I am and always will be a complete and total sucker for any Rocky movie. It’s not a franchise many expected to continue after the fifth installment, and there was a collective groan in 2006 for Rocky Balboa, which turned out to be great. Still, in 2015, we were left asking ourselves if we really needed another movie, and after watching Creed, I’m going to come out and say yes, yes we did.
One way to keep a venerable franchise viable and energetic over the years is to hand the reins to hungry young filmmakers who have a longtime love of these films. That’s what’s going on with the Star Wars universe, and that’s what Rocky has done by putting Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler in the big chair. Also serving as writer, he once again teamed with star Michael B. Jordan, one of the best young actors working—even with Fantastic Four on his resume—to deliver a movie that’s emotional, stirring, and visually impressive, and is both referential to the earlier films but has it’s own personality.
Adonis Johnson (Jordan), Donnie, is a troubled young man, always living in the shadow of the father he never knew, world champion boxer Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), who died before he was born. In this way, though Creed is one of the least outlandish films in the Rocky series, it’s a direct descendent of the bonkers, Rocky-fights-Communism narrative of Rocky IV. Donnie tries to make his own way, to make it on his own merits, but no one will look past his famous lineage. His quest to become a boxer leads him to quit a promising job, leave his entire life behind, and move to Philadelphia, where he tracks down former champ, and his father’s best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to mentor him.
Plot wise, there are training montages, a handful of fights, and a romantic angle between Donnie and Bianca (Tessa Thompson). And, of course, there’s the “Big Fight.” All of this, however, is secondary to the relationship—friendship isn’t a strong enough word—that develops between the two men. The rest is all window dressing.
Donnie is young and driven, cocky and entitled, and brazenly injects himself into Rocky’s, who he calls “Unc” from the word go, life, refusing to take no for an answer in true millennial fashion. But Jordan infuses the character with a depth that goes far beyond this carefully constructed surface. For all his bravado, he’s open, vulnerable, and desperately searching for a place to belong, not to mention a father figure to assuage his daddy and abandonment issues. Rocky, for his part, just wants to be left alone, to run his restaurant and wallow in being alone, as everything that ever meant anything to him is gone—he sits in the cemetery and reads the paper next to Paulie and Adrian’s side-by-side headstones to fill his days.
Stallone is as good as he’s been in years, maybe as good as he’s ever been, as a man doing little more than killing time until his number is up. By turns he’s funny, self-deprecating, wounded, and absolutely heartbreaking. In Donnie he finds friendship, family, atonement, a link to his past but also a future, and, most importantly, a reason to keep on fighting. While this cross generational relationship forms the center of Creed, Coogler gives each character time to develop on their own, they break apart, come together, butt heads, and struggle with their individual pains and issues, both together and separately. These are two subtle, nuanced performances, though in very different ways, from actors of two completely different generations who have a wonderful chemistry.
The narrative does, admittedly, get a bit overfull, and there are threads left unattended. Adonis gets an unexpected big break—the story where he winds up fighting the world champ (Tony Bellew) after only one real match stretches credulity almost to the breaking point—that takes over the narrative, and his relationship with Bianca, while it starts strong and provides a few charming moments, peters out and never goes anywhere. The same can be said of his relationship with Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), Apollo Creed’s wife, not his mother, who raised him. There are potentially interesting avenues to travel here, but she exists as little more than a plot point and is quickly relegated to fretting about the boy’s well being from a distance.
Creed is Ryan Coogler’s first studio movie, and he adapts seamlessly, using the increased resources to his advantage. Visually, the movie is dynamic and formally intricate, full of long, elaborate sequences. An entire boxing match in the middle plays out in a single, uninterrupted take (there are likely cuts, like in Birdman, but it is staged as one shot), unfolding across multiple rounds. Magnificently choreographed, the fighters dance around, trading blows as the camera pulls in and out, circling and sweeping around them. It’s an impressive accomplishment, and my no means the only one of its kind to be found.
Even with flaws and a few bobbled story elements, and the fact that it is at least 15 minutes too long, Creed truly channels the Rocky spirit and comes from behind just when you think it might be going down for the count. Triumphant and crowd-pleasing, and cheesy in all the most perfect ways, Creed is about family and friendship, and though it doesn’t break the mold, it’s everything you want from a Rocky movie, and much more. [Grade: B+]