It seems almost impossible that 40 years after Sylvester Stallone introduced audiences to Rocky Balboa, another movie emerged from the iconic franchise. What seems even more impossible is that the movie is good, good enough to earn a place in the upper echelons of “Rocky” movies. Director Ryan Coogler shows us just how hard it is to keep a champion franchise down.
“Creed” opens in 1998, introducing us to the character of Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of former heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. The movie begins with a young Adonis, played be Michael B. Jordan, languishing in juvenile detention. He picks fights and goes through foster home after foster home until he receives a visit from Apollo’s wife, Mary Anne Creed, played by Phylicia Rashad. Mary Anne Creed takes the boy in and raises him as her own son. The film then switches to the present as Adonis leaves his comfortable blue-collar job to pursue a career as a boxer. He moves to Philadelphia, where he convinces his father’s former nemesis and best friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), to train him. In true “Rocky” tradition, Adonis gets a shot at the title against “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, played by Anthony Bellew, and takes the opportunity to prove his worth.
Michael B. Jordan’s character revolves around one central theme: legacy. Throughout most of the film, Adonis refuses to be called Creed, wanting to make a name for himself and to step away from his father’s shadow. When Adonis must fight as a Creed in order to fight againt Conlan, he is forced to come to terms with his legacy and his sense of self-respect. The result is a touching gesture that I don’t want to spoil for any fellow Rocky fans. However, while this theme is certainly a compelling one, it isn’t exactly original.
Rocky Balboa is the heart and soul of this movie. I was worried that the legendary Italian Stallion would be regulated to a glorified cameo, but I was happy to be proven wrong. I was even happier with how Sylvester Stallone played the role that he could have easily abandoned. This Rocky feels like the natural progression of the Rocky we’ve been watching for 40 years. Instead of the young boxer spoiling for a fight, Rocky has aged into an old man who’s tired of fighting and wants to be reunited with Adrian, Mickey and the rest of his friends and family. When Adonis finally convinces Rocky to train him, a bit of life seems to surge back in to the old man, and you find yourself cheering for Rocky once more.
Just like Adonis, “Creed” doesn’t want to mimic the successes that came before. Adonis wants to earn a reputation as an individual fighter, and Coogler wants to earn the right to place his stamp on the franchise. While Adonis waits until the end of the film to embrace his legacy, Coogler starts right out of the gate. It almost seems that Coogler is attempting to distinguish himself by openly embracing “Rocky” forerunners. “Creed” is littered with old “Rocky” footage, training montages, the classic soundtrack and it follows the familiar formula that the series has followed for four decades. This is the movie’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. On one hand, “Rocky” themes are still around for a reason — everyone loves rooting for the underdog. On the other hand, “Creed” makes the same mistakes of some of its predecessors. The previous “Rocky” movies could be roughly divided into two categories: the ones that you watched all the way through and the ones where you fast forwarded to the action. This movie falls somewhere in the middle — I only wanted to fast forward through any scene where Adonis’ girlfriend Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson, is the focus.
Much unlike Rocky’s courtship of Adrian in the original movie, Adonis and Bianca’s relationship is rushed and doesn’t seem to contribute to the main plot. It’s hard to care about this romance when it stays on the sidelines. Even Bianca’s presence at Adonis’ final fight seems unnecessary and forced. Those seeking a break from the boxing aspect of a boxing movie may enjoy her character more than I did.
In terms of boxing, this movie had a lot to live up to. Regardless of which “Rocky” you watch, each and every one of them boasts some of the finest boxing ever put on film and “Creed” is no different. Coogler provides two different takes on the sport, and each is remarkable in its own way. The movie’s first fight pits Adonis against a Philadelphia fighter, and it is filmed in what is made to look like a single take from inside the ring. The camera acts like a third participant, bobbing and weaving along with the fighters in a masterfully orchestrated sequence. In the second fight, Adonis takes on Conlan in a classic “Rocky” style bout that isn’t as innovative, but still succeeds greatly with the audience cheering for the lead.
If you go to “Creed” expecting anything other than a “Rocky” movie, you’re going to be disappointed. The film mirrors the magnificent journey of Rocky Balboa and doesn’t really do anything to try and change up the formula. Instead, it shows why the “Rocky” brand has endured for so long, even if it trips over the romantic aspect. Hopefully, we’ll get to see Jordan and Stallone together again before too long.