Rocky, a movie where the big fight at the end is almost an afterthought to the central love story and underdog tale about working class people hurting for a second shot at respect, spawned four sequels, and while they varied in quality, it wasn’t until 2006’s Rocky Balboa that star and series creator Sylvester Stallone brought the character back to his quiet roots and found a nice coda to the boxer’s tale.
The new film in the franchise, Creed, isn’t a continuation or a passing-of-the-torch film, but rather a spinoff in the best sense that manages to keep the Rocky character alive and bring him to new places while birthing a compelling new central figure. Ryan Coogler’s film, which stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate offspring of Rocky’s friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), takes a little while to find its footing as it works to hide its protagonist’s motives, but once the young Adonis and the old Rocky team up, the movie is magical. It has all of the heart of the original Rocky mixed with the goofy lightness of the better sequels.
Creed begins with Adonis fighting in juvenile detention, but he’s eventually adopted by Apollo’s widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad), who raises him in the lap of luxury. However, he still hungers to fight. Unfortunately for Adonis, no one in L.A. respects him and he’s too cocky to get the training he needs to become a better fighter. He packs up for Philadelphia to get Rocky Balboa (Stallone) in his corner, and the two begin to enrich each other’s lives inside and outside the ring. Adonis also starts to fall for his beautiful neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician who’s slowly going deaf.
You know you have a strong film when the romantic subplot could stand on its own as a worthwhile movie. The original Rocky is a love story, but Creed doesn’t want to copy the Rocky-Adrian dynamic or anything else from the classic 1976 film. Adonis and Bianca have a unique relationship, their own give-and-take, and it’s compelling in its own way thanks to the excellent chemistry between Jordan and Thompson. Creed may not put romance first like Rocky, but it understands the importance of love and sacrifice, and yet those elements are different for Adonis.
The real central relationship in between Adonis and Rocky, and that beating heart makes Creed an absolute joy to watch. Coogler demands that we hold separate ideas in our head about Adonis’ motives: he’s a young man who wants to create a reputation based on his own achievements, and yet he also wants to be trained by the man who presents a direct connection to the father he never knew. It’s both a rejection and a longing for Apollo, and I love that Creed puts a conflicted protagonist front and center where he knows what he wants, but he’s not exactly sure if he’s going about it in the right way. There’s plenty of confidence and swagger in the ring, but around Bianca and Rocky, we can see Adonis put his guard down.
Rocky presents the other half of the story, and it’s wonderful to see him take on the role of trainer rather than fighter. Rocky has always been a deeply compassionate figure, and yet it makes sense that he didn’t go on to train others because he doesn’t see himself that way. We meet an incredibly lonely Rocky Balboa in this film—his son moved away, Adrian and Paulie are dead—and there’s a healing power in his relationship with Adonis. This isn’t a father-son story; it’s a friendship story, and it’s heartwarming without ever falling into mawkishness.
Part of that comes from the excellent performances from Jordan and Stallone. Jordan continues to show he’s one of the best young talents working today, and rather than try to emulate Rocky or Apollo, he plays the role honestly. He digs into the Adonis’ ambivalence, and while the plot requires him to hide his true motive for fighting until the very end, it’s always bubbling near the surface. Jordan beautifully walks the line of having a chip on his shoulder with being immensely likable. We’re rooting for Adonis even if he doesn’t have the 1976 Rocky’s, “Aw, shucks, I just want to say ‘Hi’ to my girlfriend on TV,” attitude.
For Stallone, this is a career-best performance that’s up there with his original turn as the character. Rocky has to confront a new opponent this time around, and it’s far scarier than a juiced-up Russian or Mr. T. Stallone digs deep to find what’s new about Rocky while also holding on to what’s familiar. It’s a revitalization of the character that pulls Rocky out of the realm of parody and back in to reality, which is where he thrives. Movies like The Expendables make is easy to forget that when he wants, Stallone can deliver a powerful, deeply moving performance, and I hope Warner Bros. tries to get him in the game for Best Supporting Actor.
The final star is Coogler, who shows that his previous film, Fruitvale Station, was far from a fluke. His direction is absolutely masterful, and he taps into the soul of the Rocky series but makes it entirely his own. Anyone can spinoff characters, but it takes real insight and skill to spinoff the spirit of a franchise, and Coogler does it magnificently. He understands that the fight isn’t the point, and the training is entertaining window dressing.
But when it does come time to get into the ring, Coogler is masterful. There are two major matches in the film, and the first is made to look like it’s done in one take. I’ve never seen anything like it in a boxing film, and it absolutely blew me away. If Hollywood hasn’t already come knocking at Coogler’s door to direct action movies, they’ll now try to knock it down. The second fight is a bit more traditional, but the use of editing is so masterful that it does the original Rocky proud.
Creed never falls into the trap of trying to out-do Rocky. That’s not the opponent. Instead, it uses Rocky as a jumping off point for a fresh story with a compelling protagonist that still lets us check in and follow the Italian Stallion. This is everything we could have hoped for from a Rocky spinoff and more. It’s a story about legacy, race, purpose, trust, and friendship. To wit Apollo Creed, the deceased father who hovers at the outskirts of the film, “It’s a thinker, not a stinker.”