In anticipation of the November 25th release of CREED, we’ll be taking a look back at the ROCKY franchise and discussing why these characters and this world are still relevant and necessary forty years later.
Minor spoilers below:
Just like Rocky Balboa, we’ve arrived at our final destination in Creed. Ryan Coogler‘s (Fruitvale Station) continuation of the Rocky universe is grounded very firmly in the series’ lore and is also the origin story of another American hero. Just as Rocky was the story of a good man with lacking circumstance fighting for his shot at greatness, Creed portrays the experience of youth growing up without a steady home life. The movie tackles head-on what it means to be a young, black male making a name for himself when he’s forever under the shadow of a man who was never there for him. Creed is the tale of a man with nothing fighting for something alongside a man who is dealing with life beginning to take everything away.
The biggest shift this movie deals with is that Rocky is no longer our main character. Michael B. Jordan‘s Adonis Johnson, son of Apollo Creed, picks up the gloves and his character is the one the movie hangs all of its trust upon. Above all the bombastic fights and training montages, the Rocky series lives and dies with the character of Rocky Balboa. Rocky is the ultimate cinematic representation of the American experience, so transplanting him with Adonis is a leap that the movie must make in order for the audience to be on board. Thankfully, Adonis is just as likable and, more importantly, has a heart as grounded and pure as our original hero.
Adonis is a troubled man, having always been angry and caught in the juvenile delinquent system as a kid, always fighting the other kids. What allows him to channel this aggression is his open heart when the wife of his father, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), takes him under his wing. She had no reason to seek out and save Adonis as he is the physical embodiment of her husband’s infidelity. Nonetheless, she raised him like her own and Adonis now uses his fighting talent in the ring, underplaying the fact that he’s the father of the former champ. When his father’s own gym refuses to train him, Adonis quits his job and travels to Philly to find the only other living piece of his family, Rocky Balboa.
We are reintroduced to Rocky, still managing Adrian’s restaurant and still visiting the grave of his best friends, Adrian and the now deceased Paulie. This is a man who has accepted his lot in life. Everything is starting to be taken from him and he seems to be just going through the motions, waiting until it’s his turn to join his friends. It’s a dark mental place Rocky is in but the script by Coogler and Aaron Covington knows exactly how to portray Rocky so his inherent positivity still peeks around the corners.
The wisest choice the movie makes is to never make Adonis a villain. There is a world in which his character is angry and selfish, unaccepting of Rocky’s importance to his life. Thankfully, Adonis is immediately welcome to this man who knew his father better than anyone, calling him “Unc” at the outset. The audience is now behind this man because he is good to Rocky. This goodness creeps back into Rocky’s worldview and he agrees to train Adonis, thus lighting a fire under the boxing world to see Rocky back in someone’s corner.
Other characters fill-out this world as Adonis falls for Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a woman just as sweet and lovely as Adrian. The main opponent this time out becomes the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) as he’s forced to fight the media sensation that is Adonis because he’s about to go to prison and likely to never fight again. Rocky trains Adonis to not just fight Conlan, but the man in the mirror as that’s the real opponent standing in front of him.
Creed also goes to the place we’re all scared it will go, hinting at a future where Rocky Balboa eventually loses to the fists of Time. Rocky is diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and is initially resistant to taking chemotherapy. In the most heart-wrenching speech of the film, Rocky tells Adonis that he had to watch Adrian go through hell and fail he can’t imagine doing that again. Adonis, unwilling to give up on the newest member of his family, tells Rocky that he’ll fight if Rocky fights the disease. In probably the most unnerving and interesting montage of the series, we see Adonis preparing for his fight against Conlan just as we witness Rocky at the weakest point of his life, taking chemo treatments, losing his hair, puking out his guts, but remaining in Adonis’ corner.
The crux of this movie lies within the journey of being willing to let others in when you’re at your darkest. We’ve been taught that it isn’t how hard we get hit that matters; it’s how hard we can get hit and keep moving forward. Here, we learn exactly how to move forward. It’s one step at a time, one round at a time.
Creed provides some of the most rousing moments of the entire series, the emotional catharsis being jettisoned in perfect symphonies of physicality. The boxing matches are filmed with such intensity that you forget a camera is there to capture it. Coogler places his lens right in the middle of the fight, rarely cutting away from the action and instead weaving in and out of fighters’ dance. Adonis’ first fight with Rocky in his corner is one of the most technically impressive sequences I’ve seen. The finale mixes this technical precision with the emotional beats playing out perfectly, every punch coming from the souls of the characters.
All that I asked for from this movie was for it to do right by Rocky. We get much more than that as Adonis proves to be the perfect character to take the reins after Rocky Balboa inevitably leaves us behind. Sylvester Stallone’s performance here hits each and every note so perfectly that it’s hard not to well-up with tears each time he opens his slack-jawed mouth. I’m sad that there is a reality in which we’ve seen the last of Rocky. I’m also excited that we now have another character able to step in and show the world what it’s like to fight for what you want and make a name for yourself. Creed is one of the greatest experiences I’m likely to have this year and if it is indeed the last couple of hours I get to spend with Rocky, I’m happy for the time we had and everything that he taught me.
Yo Adrian, we did it indeed.