The movie title may hint at being more spinoff than sequel and Sylvester Stallone might only get second billing, but make no mistake: Creed is a legit Rocky installment through and through. And not only that — it’s a great one, probably the best since the Clubber Lang-tastic Rocky III. I’m not sure how hard it was for Stallone to turn over authorship of a series he’s been the primary architect of for nearly 40 years to a young, upcoming writer/director, but doing so turns out to be the best decision for all involved. Creed is a wonderful, crowd-pleasing movie on its own, and if it ends up being the last time we see Rocky Balboa on the big screen, it doubles as a proper and heartfelt sendoff to a cinematic icon.
Maybe Ryan Coogler originally envisioned the movie as more of a stand-alone spinoff. The auteur behind the great Fruitville Station reteams with that film’s star, a bottomless well of talent named Michael B. Jordan, to tell a story that does seem like a reboot on paper. Jordan plays Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the son of the one-time champion of the world Apollo Creed. Donnie is the product of an affair Creed had before his in-in-ring demise in Rocky IV and has grown up under the dark cloud of his father. He’s constantly shadowed by his old man’s accomplishments, which is made worse by the fact that some don’t even see him as Creed’s “proper” son, but rather the product of a mistake that could tarnish Apollo’s legacy. He’s a very angry man … with a knack for throwing punches and an itch to prove himself the ring.
L.A. trainers don’t want anything to do with him, so Donnie crosses the country to set up shop in Philly, home to the man who knew his father the best: Rocky Balboa, older, grayer and still working at Adrian’s Restaurant. Rocky instantly takes to Johnson, becoming a father figure to him, but has no interest in training him. He’s now fully extricated himself from the boxing community and is content to live out however many days he has left as quietly as possible. But Johnson has a magnetism that keeps pulling Rocky in, and before long the Italian Stallion pops backs into the gym for the first time in a long time to help guide Johnson on his journey.
Rocky could easily have been a small supporting character in this film, but Creed ends up devoting significant time to both men, giving them each their own motivations and setbacks and deftly weaving twin stories that encircle each other as the film barrels on toward its big climax, an overseas title bout that Donnie is offered when word of his parentage leaks out. Before then, Donnie falls for a musician named Bianca (Tessa Tompson), who lives in his apartment and suffers from a disease that will eventually take her hearing, but he finds strength in her passion to do what she loves for as long as she can. Rocky meanwhile fights the hazards of old age, both physical and emotional. He’s outlived everything and everyone he ever cared for, barring his son, who we’re told moved to Canada and out of Rocky’s life to start his own family. There’s a touching scene where Rock visits the graves of Adrian and Paulie, and it carries the weight of six previous movies and the audience’s whole history of this character behind it.
Straight up, Stallone is fantastic here. I didn’t like Rocky Balboa as much as everyone else. Its father/son drama was a bit too standard, and its big climactic fight lacked the drama of Rocky’s earlier battles, in part because it was shot like an HBO broadcast of some tedious undercard. Creed plays some similar notes as that film — Balboa swung by Adrian’s grave as well — but Coogler’s take on an aging legend feels more poignant and energized. And Stallone is more than up to the challenge, bringing dignity and sadness and eventually hope to the character. Meanwhile, Jordan continues to prove he’s one of the best young actors working today — all fiery charisma backed by an emotional authenticity. Donnie never knew his father, but Jordan makes you believe he would be consumed by him.
All of this is packed into a boxing movie that feels more or less like a damn good Rocky movie. There are locations you’ll recognize and scenes that call back to previous installments. Coogler, who co-wrote with Aaron Covington, has created a film that strikes a perfect balance between being something new and a part of something larger that we’ve been invested in for a long time. No problems with the fights being boring here. There are two, and both are cinematically powerful. Some may feel that the second — especially the end result — too closely apes fights from past Rocky films, but, honestly, there were six movies before this one. There are only so many ways a boxing match can end. The important thing is that it feels like the thematically correct conclusion to Donnie’s journey.
In today’s Hollywood, every studio is busy trying to cheaply exploit past successes with reboots and spinoffs, but a huge percentage of them end up being either unmitigated disasters or quickly forgotten. (Quick, raise your hand if you’ve thought about The Karate Kid reboot, the one with Will Smith’s kid, even once since the weekend it opened. Exactly.) But here comes Creed, which doesn’t feel like a rehash at all, but instead seems like it comes from a place of creativity and honest inspiration. What a huge breath of fresh air.