Like the title character, Sylvester Stallone‘s Rocky series refuses to go down for the count. But somehow a series that had worn out its welcome by the fifth entry in 1990 found its second (third? fourth?) wind with 2006’s Rocky Balboa. That would’ve been a fitting end to the series, but again the franchise showed a spark of life when Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler approached Stallone about making a spinoff movie focusing on the son of Apollo Creed, Rocky’s opponent in the first two movies, who was played by Carl Weathers. Because it seemed like yet another unnecessary sequel to some, it was an idea that made some people groan (but not to this writer!) Luckily, Stallone not only gave his blessing, but he agreed to play a supporting role in Creed, a movie that revitalizes the Rocky formula by simply sticking to what made the original work so well in the first place.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the son of Apollo Creed, who was born after his father died in the ring (at the hands of Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV). He participates in almost underground boxing matches in Mexico and gets by on his raw talent, but he finds it difficult to find anyone who will train him in his native Los Angeles because of the legacy he carries with him. Jordan leaves L.A. and moves to Philadelphia, where he seeks out Rocky Balboa, his father’s greatest opponent. He looks at Rocky as not only someone who can train him, but as the father he had never known. However, Rocky is reluctant to get back involved with boxing, even to support the son of Apollo Creed. Ultimately, Creed is about Adonis finding out who he really is while, at the same time, also about Rocky learning how to fight the new battles in his life.
At its core, Creed follows the plot of the original Rocky so closely this movie is in a lot of ways a remake. Most importantly, Jordan masterfully draws on the same “fighter with a heart of gold” sympathy that Stallone did back in 1976. One thing people tend to forget about Rocky is that it’s actually more of a romance movie than it is a boxing movie. Similarly, Creed features a romance between Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson), though she’s no shy violet like Adrian was. But Coogler clearly understood that what made Rocky such a success with audiences is its emotional core, and Jordan delivers that in his performance with subtle touches that show what kind of man Adonis really is. In fact, Creed recaptures the inspirational aspect of the original Rocky better than any of the sequels. For the first time since the original, the Rocky series is truly focused on an underdog. Another one of the highlights of Creed is the camerawork during the boxing sequences, which is the best camerawork that I can remember in a boxing movie. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who also shot The Wrestler, even shot one of the matches entirely in one shot. Like every Rocky movie, the boxing sequences (particularly the final one) will leave you on the edge of your seat — it’s extraordinary how Coogler just completely nails it.
Creed doesn’t measure up to Rocky in only a few ways, though there’s no shame in that — Rocky is about as close as one can get to a perfect movie. The movie is sorely missing a character like Paulie, who always helped ground Rocky, and while Philadelphia is a gain one of the “stars” of the movie Adonis never connects with the city in the same way as Rocky did.
At sixty-nine years-old (!), Stallone finally looks his age and he settles into the tough-as-nails, but funny as hell role occupied by Mickey in the original Rocky. There have been rumblings that Stallone’s performance is award-worthy, but the truth is that Stallone isn’t doing anything here that he hasn’t been doing all along in the Rocky movies — playing a character with an emotional core that anyone in the audience can connect with. If critics want to see this as Stallone “redeeming” himself as an actor, well, it at least fits the Rocky comeback narrative.
Will Creed become a franchise in its own right? It wouldn’t be a surprise in the slightest. I do think this movie will be extremely successful with audiences and have lasting replay value, like the original Rocky. If Coogler and Jordan are on board with keeping the series going — and early buzz suggests there’s no reason they wouldn’t be — generations of Rocky fans will follow.