2015. Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.
Michael B. Jordan
Fans of the Rocky franchise should know that series villain-turned-ally Apollo Creed formed a deep, meaningful relationship with Rocky Balboa (Stallone) before being killed in the ring. What they didn’t know was that due to an extra-marital affair he left behind a son named Adonis (Jordan). The two never got a chance to know one another. Without his old man’s guidance, or anyone else’s evidently, Adonis heads down the path to self-destruction. He has a violent temper and spends lots of time in and out of various juvenile detention centers. That all changes when he is rescued from one such place by Mary Ann Creed (Rashad), Apollo’s widow. She raises him as her own with all the comforts afforded her by her late husband’s legendary boxing career. He becomes a respectable young man, moving up the corporate ladder, and has left all his troubles behind. Except he hasn’t. The urge to fight still rages within him. To quell the thirst, he steals away to Mexico to box in unsanctioned, underground matches. When that’s no longer enough he quits his job to pursue a legit, full-time boxing career, much to Mary Ann’s chagrin. When things don’t start out so hot, he decides he needs a mentor. Without hesitation, he leaves sunny California and relocates in frigid Philadelphia. There, he tracks down none other than Rocky, himself.
The relationship between Adonis and Rocky is the foundation upon which Creed is built. It’s about as solid a foundation as you could hope for. Each ebb and flow pulls us in a little further. Before we know it we’re fully submerged, wholly invested in much more than whether or not Adonis wins a fight. We truly care about the souls of these men and how each affects the other. We watch them struggle with getting to know each other, a severe generation gap, and as most friendships must contend with at some point, honesty. Our eyes tell us there is also a racial divide, but thankfully that’s dialed so far down as to be a non-issue. These are just a couple of guys trying to navigate life’s waters.
Our affection for our two main characters starts with Michael B. Jordan in the titular role. His Adonis is a man trying to forge his own path, on his terms, within the same field in which his father casts a lengthy shadow. He is also dealing with never having that father around. He makes the weight of all that palpable. If that weren’t enough, he’s a fish out of water in Philadelphia and possibly falling in love with Bianca (Thompson), the young lady who lives in the apartment below his. Jordan makes us feel every emotion associated with all of this. Remarkably, none of it feels false or forced. It just seems like everyday life for this guy.
If Adonis draws us in and makes us empathize, those feelings endure and are magnified because of Rocky. When we meet him, for the seventh time for many of us, he is fully settled in his post-boxing life. He is perfectly happy running his restaurant, signing autographs, and telling stories about his glory days. We see him bristle at the notion of the upheaval sure to follow should he take Adonis under his wing. When he does, the rest of his life doesn’t just stop. He deals with things extraneous to the mission at hand, preparing Adonis to fight, yet essential to our understanding of both the man and the film. Sylvester Stallone pulls it off in astonishing fashion. I never thought I would say this about Sly, but he turns in an incandescent performance. His latest incarnation of Rocky is no longer a man trying to prove something. He’s satisfied with the way he has lived his life. Currently, he wrestles with the question of how giving of himself he should be. It’s an intense internal battle that Stallone externalizes without really coming close to telling us that that’s what he’s doing.
Not to be outdone, the women of Creed also turn in excellent work, albeit, with much less screen time. Our new Adrian is Bianca, played by Tessa Thompson. She is certainly a different woman than Rocky’s bookish love interest, and exudes a contagious passion for life. Thompson is outstanding, validating her awesome turn in 2014’s Dear White People. Phylicia Rashad is also great as Mary Ann Creed. It’s a fairly stock role, but she brings proper weight to the proceedings. Her emotions are transferable and further pull us into the film.
Along with all the emotions, we get a high degree of nostalgia. There are a number of call-backs to earlier installments of the series. For the most part, these aren’t just thrown up on the screen haphazardly. They are presented as things organic to the character. It makes sense when Adonis is watching YouTube clips of his dad and Rocky. It makes sense when he finds himself in a chicken coop. When he inevitably makes his way up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it’s a moment of perfect sweetness. An earlier variation of that iconic jog involving motorcycles is goose-bump inducing in its culmination.
The very framework of the film is a source of nostalgia. Thankfully, even though it follows the series formula, it alters that formula enough to make Creed work all on its own. We do get the initial determination, followed by self-doubt, pep talks, and training montages. Of course, there’s the big fight in the second act and the even bigger fight in the third. However, not all of these things play out exactly as we would expect from a Rocky movie. This keeps things fresh enough to be as exhilarating as any other film in the series.
One thing about Creed that pales in comparison to the rest of the franchise is its antagonist. The first four Rocky films gave us three iconic villains: Apollo Creed in the first two, Clubber Lang in the third, and Ivan Drago in the fourth. In each case, the bad guy is a towering reminder of the insurmountable odds facing our hero. They are present enough that we came to loathe them and even fear for Rocky’s safety. When they are not on the screen, their presence hangs over their movies like ominous clouds threatening to unleash a torrential downpour on an already flooded area. The villain in Creed, light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), is too far removed from the proceedings to have the same effect. When he eventually shows up in person, he’s not really that guy, at first. When he later gives us some of the same bravado as Apollo and Lang, we know it’s just for show. This zaps him of the power necessary to gives us the same sense of dread as his predecessors. In place of a singular dominant, malevolent presence we get a handful of people serving to put up obstacles for our hero. They all advance the plot nicely, but fail to rise to the level of being people we love to hate.
Even without a stellar villain, Creed still delivers a thoroughly engrossing film. Along with the fantastic performances I already mentioned, director Ryan Coogler creates two bonds. The first is between his characters. Second is between his characters and us in the audience. Like the seventh film in any franchise, he builds this installment from mostly recycled parts. It could have been a passion-free artless copy and paste job lacking both a soul and an understanding of what made the original great in the first place. That would have been par for the reboot course. Instead, Coogler crafts the heap of scraps into a loving tribute that still manages to be its own thing. It also enhances and advances the saga of Rocky Balboa while welcomely leaving the door open for yet another sequel.