Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad
Director: Ryan Coogler
Running Time: 2 hours 12 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In an age where the Fast and the Furious can have seven sequels and The Mission Impossible series can lay claim to existing for nearly 20 years, it isn't entirely surprising to understand why the Rocky franchise is still kicking. This is especially pertinent in a cinematic landscape where Hollywood studios are sticking mostly with reboots, retreads, or re-imaginings of existing properties. However, to remember that writer-director-star Sylvester Stallone's original film came out in 1976, beating out fellow Best Picture nominees Taxi Driver, All the Presidents Men, and Network for the golden statute, is still shocking. Additionally, the fact that it spawned six sequels, including 2006's Rocky Balboa, attests to both the enduring nature of the character as well as the overwhelming power of nostalgia as a cultural force. Though most will claim the subsequent sequels have devalued the legacy of that first effort, the idea of nostalgia as the sum of all things is especially applicable in 2015, with a new Star Wars film on the way and the box office destruction wrought by Jurassic World, the fourth entry in a series that began in 1993.
However, Creed, the seventh film in the Rocky franchise and the first to exist solely as a vehicle for someone other than the titular character, isn't simply a play on retro-fitted goodwill. Certainly, there's some nodding and wicking within the DNA of writer-director Ryan Coogler's loving acknowledgment of the series' legacy, both as a cinematic precedent for the slew of inspirational sports movies that would follow as well as the character himself, played again here by Stallone in what could be his best performance since the original Rocky or perhaps 1997's Copland. But It's immediately apparent that Coogler (whose only other feature was 2013's Fruitvale Station), is an unabashed fan and someone who understands what Rocky means to generations of moviegoers. However, unlike a lot of fan-fiction type treatments; (director Alan Taylor similarly expressed his adoration of the Terminator franchise and look how Terminator Genisys turned out), Coogler isn't simply making a demo reel of Rocky's greatest hits. Rather, this is a sensitively made, unusually patient film which gives us a new lead character in the form of Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of Rocky's opponent Apollo Creed, who died in the early rounds of 1985's Rocky IV. It's this new perspective; an African American boxer without the standard rags-riches story going on a deeply personal journey involving identity and coming to terms with one's genetic heritage, that makes Creed more than simply a retread.
From the prologue set in 1998, we learn how Apollo Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad) plucks young Adonis out of a juvenile detention center and takes him in, resulting in a college-educated young man with a cushy desk job. Of course, boxing is in Adonis's blood, with unsanctioned matches taking place in Mexico which inevitably leads him to pursue boxing full-time. Relocating to Philly and seeking out the legendary Rocky Balboa, who is living a quiet life as the owner of an Italian restaurant lovingly named after his deceased wife Adrian, Adonis is determined to create his own legacy apart from that of his father. Of course, Rocky initially wants nothing to do with training the upstart, but as inspirational sports movies go, he gradually warms up to the kid and (cue the stirring montages!) the two are off to the races. There's a natural chemistry between Jordan and Stallone, with a sense of the aging old-timer handing over the gloves to the hungry newbie. Their scenes together; particularly in the third act where Rocky receives some startling health news, is genuinely affecting. Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson shows up as the love interest, an ambitious musician with gradual hearing loss, and the talented actress gives her scenes opposite Jordan a beguiling intelligence and a keen sense of a woman with her own interests outside of falling in love with a boxer.
For better or worse, Creed is a Rocky movie that hits all the expected beats-- training montages, rousing music cues (the standard theme is used sparingly to great effect), a climatic match against a villainous opponent, a trip to those famous museum steps--but Coogler isn't entirely beholden to nostalgia as a means to an end. Honestly, the film has to work on it's own terms to transcend mere pastiche, and for the most part, it succeeds. There are flaws; Adonis's main competition is a cartoon thug, Thompson's love interest, though more complex than what we usually get in these types of efforts, is still given short shrift during the third act, and the emotional beats with Rocky in a hospital bed are laid on a bit too thick. But such criticisms, of course, can also be seen as why audiences find these films so pleasurable. Coogler doesn't try to buck convention, but instead gives us a slightly different perspective on a tried-and-true formula. In Jordan, meanwhile, he's found the perfect actor to carry the franchise torch for the millennial crowd; handsome, witty, charismatic, and completely believable physically in the ring taking and throwing punches. Coogler, too, almost seems overqualified for what's essentially a mainstream crowd-pleaser, delivering one sequence in particular; a single take shot of an intense boxing match, that's simply brilliant filmmaking. Other visual touches, like Adonis running in slow-motion flanked by a team of rowdy bikers, is so cornball that it almost transcends sentimentality altogether to become pure cinema.
Creed doesn't deserve to be as good as it is, but perhaps what keeps it from greatness is the very thing fans of the franchise will love about it. It's a formula; a mold, something we all know by heart, and Coogler, despite some formal touches, plays it safe by sticking to a predictable narrative arc. Still, it's hard not to be moved by the sight of Balboa, hunched over and world-weary, poignantly looking at Adonis and claiming "Time takes everybody out. Time's undefeated." Indeed, Mr. Stallone. Indeed.