feel like a retread. Yes, there’s an epic training montage (actually a couple of them), yes, the ending of the film may be predictable to those that are familiar with the Rocky series, and yes, that iconic theme song is used. But all of those moments are so rousing and well-placed that they feel new and alive, a rare feat. Far from being down for the count, Creed proves to be an ambitious newcomer that is out for the championship belt and is a model on how to extend a franchise in a new direction – give it to talented people who will do right by the material.
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Runtime: 133 minutes