The last time Rocky Balboa graced the big screen, in 2006’s slight and sweet Rocky Balboa, he imparted these immortal words of wisdom: “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” Stallone was clearly referring to the Rocky franchise itself; despite the fatigue of six increasingly repetitive movies since 1976, the thing keeps getting up for another round. Luckily, the series still knows how to keep moving forward.
With Sly having classily exited center stage over a decade ago, Creed turns the spotlight on, and passes the gloves to, the excellent Michael B. Jordan. The Chronicle and Fruitvale Station star here plays Adonis, the son of fictional boxing legend Apollo Creed from the first four Rocky movies. Don (as he prefers to go by) never knew his father, yet was born a fighter in his image. Tired of the office life he was brought into through his adopted mother (a wasted role performed admirably by Phylicia Rashad), Don decides to pack up and head for Philadelphia, hoping to start a boxing career with the help of his father’s old rival-turned-friend, Rocky Balboa. His Creed bloodline serves as both a blessing and a curse. Rocky, lonely and seemingly waiting to die, claims he’s done with boxing for good yet can’t say no to training Apollo’s son. At the same time, Don wishes to keep his lineage a secret from the boxing world, hellbent on making a name for himself without the Creed moniker.
Michael B. Jordan, surely aware of what it feels like to live in the imposing shadow of a name, utilizes his innate shrewd charm and good looks to bring Creed to life. Jordan has the physical prowess and intense glare needed to sell Don as a true fighter, even if he doesn’t have the scrappy charisma or outspoken moral intuition that defined Rocky since film number one. There is also a certain relatability that seems woefully missing from Jordan’s character. Having inherited his father’s vast wealth from a young age, Don lacks the underdog/everyman quality that made it so natural to root for Balboa, and he ends the movie just as much a blank slate as he started. Not the best way to establish a character Warner Brothers clearly hopes will be around for a while.
With Jordan a few vital steps away from truly establishing Don as someone interesting and human, Creed still belongs wholly to Sylvester Stallone, regardless of the title. In fact, this is easily Sly’s best acting work since those early Rocky movies, if not the greatest performance of his career. What could have easily been an exhausted, phoned-in ‘one last time’ job is elevated into something full of genuine enthusiasm and pathos. Clearly Stallone has never stopped feeling an intense ownership over and care for the Italian Stallion. And it shows. Though this is the first film in the franchise Stallone has not written, each line out of his mouth is vintage Rocky, and there’s a self-aware, good-humored awareness of his own aging (and the aging of the semi-autobiographical Rocky franchise, which has always been inextricably tied to Stallone) that is impossible not to appreciate. Stallone is a true, often under-appreciated treasure of American cinema, and Creed is as much a love letter to his personal skill and longevity as it is a swan song to his most famous character.
Director Ryan Coogler approaches Creed with the same intriguing mix of shaky urban grit and steady professionalism that defined his first and only prior movie, Fruitvale Station. The dingy streets of Philly are shot via shaky handheld, while the explosive boxing matches tend to feature smooth swooping camerawork and precise, visceral editing. Whichever mode he works in, Coogler continues to prove himself as one of the most exciting and versatile up-and-coming directors in the business. His best work to date can be found in Creed’s remarkable last act, which is astoundingly effective at maintaining a breathless momentum with palpable stakes for both Don and Rocky. That final scene, one of the most poignant in the series long history, proves to be the best possible way to pass the torch from Stallone to Jordan without getting sappy. Okay, too sappy. Speaking of sap, Coogler’s noted use of heavy emotional manipulation, maybe a tad too blunt in Fruitvale, fits perfectly within the history of gung-ho sentimentalism found in the older ‘Rocky’s. Especially skillful is his use of familiar musical and visual call-backs to past films in order to send constant chills down fans’ spines.
The idea that something as intangible as a five-letter name can have such wide-reaching implications gives the film real thematic power, even while the script by Coogler and Aaron Covington fumbles its most important character threads. The relationship between Don and Rocky works in a simple enough way, with each character filling an obvious void in the other. However, whereas Stallone nails the idea that Rocky has fully taken on the father role he never quite had with his own son, Don never really gives back the same level of compassion as Rocky offers him. Meanwhile, Tessa Thompson (star of last year’s fantastic Dear White People) deserves far more than her role as Creed’s love interest Bianca, a rising singer suffering from degenerative hearing loss. Though this is an interesting foundation worthy of exploring in greater depth, Bianca quickly becomes another outdated case of the female character being used exclusively to gauge the male lead’s success/failure. Compare her to the original’s Adrian and it becomes immediately obvious how thin her place in the story is.
Michael B. Jordan may have yet to prove himself a truly worthy heir to the Rocky legend, but Creed nails the transition away from everything that’s come before and towards an open door of possibility. Over the past few years, Hollywood has turned to indie directors with few credits under their belts in order to reboot older franchises for a new era. The results have ranged from great (Collin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World) to dubious-at-best (Gareth Edward’s Godzilla) to downright disastrous (Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four). Though Coogler’s step into the ring isn’t flawless, he easily provides the classiest work out of the above directors. He has crafted an exciting, good-looking and satisfactorily old-fashioned sports movie, one which provides more than enough crowd-pleasing entertainment and fan service to make up for its disappointing lack of character development and emotional depth.
Score: 3.5 out of 5