Creed, like its title character, is a boxer who’s focus is overwhelmingly on legacy – and rightfully so when picking up the torch of the venerable Rocky series. The film bobs and weaves, expertly hitting every emotional right hook and body jab at precisely the right moment. Watching Creed is more than the joy of seeing Sylvester Stallone’s legendary mumbler/rumbler Rocky Balboa return to the silver screen; it is the rebirth of an entire franchise, one that lasted six (6!) films and now it’s set up for about six more. Eat your heart out, Lethal Weapon.
Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky’s rival-turned-friend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who was killed in the ring by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Thus, Donnie never knew his father and when his mother died, he was seemingly destined for juvenile detention and foster care – until Apollo’s widow Marianne (Cosby Show matriarch Phylicia Rashad) finds him and takes him in.
However, an adult Donnie can’t stay out of the ring, going from his white-collar office to Tijuana on weekends to compete in underground boxing matches. After obsessively watching YouTube videos of his late father’s fights with Rocky Balboa, he quits his banking job and abruptly moves to Philadelphia to seek out the only person who he thinks could understand him. He finds Rocky lonelier than ever, still running Adrian’s Restaurant but reticent to step back into the world after losing everyone close to him. After much coaxing, Rocky agrees to be Donnie’s Mickey and the training montages begin.
When Ryan Coogler announced his followup to his critically-acclaimed indie debut Fruitvale Station (also starring Jordan) was a Rocky spinoff, myself and the Internet were baffled. Why board a sinking ship, the thinking went. But Coogler proves far smarter and savvier than any of us, wisely bringing the story back to Earth after the increasingly-cartoonish antics of the sequels (remember when Balboa singlehandedly solved the Cold War with his fists?).
Co-writing the script with his UCLA roommate Aaron Covington, the film’s biggest accomplishment is the simplicity of its story. Even if Rocky were swapped with an original character created for the film and the film not part of the series, it would still be a good film. Coogler and Covington saw the value of tapping into the commercial and historical legacy (there’s that word again) of a filmmaker/actor they grew up watching with their fathers. Circles within circles.
But the film far from a ill-advised cash-in on nostalgia or an attempt to resuscitate a dying franchise (looking at you Terminator Genisys). It asks real questions: what does legacy mean to an up-and-comer? What does it mean to the old or elderly? What’s in a name?
More than that, it treats boxing more reverently that even previous films in the series did. There is a heavy emphasis on the strategy and ferocity of boxing in this film missing from previous ones. Cinematically, Coogler compliments those threads with extreme long shots, including Donnie’s first official fight which was filmed in a single take, the camera moving fluidly inside the ring like the fighters their documenting.
The entirety of the film revolves on the fulcrum of the Rocky/Donnie relationship and it is magical. Emerging unscathed from the debacle of last summer’s atrocious Fantastic Four, Jordan gets the real star-making turn he deserves. Donnie isn’t a Rocky replica; he had it rough after his mom died, but he was later adopted by a loving stepmother and raised in wealth and grandeur, a fate many of his contemporaries only dream of. However, being surrounded by his father’s legacy only drives Donnie further to prove himself as a fighter and worthy of the Creed name. Like Rocky, Donnie is only interested in proving himself worthy – to his dead father, to Rocky and to himself.
If Sylvester Stallone isn’t at least nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, it’s a crime. Stallone has played the character for 40 years and in this film, all the little gradations and nuances explode from Stallone. It’s not a stretch to say the Rocky story is Stallone’s story. One of the most quietly understated moments of the film is when Donnie moves in with him to continue his training and sees a picture of Rocky and his son. Rocky reveals his son (last seen played by Milo Ventimiglia reconciling with him at the end of 2006’s Rocky Balboa) moved to Canada to be with his fiancee. The black-and-white picture however is of Stallone and his late son Sage, who died in 2012.
Another standout who gamely holds her own with Jordan and Stallone is female lead Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer-songwriter with progressive hearing loss that lives in Donnie’s apartment building. The two are drawn by the mutual love of self-destruction; Donnie knows all too well people get permanently injured or die in the ring and Bianca knows the more she plays her loud club shows, the sooner her hearing will be gone. The film doesn’t treat these as problems to be solved. These are in fact the things that bind Donnie and Bianca.
It’s easy to forget that, more than a boxing movie, the original Rocky was a love story. The lovable lunkhead wanted to prove himself most of all to Adrian. The film astutely avoids the “strong female character” stereotype simply by making Bianca have a life of her own. She didn’t pop into existence when Donnie showed up and she sure as hell isn’t going to wait around for him to figure his life out. The power of her will is what draws Donnie – and the audience – to this fully-realized woman.
I could write forever about this film. I could write about the story, the script, the direction, the acting, the history etc. There is so much packed into this one film, both in-universe and out, that compliment each other: the themes of legacy, fathers and sons, fighting for respect, learning to go the distance. Jordan is phenomenal; Stallone kills it. The emotion pours out of every scene. I cried more than I have at any movie since Marley & Me. Coogler wrote the film because he loved watching the older films with his father. Mr. Coogler, I’m proud to say that, sitting in the theater with my father next to me, 40 years after he had seen the first Rocky, you’ve made a classic.