When the original Rocky debuted in 1976, it was a surprising and rousing success, chronicling the arc of a humble neighborhood guy as his boxing career unexpectedly takes off when he catches the eye of the champion who’s looking for something new to revitalize his career. It’s a film that’s much better than many of us remember, in no small part because our memories of it are dimmed by its numerous sequels, wherein the character of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) became a parody of himself, taking the gritty, kindhearted 70’s tale and burdening it with an attempt to modernize the character with each clumsy entry. The franchise has never reached the heights of that first emotionally tumultuous film, despite the five sequels that followed it.
In many ways, Creed succeeds because it returns back to what made the original great. It focuses on a small story, a rise to success, and it eschews the excess, glitz, and pomposity of the latter Rocky sequels. There are no cartoon villains — no Dragos or Langs, simply different fighters trying to carve a path. It follows the story of Adonis “Don” Johnson, otherwise known as Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), the illegitimate son of the great — and now deceased — Apollo Creed. In an interesting twist, Adonis Creed’s origin is a strange, undulating wave of highs and lows — raised as a troubled youth in the system, adopted by a wealthy and loving widow, and becoming successful in a distinctly white collar world. But the hunger to fight eats at him, and he feeds it with back alley fights in Tijuana, until he finally throws everything away and returns to Philadelphia to try to start his career anew.
Of course, Creed tracks down an older, wiser, and decidedly slower Rocky Balboa and through persistence and personality, convinces him to become his trainer, while also courting his musician neighbor Bianca (Tessa Thompson) and trying to deal with the demons of his lineage and his own pride. He catches the eye of a couple of contenders and, much like Balboa way back when, finds his career given an unexpected boost and fighting men much more experienced than him.
It’s a fantastic movie, despite its formulaic framework and generic plot points. It borrows so heavily from the first two Rocky films it’s almost less of a sequel and more of a remake, or a remix. Yet it also injects just enough freshness, enough modern touches, and deft writing to make it into its own entity, and easily one of the best, if not arguably the best, in the franchise. It’s in no small part due to the fact that unlike the blustery ridiculousness of the other films, Creed is a small, tight character piece. It’s not bogged down by extraneous characters or plot points, instead focusing on the burgeoning relationships of its three leads, interspersed with some brilliantly filmed boxing and training montages. Scripted by Aaron Covington and Ryan Coogler (who also directed, and who helmed the superlative Fruitvale Station that also starred Jordan), it’s a graceful, smoothly-flowing script that hits few stumbling blocks, instead just building up momentum throughout, only slowing down to give you a better chance to know its characters. And those three leads are all fully fleshed, intelligently written, and terrifically performed.
It’s Jordan’s performance that captivates the most — he’s a spectacular young actor who infuses Adonis Creed with just enough brashness to make him compelling, but without arrogance. He’s hungry and angry, but not unreasonably so, and it gives the character a relatability that is often absent in these chip-on-your-shoulder, me-against-the-world roles. Tessa Thompson is charming and shy, but not a prop and, more importantly, doesn’t fall into the role of the female lead who is constantly begging the lead to pull out. She’s supportive, but also cautious and strong-willed. Yet it’s Stallone who was often the most enjoyable thing on the screen, playing the old, tired Balboa who is settled and comfortable with the routine of his life. There’s no clash of wills or cliched generational battles — the friendship between Balboa and Jordan is organic and easygoing — it’s just a question of their goals being at odds. Stallone is at his finest when he leaves the braggadocio behind and plays quieter, more subtle roles — see his performances in First Blood, Rocky, and Cop Land to see him at his best. We can now add Creed to that list.
Despite all of its great character work, the fighting in Creed is equally excellent (aided by Jordan’s phenomenal physique and intensity). Coogler and cinematographer Maryse Alberti (Velvet Goldmine) do some amazing things with the camera, the highlight being not the final fight, but the mid-film fight where Creed establishes his credentials. It’s tightly focused on the two fighters and almost nothing else, fluidly moving around them but almost intimate in its concentration on them. It’s also done with next to no cuts, essentially in real-time, and it is riveting. Bolstered by terrific music and scoring from Ludwig Göransson (who also worked on Fruitvale Station as well as being a producer for Childish Gambino), the whole production is seamlessly and spectacularly well-assembled.
Boxing films are not for everyone, and there’s no question that there’s a certain degree of unpleasantness in some of the more intense fight scenes. But to skip Creed on that basis is a mistake, for the rest of its two+ hours are so great, so tautly filmed and featuring such honest, intelligent performances that it becomes a genuinely excellent movie that happens to be about boxing. It’s at the top of the franchise, remembering and realizing all of the things that made it great 40 years ago, while being bright and new and fresh enough to take those ideas into the next era.