A stirring and plucky ode to sports bravado, Ryan Coogler’s Creed both respects and reinvents the Rocky mythos. The 2015 picture earns its spot as it progresses, starting out as an earnest take on the original 1976 outing and working its way up the rankings by paying homage to every slice of boxing heaven before it. By the time Coogler pushes to the final bell, Creed has earned every dollar of its take.
Creed is technically a sequel and spinoff of Sylvester Stallone’s 2006 Rocky Balboa and it fits firmly in the Philadelphia-bred tradition, complete with Adrian’s restaurant and a proverbial passing of the torch. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti, who shot Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, delves into the sports world with a sense of history and wisdom, making the Rocky universe matter.
Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the son of the deceased legendary boxer Apollo Creed. After spending several stints in juvie, he’s eventually taken in by Creed’s wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) and given a job at a financial firm. But he’s been spending his time boxing in Mexico, putting in work in small fights and building skills. He quite his job and decides to box full time.
After being turned down at a boxing academy in Los Angeles, Johnson is more motivated than ever. He heads to Philadelphia and seeks out the legendary Rocky Balboa (Stallone) and asks to be trained. Balboa initially refuses, but he catches on to the kid’s persistence and agrees to offer guidance. Adonis works his way up through the ranks and eventually lands a big fight against Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew).
There are many layers to the Creed story, including a relationship between Adonis and the musician Bianca (Tessa Thompson). They start out as neighbours, with Adonis knocking down Bianca’s door because her music’s too loud. He catches one of her performances and is enamoured by her sensuality, which leads to a Philly-style date and a gradual escalation of desires.
The relationship between Adonis and Rocky is compelling because it makes use of so many opportunities. Balboa is able to make things up to Apollo Creed’s memory in a way that writes a love letter to one of the best fighters in cinematic lore, employing the history as both a starting point and a launching pad.
Balboa is explored as a man watching his past die. He visits the graveyard and notes that he’s finding it harder and harder to walk up that hill. Time is the only thing he can’t best in the ring. An illness strikes later in the movie and provides an additional wrinkle, but its function is less clichéd and more determined to explore Rocky’s machismo.
As for Adonis, he’s his father’s son and he doesn’t want to be. He can’t escape the legacy. He works a white collar job, has money, lives behind a big gate. But he gives it away when he’s in the ring and becomes an equal to his opponent, wherever he is. He strips it all away, goes to Philly, seeks out the legends of the game, learns from their hard-won acumen. Money doesn’t matter.
As with most of the Rocky pictures, loss comes into play. Things will be taken away, both immediately and later on. Bianca is losing something, Rocky is losing something, Adonis will lose something. Everyone does. What Coogler does with each simple realization is look at the faces, with Alberti’s lens tenderly watching the expressions and lines.
The fight scenes have certain poetry and the familiar spots, of which there are many, pack indisputable spark. There is an update of the celebrated run sequence, only with Adonis and a pile of motorcycles. Rocky is still around, watching and waving and admiring from above. And it’s a glorious, rousing, lovely moment of filmmaking magic.
Creed is a film of spirit and fire, a sincere revisiting of the sports fable and a staggeringly self-aware piece of real cinema. It proves that momentum can actually build from film to film, that some stories are worth taking all the way up those famous steps. And it uses “Gonna Fly Now” perfectly, too, proudly proclaiming that the Rocky legend still has that awe-inspiring punch.