Far more than just a sequel or spin-off, Creed is a thoughtful, emotional, and ultimately rousing boxing tale that’s as entertaining and memorable as any of the best films in the Rocky series to which it owes its lineage and characters. Just like the character at its heart, it establishes itself as a cinematic powerhouse in its own right, thanks to a compelling script, strong performances from its leads, and palpable visual energy and excitement, particularly during the boxing sequences.
Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Fantastic Four) plays Adonis Johnson, the son of boxing legend Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, shown in photographs and in flashback), who was born after Creed’s death in the ring in 1985 and thus grew up never knowing his father. Driven to be a professional fighter, Adonis finds himself barred at every turn in his native Los Angeles from finding a trainer, as everyone in the fight game out there knows who his father was and want no part in ushering the son to a similar fate. Against the wishes of his adoptive mother, Mary Anne Creed, Apollo’s widow (Phylicia Rashad), Adonis heads east to Philadelphia, seeking out the one man he thinks will be sympathetic to his ambitions due to his own boxing experience and his shared history with Apollo, the old Italian Stallion himself, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).
Still harboring guilt for his fallen friend, Rocky initially refuses to train Adonis for much the same reasons that others out west did. Undaunted, the young man takes up residence in Philly and begins training on his own, along the way meeting and getting to know his downstairs neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Selma), an aspiring singer-songwriter who in her own way is battling the odds in order to live the life she desires. Eventually, however, Rocky finds himself won over by Adonis’ determination and desire, and the two begin to work together as Adonis prepares for his first bout as a pro.
The results of that first fight draw the attention of the folks managing the career of the current world light heavyweight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (real-life British former light heavyweight champ Tony Bellew), who are anxious to book a high-profile fight for Conlan prior to his having to deal with legal difficulties that could end his career. Faced with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fight a champion, just as Rocky was decades before, Adonis and Rocky agree to the bout, but as they begin to prepare, Rock finds himself fighting a battle of his own, one far more devastating than any he fought in the ring. It then falls to the protegé to help his newfound mentor rediscover the will to fight, while at the same time overcoming his own fears and doubts in order to be completely focused and capable of taking on the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
C’mon, admit it. You can hear that old Bill Conti Rocky theme in your head now, can’t you?
Creed is written and directed by Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, marking the first time in the history of the Rocky series that Stallone isn’t the one penning the story or screenplay. You might not know it, though, for how well Coogler demonstrates not only an understanding of Rocky and his place in Philadelphia’s heart, but also of the prior films’ tone and tenor. The result is a film that’s almost a love letter to what came before, as well as an inspired introduction to a new character and story which might be just as deserving of audiences’ applause. In particular, Coogler makes the motivations for all the film’s principals, even “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, realistic and relatable in terms of who they are and where they’ve come from. There’s no false sentiment, no forced emotion or overblown melodrama to be found here, even in the film’s subplots involving Rocky’s health and Adonis’ relationship with Bianca, each of which could have added saccharine to a film premise that already had plenty of potential to get stuck in maudlin nostalgia and the tried-and-true fight film formula. Rest assured, thanks to Cooglan’s strong ear for authentic dialogue and emotion, they do not.
In terms of acting performances, Jordan turns in fine work here as the quietly intense and somewhat haunted Adonis, a young man seemingly stuck in a fight to escape the shadow of a man he never met, while at the same time desirous of the chance to prove that he, in fact, has the talent and the toughness to follow in that same man’s footsteps. He and Stallone develop a very enjoyable chemistry on-screen as teacher and student, with Stallone clearly relishing the opportunity to play Balboa this time as the old school trainer, what Mick, the late, great Burgess Meredith, was to him all those years ago – quite a bit of the film’s humor and charm, in fact, comes from Stallone quipping “Old Man Rocky” lines. It’s those moments of humor, and the fact that Stallone himself has the opportunity to play Rocky in a way different than any previous film appearance for the character, that make his prominence in the film worthwhile and a pleasure to watch. Tessa Thompson also proves a terrific match for Jordan in terms of on-screen sparks and chemistry — the courtship of Adonis and Bianca, in its own way, is reminiscent of Rocky and Adrian way back when: awkward at first, but eventually earnest and sweet.
All that, when considered along with Coogler’s tremendous vision and creativity in terms of how Creed plays out visually — watch for he uses long takes in particular during key moments to set scenes and build tension, as well as his dynamic, visceral staging of Adonis’ fights, any and all of which depict “the sweet science” with tremendous energy and ferocity — and what you get is a film that should be a knock-out with just about all audiences. It’s a feat for which he deserves a ton of credit — this is a film that could have easily been disastrous in the hands of a different writer and director, one that fans of the series might have chosen to ignore had it proved a failure, especially after 2006’s Rocky Balboa provided the worthy finale to Rocky’s own story that 1990’s Rocky V arguably failed to do. Instead, Coogler delivers a film Rocky fans as well as casual movie goers can celebrate and point to as another triumph in a series that’s historically has been full of them.
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, and Anthony Bellew. Directed by Ryan Coogler.
Running Time: 132 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence, language and some sensuality.