By: Anthony Miglieri
Creed is the seventh film starring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. The lovable lug has been through several lifetimes’ worth of triumph and despair, including but not limited to: acting as a collector for a two-bit loan shark in Philadelphia, amazingly getting a shot at the world heavyweight boxing championship, getting a rematch, gaining, losing, and regaining the coveted title, acquiring brain damage, losing his fortune, enduring the deaths and/or comas of many loved ones, and traveling to Russia to battle a seemingly indestructible Russian in the midst of the Cold War. Although Creed is the first of these sequels to feature a main character other than the beloved Rocky, it is also the first of the sequels to truly recapture the vitality of the 1976 original.
First, a disclaimer: I am a shameless fan of all the Rocky movies, except for the dreadful Rocky V, and have been for much of my life. The first film, which won Best Picture for the 1976 Oscars and catapulted Stallone to international stardom, is far and away the best of the first six entries. Although the movies lost none of the entertainment value as they progressed, each installment steadily descended further into improbability. Rocky II maintained much of the gritty charm of the original and features perhaps the best climactic bout of the franchise, Rocky III is a perfect encapsulation of the Rocky formula with a heavy dose of ‘80s flash, and Rocky IV is the apex of ridiculousness, with the most cartoonish villain and the most liberal use of training montages. Rocky V and Rocky Balboa are attempts to draw on nostalgia for the original; the former is a sad, tired attempt, while the sixth installment was a solid and surprisingly rousing finale to the franchise. That is, until Creed gave us an even better one.
Creed opens on Adonis Johnson, a young, juvenile prison-bound young man who seems to have fighting in his genes, as he incessantly gets into scraps with fellow inmates. The appearance of Apollo Creed’s widow reveals this to be true: Adonis is the result of an infidelity by Creed before his death in the 1980s. Creed’s widow decides to take care of Adonis, who has taken his mother’s name, and he continues to be unmistakably his father’s son, furthering his boxing career by taking part low-rate matches in Mexico. Yearning to achieve the greatness that the Creed name stands for, “Donnie” moves to Philadelphia and asks for the help of Rocky Balboa, who ultimately accepts.
Besides shifting to a new main character, one of the biggest departures that Creed marks from the rest of the Rocky franchise is that it is neither written nor directed by Sylvester Stallone, who wrote each other installment and directed all by Rocky and Rocky V, which were helmed by John G. Avildsen. Here, Ryan Coogler is behind the camera, and his fresh perspectives, mixed with tasteful nods to the previous films, make Creed unlike any of the others and simultaneously of a piece with them. It is this expert balance that Coogler manages to strike that makes Creed something to behold.
Creed is made both for classic fans and younger filmgoers. For instance, the general formula of the older movies is used, but updated so as to filter the emotion and integrity of the original through a modern lens. For instance, Rocky’s familiar underdog plot is shifted to Adonis Creed, and Rocky is now the trainer as Mickey was to him. Elsewhere, Coogler sprinkles in quite a few nods to previous installments that are a joy to notice as a fan. For instance, Rocky utters some of Mickey’s colorful words of wisdom (“Women weaken legs!”) and even revisits the memorable chicken-chasing training scene from Rocky II. In an inspired homage to Rocky II’s irresistibly cheesy sequence in which the Italian Stallion is joined by hundreds of unaccompanied children as he charges down the streets of Philadelphia, Adonis is inexplicably joined by a gang of motorcyclists who cheer him on.
Despite the many delights to be had in viewing Creed alongside its predecessors, the movie simply would not live up to the hype if it was not a great film outside these parameters. The aforementioned direction by Ryan Coogler is crisp and assured in what is only his second feature film, after the acclaimed indie Fruitvale Station of 2013. Michael B. Jordan, who worked with Coogler on Fruitvale Station, is a revelation as the son of Apollo Creed, fiercely determined, yet wounded and sensitive. Also impressive is Tessa Thompson as Adonis’s love interest, who is similarly fighting for success in her career. Perhaps most importantly though, Stallone is just right as the aged Balboa, perfectly embodying the humble, charming guy from Philly that had all but become a caricature of himself by Rocky IV. Stallone was able to convincingly recapture this original characterization with 2006’s Rocky Balboa, but his presence is even more genuine and affecting here; this is a man who seemingly has nothing left from his old world to live for, until Donnie reignites his will to fight.
In a sense, the plot of Creed is eerily similar to that of the travesty that is Rocky V: Rocky steps out of the ring and trains a protege. Instead of deflating the franchise like that 1990 film did, Creed is the spiritual successor to the original, which so captured the imaginations of moviegoers nearly four decades ago. The most important, and bravest, thing Stallone did was to relinquish his beloved series, the thing that made him the icon he is today, to Coogler, anup-and-comer just as the pre-Rocky Stallone himself was. Impossibly, the emotional relevance of Rocky has come charging back as if it has ascended the famous steps, both hands raised triumphantly, and deservedly, in the air.