We’ve been on a weird ride with the Rocky franchise, to say the least. The 1976 original is a genuine classic, one of the finest examples of cinematic storytelling. Then came an excessive amount of sequels. We got a sequel that gave us the ending some of us wanted from the original; and another sequel where Mr. T. was the villain; and then another where Rocky fought the Russians; and another that took Rocky back to basics. Indeed, Rocky II through Rocky V took the franchise in a number of different directions and are of varying quality; though generally on a downward trend. Then, 16 years after the mediocre Rocky V came 2006’s Rocky Balboa, which was surprisingly thoughtful and poignant, brought the series back to a higher quality overall, and put a nice cap on everything. Or so we all thought.
Now, 9 years later, comes Creed, the most original of all the Rocky followups and, in some sense, the best.
Creed tells the story of Adonis Creed, an illegitimate son of the late Apollo Creed, who, as you recall, was Rocky’s rival and later friend before ultimately getting killed by Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Adonis is a man with a chip on his shoulder; he shares his father’s passion for boxing, but desires not to live in his father’s shadow (he goes as far as to not use his father’s last name). So strong is his desire to box that, despite working a normal day job, he evidently goes to Mexico quite frequently to box in his spare time. Eventually he decides to quit work all together and go to Philadelphia to train full time; seeking the help of an aging Rocky Balboa.
To be sure, it’s an unlikely idea for a sequel; a never-before-seen son of a character not present in a series in 30 years isn’t exactly the most obvious fodder for a new entry in a franchise; indeed, it seems like the kind of hyperbolic ridiculousness that we who hate the endless sequelification in Hollywood would make up in order to mock the current culture of the filmmaking business.
But here’s the thing: Creed works. For as utterly weird as it is that this movie exists, it’s a very good, very entertaining, well acted, well directed, respectful, meaningful picture. It takes itself seriously: it finds a real story about a man trying to prove himself, independent of his background; and it really runs with it. We see Adonis’s struggles; we understand why he feels the pressure he does; why he wants to disassociate himself from his past; and how he ultimately chooses to embrace his roots. And when he does, at last, win in this picture–though not in the way you might expect– it feels cathartic in a very special way. It’s a powerful story; irrespective of the Rocky universe in which it takes place; although Rocky’s presence in the film elevates the themes quite a bit.
What really drives the story home is the performances. Michael B. Jordan, the second Fantastic Four actor to make a comeback in a relatively short period of time*, is perfect as Adonis. You really believe him in the role; he sells not only a false bravado (part of his need to prove himself) quite well, but also a more personal sensitivity during more intimate moments. On top of that, he obviously did a lot of physical work for the role. It’s always hard to tell with this stuff, but Jordan really looks like he learned the ins and outs of boxing, as well as doing some considerable physical training in general, for the role. And that physicality adds quite a bit of gravity to his performance; particularly, though not exclusively, during the fight scenes. This really is Adonis’s movie, and Jordan makes it his own in a very respectful way.
And of course, there’s Sylvester Stallone in his most famous role as Rocky. This is one of the few Hollywood characters that we have been allowed to see grow from relative youth to old age in a compelling way, and Stallone makes the most of it here. He’s aged, but funny; and more sentimental than before. It’s weird to see him in a supporting role this time around; lending a hand to Adonis; but it works. He’s essentially inherited the role of Mickey from the earlier films, albeit in a much kinder capacity. His advice and speeches have a genuine weight to them; how he connects boxing to real life is as meaningful as ever. Admittedly, there is a stretch of film where the movie seems to shift focus more towards Rocky (understandable given this franchise). It turns out that—SPOILERS— Rocky has cancer, and while I won’t spoil anything beyond that, the way the filmmakers tie this in with the overarching themes of the movie is nice. There are rumors of Stallone getting nominated for an Oscar for his performance here. If true, I fully support it.
Lastly, I want to note the great performance by Tessa Thompson as Adonis’s love interest, Bianca. She occupies a similar role as Adrian from the original Rocky, but far more dynamic in more than one way. Thompson provides a nice sensitivity in the role; and her chemistry with Jordan feels organic. I look forward to seeing her in more films to come.
These characters really made the film for me; I’m not sure how to split the credit between the writers and the actors and the director Ryan Coogler**–I suspect it was a joint effort to realize them onscreen–but these characters really make the film what it is.
Beyond that, I love all the little call backs to earlier Rocky films found in Creed. The training montages, a hallmark of any Rocky film, are appropriately compelling. Particularly, I like how part of Adonis’s training is to catch a chicken (a good nod to Rocky II). It’s also nice that Rocky still visits Adrian’s grave, as well as Paulie’s grave now (he evidently passed away between Rocky Balboa and this picture). Even allusions to the fight between Apollo and Rocky at the end of Rocky III are a meaningful touch. In reference to Rocky IV, a lot of discussion is also made of Apollo dying in the ring, though it’s never brought up that he specifically died in the most comical, black-and-white, jingoistic, patriotic athletic event ever put together against a ridiculously one-dimensional Soviet cartoon (honestly, though, that elaboration wouldn’t really fit in thematically with the rest of this picture). The iconic “Rocky Theme“ music is used sparingly here; but when it does get used, it’s timed to maximum effect.
Most importantly, in terms of homages to the Rocky franchise as a whole, is that the ending of this picture shows that it truly understands what made the first Rocky so great. If you recall, the ending of ’76 original was impactful not because Rocky defeated Creed (in fact, Creed won) but because Rocky went the distance with him when no one thought he could. With the exception of maybe Rocky Balboa, Creed is the first Rocky sequel that really understands that nuance, and without spoiling too much, the ending of this film is very much in the same spirit of the first.
And that comprehension of themes arguably puts this film among the best of the Rocky sequels. Actually, truth be told, it’s a little hard to tell where it will ultimately fit into the ranking of this franchise (and yes, it’s impossible not to rank these films at this point). There’s a magic to the original that will never be topped, to be sure; but Creed is certainly better than Rocky’s III, IV and V; whether or not it’s better than Rocky II or Rocky Balboa will be a matter of opinion for each individual. In so far as Creed is fresher in my mind and, to the best of my recollection, has an energy that those films don’t have, I’ll currently put it as second only to the original, though, that’s subject to change in time.
But regardless, Creed certainly is a worthwhile film to see; and, what’s more, its effect on the audience seems to be empirically positive. The crowd I saw it with was quite vocal in their involvement, cheering for Adonis and clapping at the end. Indeed, it’s been rare for me to see a audience members so involved in a picture as with this one. Additionally, I happened to see this picture with my father, who saw the original Rocky back when it opened in 1976, and he gave his approval to this one. If that’s not a good sign, I don’t know what is.
I must say that, as good as this movie is, I’d rather it didn’t get any kind of a sequel (and certainly not any kind of Creed series that repeats the highs and lows of the Rocky films). Creed isn’t good because it is a sequel in the Rocky series; it’s good because the filmmakers took time to craft an engaging story for it. Box office numbers are indicating that Creed will be a nice monetary success; I only hope the studios will learn the right lesson from this–good stories will sell fine–rather than the notion that retooling every franchise in the most obscure fashion possible is a good strategy.
At any rate, as an alternative to the various action, comedy, and animation flicks that are currently dominating the Holiday block, I have only the highest recommendation for Creed. Go see it; you’ll like it.
*Previously, Kate Mara redeemed herself in The Martian; if Miles Teller, Toby Kebbell, and Jamie Bell star in good movies within the next 6 months, Fantastic Four will officially be known as the worst movie ever that had zero effect on the careers of its principal cast.
**Coogler ought to be commended for how well he did with this film. He only directed one other feature prior to this; that this movie turned out as well as it did is a testament to a skill that I look forward to seeing implemented in other movies in the future.