Obviously, it’s hard to talk about Creed without talking about Rocky. The movie that made Sylvester Stallone a star has spawned six sequels that’ve had varying degrees of success. But the franchise has kept going at the will and hands of its lead star: Stallone wrote all of the movies and directed all but the original. So it’s easy to assume that when a spin off/sequel was in development, it was Stallone (like his fellow movie muscleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger) going back to his most famous star vehicle to stay relevant. Unlike Schwarzenegger (who have torpedoed his own Terminator franchise this past summer), Stallone appears to be a generous man allowing the Rocky-namesake to be a breakthrough vehicle for another young stallion in Hollywood. Michael B. Jordan, come on down!
Creed was the last name of Rocky’s friend/rival Apollo (Carl Weathers), but Creed the movie follows Apollo’s illegitimate son, Adonis (Jordan). Apollo supposedly had an affair before he died but never met Adonis. Despite being saved from group homes by Apollo’s wife (Phylicia Rashad) and raised in the life of luxury, Adonis wants to be a boxer. He moves to Philadelphia in hopes of finding one specific trainer: Rocky Balboa (Stallone). Aside from trying to woo a local singer (Tessa Thompson), Adonis trains for the big time while trying to escape the shadow of his father.
Creed also marks the reuniting of Jordan and writer/director Ryan Coogler, who worked together for 2013’s Fruitvale Station. Coogler (along with writer Aaron Covington) construct a story that’s basically an alteration of rags-to-riches. While Rocky was a story of being a somebody, Creed is about trying to be someone other than Apollo. The whole movie is the journey of Adonis becoming someone more than the son of Apollo, so much so that he prefers to go by Adonis Johnson for most of the movie. The first half is a great balance of tender character moments and electric boxing-related events. Coogler is clearly a professional filmmaker, using pump-up training montages and enveloping camerawork to make the audience feel the hits Adonis takes in the ring (whether it be through quick-cut editing or long takes). There’s so much energy and heart going for the movie that it’s a real bummer Creed becomes predictable in its second half. Even if you’ve never seen a single Rocky movie, the film’s later moments can be called out faster than a game of easy movie trivia. There’s a lot of references to the original Rocky, including remixing Bill Conti’s classic theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” with an added rap from Philadelphia’s own Meek Mill (take that, Drake).
Fortunately, the acting throws the right amount of jabs. Those worried that Michael B. Jordan’s career might take a critical hit after this summer’s abysmal Fantastic Four reboot, rest easy by his knockout performance as Adonis. Equal parts cocky, heartfelt and focused, Jordan is a natural stud slumming it in Mighty Mick’s Gym. Jordan’s Adonis is confident as a boxer, but unsure of himself as a singular man. He doesn’t want to be his father, but he doesn’t know who he wants to be. Fortunately, he’s got Tessa Thompson (excellent in last year’s Dear White People) to be his sexy conscious. Of course, there’s Stallone himself as old-timer Rocky. Despite his limited talent as an actor, he’s the one tugging at the hearts of audiences with the inspiring speeches for the underdog lead character. Rocky Balboa will always be Stallone’s best character (he’s the guy who wrote him, after all), so it makes sense that this is the best performance he’s given since 2006’s Rocky Balboa (see a pattern, here?).
Creed’s crippling flaw is actually due to its genre: the boxing movie. No matter who’s behind the camera or who’s writing the script, the boxing movie has the same elements that play out mostly the same way. Yes, Adonis runs down the Philly streets to triumphant horns. Yes, Adonis tries to catch chickens. Yes, he doubts whether or not he can win the fight. Creed switches some elements around for new audiences: alt-R&B instead of 70s funk fueling Adonis’ sex drive, inner-city dirt bikers cruising through the streets, rap music blaring through the gym. Would it be easy to call Creed, “the black Rocky?” Sure, but that’d mean missing out on the fun of Creed. It hits when it needs to, it has a beating heart in it, and I dare you not to want an American flag around when, “Gonna Fly Now,” starts blasting through the theater speakers. If you fight for Creed, Creed will fight for your enjoyment.